Protesters step over the line, charge Jewish students

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A protest by Students for Justice in Palestine on the U.C. Berkeley campus last week veered far from its usual criticism of Israel toward blatant anti-Semitism, say Jewish students and leaders.

During the April 24 protest the students "occupied" Wheeler Hall by locking all but three of its 12 doors, making it difficult for those students with classes to enter or exit the building.

The group made speeches condemning the "Israeli occupation," criticized Israel's military policies and demanded that the U.C. Board of Regents divest $5.5 billion, which, it claimed, goes toward companies involved with work in Israel.

The protest coincided with the campus' weeklong celebration of Israel's Independence Day.

While many of the group's tactics were similar to those it has used in the past, last Tuesday's demonstration was "particularly unpleasant" and filled with abhorrence toward Jews, charged Berkeley Hillel Executive Director Adam Weisberg.

One banner, for instance, equated a Star of David to a swastika. That sign was eventually taken down after some of the 50 to 75 Jewish students from the Israel Action Committee, standing by in counterprotest, complained to the group.

But later, an African-American speaker from Students for Justice in Palestine used the group's portable PA system to reportedly announce to passersby that, "Jews are born cunning and sneaky." He also allegedly said, "African-American leadership in this country has been co-opted by the Zionist pocketbook," and declared that all black people should hate Israel.

"This wasn't stopped or condemned," said Weisberg. "It creates a very hostile environment for Jewish students."

At the peak of the protest, at about 2 p.m., approximately 150 protesters formed a picket line and proceeded to march in a circle through one of the open doors of Wheeler Hall and out another, shouting for justice.

At one point, a professor informed the protesters that students were taking a midterm exam inside Wheeler Hall and asked if they could please keep their voices down.

"The SJP told him they didn't care and continued on with their noise and protesting," said Randy Barnes, public relations chair for the Israel Action Committee.

"Students should be allowed to go to their classes without seeing their academic careers jeopardized," he added.

U.C. Berkeley Dean of Students Karen Kinney agreed. She said the university is "pursuing conduct sanctions with the group" for the use of unauthorized sound and obstruction of the academic setting. She could not, however, comment on sanctions against individuals.

"Classes had to be cancelled and midterm exams were interrupted," she said, adding "we have no tolerance for this."

The protest was allowed to continue for six hours, with university police standing by.

By 6 p.m., when the Palestinian-rights crowd had thinned to less than 50, the police arrested 32 students, cited them at a booking station established in the Wheeler Hall lobby and let them go.

Weisberg questioned this late reaction.

"Many of us who have watched these protests go on unchecked, despite being against university policy, are scratching our heads," said Weisberg. "The message sent is that if you have a big enough group and you're thought to be less than peaceful you can push the university's boundaries."

It also makes the Israel Action Committee's hope of spreading its message that "we want peace and are willing to sacrifice land," more difficult, said co-chair Oren Lazar.

"We always schedule our rallies way in advance and are very careful to make sure we are not going to be construed as anything but our political message," he said of the Israel Action Committee. "It's a challenge to get your message across when people abuse the rules and don't comply."

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine dispersed from Wheeler Hall after the arrests were made, despite claiming they would occupy the building "until the U.C. Regents divest from Israel."

According to U.C. representative Trey Davis, the divestment campaign targets a list of multinational companies like General Electric and Cisco, which have dealings with Israel, but not exclusively. But the $5.5 billion they cite as their figure of divestment covers the entire investment portfolio, he said.

"This portfolio, in general, includes domestic and international investments generally directed towards retirement benefits for current and future U.C. employees, as well as some other things," said Davis.

In a letter delivered to the U.C. Regents on April 12, Students for Justice in Palestine demanded divestment by April 22, a timeline which Davis called "unfeasible under any circumstance." The regents, he added, are not even set to meet again until May 16, and have a "full agenda."

"You don't just make a snap decision on $5 billion worth of investments," he said, noting that it would eventually be the U.C. treasurer's job to investigate the matter and then report to the regents.

Barnes, of the Israel Action Committee, called the divestment campaign a misguided attempt and a self-deprecating one. "They are attacking institutions such as Technion, which has a liberal affirmative action program for Arab-Americans.

"Their divestment campaign would not only have repercussions on the Israeli economy but the Palestinian economy as well," he said.

As for claims that the divestment campaign is similar to the anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s, directed against South Africa, Weisberg, (who attended Berkeley during the 1980s), said this is "completely fallacious."

"For one, the Palestinians are a minority group not a majority group and the Israelis do not have a policy of manipulating them within Israel," he said. "The Israel situation is certainly far from perfect, but they have been trying to work towards peace and towards establishing an independent state for the Palestinians."

Yet, said Weisberg, "it's a powerful analogy because the students aren't shown a lot of information. They hear 'apartheid,' which they know is a terrible thing, and think 'Well, Israel practices it, therefore I should support divestment.'"