Jewish students pose as suicide bombers at U.C. rally in response to pro-Palestinians guerrilla the

The scene was a familiar one to activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Sproul Plaza on the U.C. Berkeley campus was awash April 9 in the red, green, black and white of the Palestinian flag, and the blue and white of the Israeli flag. Students wearing kaffiyehs milled about, as did students in kippot.

But there was a new element at this demonstration: A few Jewish students with fake red explosives tied around their waists were posing as suicide bombers.

"This was special for this demonstration," said Lee Kaplan, an East Bay-based activist with the national group Dafka, who outfitted a few students with the fake explosives as he spoke, calling out, "I need a few more suicide bombers!"

The Hebrew word dafka has various meanings. Kaplan said he liked the definition meaning "in your face," saying that the group was founded largely because Hillel groups and centrist Jewish organizations had a "weak-kneed" response to anti-Israel activists on the nation's campuses.

Furthermore, Kaplan expressed disdain for progressive Jewish groups, saying he believes such organizations are funded by Arabs.

"I think there are some supposed peace groups which purport to be Jewish that get money from Arabs, and they get into Hillel under the guise of being for a two-state solution when what they really want is the dismantling of Israel."

Kaplan, who is not a student, said the Berkeley chapter of Dafka has about 90 student members, though others said about 20 come regularly to meetings. Most Dafka activists are students whose families emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

Students for Justice in Palestine staged the rally to commemorate events on April 9, 1948, when the Irgun, pre-state Israel's underground militia, killed more than 100 Palestinians in the Arab village of Deir Yassin outside Jerusalem. A similar rally was held the same day at San Francisco State University.

But April 9 also happened to be election day for U.C. Berkeley's student Senate, and many students were out campaigning for themselves, including Miya Keren, an Israeli. Like many of the other Jewish students, Keren had a sign pinned to her back reading, "Wherever I stand, I am standing with Israel." Keren said she knew her unabashed pro-Israel stance would cost her some votes, but she was willing to pay that price. "It's my responsibility to be here," as well as have a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish voice in the student Senate.

At issue at this particular rally was an "Apartheid Wall," which the SJP had built to represent the barricade Israel is currently erecting to separate itself from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has argued it needs such a barrier to prevent suicide bombers from infiltrating, while the Palestinians say it will allow no Palestinians into Israel at all, imposing even worse economic conditions.

Dafka's mock suicide bombers were there to show "why the checkpoints and wall are necessary," said Kaplan.

SJP had numerous props to get its points across. In one scene of guerrilla theater, a person wearing a tank made of cardboard over the top half of his body trampled on foam bricks and a pile of dirt to represent the demolition of a Palestinian home.

Meanwhile, several counter-demonstrators dressed as suicide bombers walked around with signs pinned to their backs saying "$25,000 for my family! Thanks Saddam and Saudi Arabia!" and "I fight for justice by killing Jews."

The tactic definitely gained the ire of the SJP protesters, one of whom trailed Susanna Orah Klein — who was dressed as a female bomber, complete with a hijab, or Muslim head-covering — with a sign calling her a racist.

But the pro-Palestinians weren't the only ones to question Dafka's tactics. "It's completely illogical because they're saying that all Palestinians are suicide bombers," said Lisa Stampnitzky, a graduate student and member of Tzedek, Berkeley's progressive Jewish group. Stampnitzky stood with a few other Jewish students calling upon Israel to remember Deir Yassin as well.

"The checkpoints and settlements are not there because of suicide bombers," agreed Yishai Boyarin, a law student. "It's part of a systematic plan to shift the blame for all Israel is doing."

And Ofer Sharone of the Tikkun Community said the mock bombers were "so polarizing that they were shutting down any possibility for communication or reasonable discourse."

But Chris Silver, co-chair of the Israel Action Committee, felt differently. "It's not the way I would choose to advocate for Israel," he said, "but it does demonstrate an issue that the Students for Justice in Palestine will never address, that civilians in Israel are victims of Palestinian terror and that suicide bombers prevent Israelis from living normal lives."

The rallies on both campuses were mostly peaceful, with Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, saying the one at Cal was calmer and smaller than any of those sponsored by SJP last year.

But that changed at the end, when Klein, the only woman dressed as a suicide bomber, said she was pushed and bumped against by pro-Palestinian protesters. Klein, an Alameda resident and student at Skidmore College, had reported being harassed earlier to the police, who did nothing, she said. When it happened again, she reportedly spat in the face of one SJP protester, Mustafa Sheikh, and police cited her for a misdemeanor battery. Klein must appear in court on May 10.

"One protester told me I'd better watch out and implied something bad would happen to me and people like me," she said. She added that another woman tried to pull off her head-covering, telling her it was offensive to Muslims.

Klein filed a complaint with campus police, claiming she was a victim of battery and was not allowed to move freely through Sproul Plaza.

"It was a really hostile atmosphere. People were calling me a racist, and the officer I spoke with told me it's my fault, that the Palestinians were only standing in solidarity, and I was getting in the way. I want to file a cross complaint."

As members of SJP dropped to the ground in a "die in," a teary Klein was escorted off campus by police.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."