Jews label conference as hateful, rejectionist, pro-war

Bancroft Avenue never looked more like Checkpoint Charlie.

At last weekend's National Student Conference of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, held at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, security officials sporting yellow armbands glared across the road at Berkeley Hillel members.

The Jewish students, sitting on the Hillel steps beneath an Israeli flag and pro-peace banners while blasting Israeli pop music, stared back.

Yet as harmless as the staring contest may have been, pro-Israel activists attending the conference said the words spoken within Boalt Hall were anything but.

"All the disparate energy is in there, and they're trying to focus it like a laser," said Yitzhak Santis, Middle East affairs director for the Jewish Community Relations Council, who attended Sunday's sessions. "This conference is meant to delegitimize, dehumanize and demonize Israel."

Santis was particularly disturbed by the militant statements made by several of the conference's roughly 250 attendees — and the crowd's obvious approval of those statements.

According to Santis, one speaker proposed an amendment to the conference's platform recognizing the intifada as the "legitimate popular Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism, occupation and apartheid"; opposing any negotiations with Zionists or the possibility of a two-state solution; proposing a full "right of return" for Palestinian refugees; and supporting "all tactics" used by Palestinians. The statement, said Santis, was received with enthusiastic cheers.

"Clearly this is not the language of dialogue and peaceful co-existence," he said. "This is the language of hate and rejection. They are talking, bottom-line, about the destruction of Israel. This conference is anti-peace, rejectionist, pro-war and, ultimately, hypocritical."

The Students for Justice in Palestine, the conference's organizers, would not allow attendees to be interviewed or photographed on-site.

Hillel students did not report any individual verbal or physical confrontations, though several did mention that a group of roughly 40 conference-goers shouted and chanted angrily in the direction of the Hillel building in what sounded like Arabic for a few minutes Friday night.

Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, said conference organizers made sure that security personnel stood within five feet of him, Santis and Jewish Student Union President Jess Oleon throughout Sunday's sessions.

Weisberg was pre-registered for the conference, but he was forced to leave early on Monday.

"One of the moderators asked if anybody in the room objected to anybody else in the room being there. At this point, five or six people stood up and pointed at me," said Weisberg.

"They said 'I object to him because he's a Zionist,' or 'because he's here in bad faith' or 'because he has no right to be here.' They gave a consensus vote and everyone in the room other than me voted I should leave. I certainly felt unwanted and the question of my safety was becoming a more significant issue."

Weisberg said he plans to file complaints with the Chancellor's office and the offices of Student Life and Student Conduct.

Several Jewish students also reported overzealous conference security personnel giving the third degree to non-attendees wishing to enter Boalt Hall to use the law library or go to their offices.

"When I walked into the courtyard, I heard someone say they were only letting in people with conference badges," said Yasmin Sigel, a U.C. Berkeley senior and Hillel member. "This is a public building, not PLO headquarters."

Hillel students could only roll their eyes in frustration after reading excerpts from the conference's schedule predicting "counter-activities by Zionists and other racists at this conference."

"Please do not engage with Zionists, even when they provoke you," reads the pamphlet handed to all attendees. "They are trying to derail you from spending essential time in the conference…Finally, due to the expected climate of counter-demonstrations, please do not wander alone on campus or elsewhere, particularly late at night or early in the morning."

"We're going to respect their event," said Devora Liss, a U.C. Berkeley sophomore and Hillel member. "We don't feel we have any right to try and disrupt it."

Hillel's response to the conference was limited largely to students sitting on the steps and "maintaining a presence," and establishing a pledge drive to fund Arab-Israeli co-existence projects, support terrorism victims and push for minority and women's rights.

The fund-raiser amassed $4,000 over the weekend.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.