Tempers flare, fists fly at Berkeley bus rally

This was not your typical walk in the park.

Roughly 90 minutes into the self-proclaimed anti-terror rally in Berkeley on Sunday, Jan. 16, a group of young men and boys bedecked in kaffiyehs, waving Palestinian flags and fervently chanting “Allahu akbar” (God is great) marched onto the lawn of Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. They were met by a larger crowd of apprehensive pro-Israel supporters.

While both sides loudly shouted “No violence!” the cluster soon began to resemble a baseball brawl, with agitated men pushing and shoving each other. The pro-Israel crowd chanted “murderers” at the interlopers, while the pro-Palestinians shouted back; witnesses later claimed to hear the chant “Death to the Jews.”

Finally, inevitably, punches were thrown and police yanked a pair out of the crowd, arresting a Jewish man and charging him with misdemeanor battery.

As the mob broke up, 30-year-old Sasha Lev stood a few paces from the bombed-out remains of Jerusalem bus No. 19 — the centerpiece of the rally — and shook his head.

“On stage, look, there is only a message of peace. Look, there are Indians singing on stage. Muslims, Christians, Jews,” he said, gesticulating toward the speakers as an estimated 500 Israel supporters looked on and roughly 200 pro-Palestinians chanted and waved flags across Martin Luther King Jr. Way. A number of orators addressed the crowd during the two-hour program.

Lev made a disgusted expression and waved at the remnants of the melee.

“Now, people are only going to write about this s—.”

Reuven Kahane, an Oakland rabbi, attorney and developer, was the only person arrested at the rally after an altercation in the midst of the melee with an Arab teenager.

Kahane claimed he was defending himself after the large teenager threw a punch at him and missed.

After being separated from the crowd, Kahane said he and the teenager “became friends. He apologized to me and I apologized to him.”

Other than the skirmish, the rally played much like every other Berkeley Mideast demonstration. There was some debating but mostly shouting among the rally regulars.

What was different, however, was the presence of the charred, skeletal remains of the bus, which a suicide bomber destroyed last year, killing 11 Israelis.

A solemn procession of men, women and children slowly milled about the bus. Brightly colored wires dangled haphazardly from the overhead compartments of the once pristine green vehicle. Some seats in the back of the bus, evidently where the bomber himself sat, were reduced to rubble and ash and resembled nothing so much as the next day’s remains of a campfire.

Biblical verses regarding God, Israel and the Jews were propped up around the incinerated bus by The Jerusalem Connection, formerly known as Christians for Israel, one of several co-sponsors behind the rally.

Some people took pictures, others prayed. Grown men cried. With the pro-Israel speaker’s amplified words and the pro-Palestinians’ chants echoing in her ears, Berkeley’s Sue Magidson could only shake her head.

“I think this is a shame. It’s a shame people can’t see this for what it is and have to politicize it one way or the other,” she said. A friend lost his uncle on the bus, and she had come to pay her respects.

“This is what destruction looks like. This bus was new and shiny. If you hadn’t been to Israel, you’d think it was old and crappy. [Protesters] are missing how complicated the situation is, how intertwined these two peoples are. This doesn’t diminish the fact that many innocent Palestinians have died as well.”

On the other side of the bus, Biff Stockton, an Israeli living in the East Bay, noted, “I could do without those biblical quotes.”

“We’re secular Jews and Zionists. Israel is our home. We don’t need religion to become part of our government either here or in Israel,” he said.

Stockton’s wife, Rozita Fogelman, also an Israeli, noted that the religious placards made the bus into “a political piece” instead of a tribute to “everyday people who were blown up just trying to do everyday things.”

Still, she was happy to see the bus in Berkeley.

“I wish they brought a dozen buses like this and blocked the whole street. One is not enough.”

Added Stockton, “Oh, would that be too much? People wouldn’t like it? Well, nobody likes it.”

Before the Berkeley rally, a number of pro-Palestinians announced their abhorrence of terrorism. Most of the protesters silently trudged through the vicinity, hoisting placards bearing a child’s silhouette and the name of a Palestinian youth killed in the intifada.

Yet a large contingent was chanting a different tune.

Esam Mahgoub of Oakland said the bus was an acceptable target because “every Israeli between the ages of 8 and 56 has a gun.

“Everyone is a legitimate target. That is how it is,” he said.

“Israelis use the Apache helicopter to shoot people in their homes. Palestinians use their bodies. Don’t call it a suicide bombing. Allah forbids suicide. … We fight back because we are not punks.”

At Mahgoub’s feet, a trio of adorable girls, none older than 10, chanted repeatedly:

“Don’t believe the news, it’s controlled by the Jews.”

Across the street from the flag-waving pro-Palestinians, a troupe of pro-Israelis brandished American flags, placards reading “How does it feel to be irrelevant?” and repeatedly blew the shofar.

The bus was on display in San Francisco as well, on Monday, Jan. 17. The protesters were fewer and “less violent,” according to co-organizer Dr. Daniel Kliman of San Francisco Voice for Israel. He estimated there were 300 pro-Israel attendees and 75 protesters, only 15 of whom were unruly.

Toward the end of the Berkeley rally, Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, standing out from the crowd in his gray suit and large, colorful yarmulke, made his way to the bus.

Witnessing the twisted, metallic exoskeleton was a particularly visceral experience for the Hungarian-born rabbi. His daughter, son-in-law and three young grandchildren are Israelis, and, but for a last-minute change in dinner plans, he would have been enjoying a cup of coffee in Jerusalem’s Moment Cafe when it was bombed in 2002.

“I came to say a prayer in front of this bus,” the rabbi said. He coolly observed the flag-waving, shouting and verbal confrontations spilling out across the green under the unseasonably warm winter sun.

“And now, I am ready to leave.”

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.