Campus Jewish groups bracing for turbulent year

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On the heels of Israel’s war with Hezbollah and increased military action in Gaza, collegiate Jewish leaders aren’t sure what to expect on Bay Area campuses this fall. But they are sure about one thing: It’s not going to be a Tupperware party.

Words like “apprehensive” and “tense” are the first that come to the lips of local Hillel directors. Gordon Gladstone, assistant director of Berkeley’s Hillel, said he wouldn’t be all too surprised to have to walk around an “apartheid wall” on Sproul Plaza sometime this semester.

Gladstone — and his colleagues in San Francisco and Stanford — doesn’t expect any theatrics like that during the depths of the intifada, when crowds approaching 1,000 marched through U.C. Berkeley seizing classroom buildings.

And that’s because Gladstone and his ilk have long realized two things those who only periodically gauge the anti-Israel sentiment on campuses often fail to see:

First, when pro-Palestinian activists join forces with campus fringe groups, espouse radical positions, attempt to hijack any campus social movement or loudly take over buildings where people are taking midterms, they lose credibility — and popularity.

Second, when it comes to the Middle East conflict, most students really don’t care. While many outside observers, specifically at U.C. Berkeley, have equated the presence of loud, pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus with campus sympathy for the Palestinian cause, the fact of the matter is, U.C. students are simply used to loud demonstrations on campus and accept them as a fact of life.

“The vast majority of people here are pursuing their education,” notes Gladstone.

“If they have foreign policy concerns they’re just as likely, in fact more likely, to be Iraq, North Korea or Darfur.”

In a proactive move, Lev Ingman, president of Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union, said the JSU will once again have an informational table on Sproul Plaza (as does the Muslim Student Union and dozens of other student groups).

One of Berkeley Hillel’s major moves will be to bring in outside speakers on the Israel issue, a move Hillel at Stanford will also be taking. In fact, at Stanford they’ve even arranged a phone interview for students only with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

The students-only nature of the Friedman interview is part of a major new thrust for Hillel at Stanford. While it still serves the campus community at Stanford and Palo Alto, much of the pro-Israel programming will be aimed solely at students this year, a year Hillel Executive Director Adina Danzig feels will probably be the most difficult in a while.

Loud demonstrations have never been Stanford’s style, so pro-Israel activities will largely be limited to speakers, classes and group activities. Berkeley Hillel will also be featuring classes and many of the very same speakers.

San Francisco Hillel director Alon Shalev is expecting a difficult year at S.F. State, but just as much because of the goings-on in the Student Union building as those in Southern Lebanon.

A mural of deceased Palestinian activist and former Columbia University professor Edward Said was scheduled to be unveiled on Sept. 25 — the third anniversary of Said’s death — but its proposed design was objected to by Jewish activists and rejected by SFSU President Robert Corrigan.

Shalev said he had no problem with a mural celebrating Palestinian culture, but was irked by the presence of Handala, a Palestinian cartoon character symbolizing violent resistance to Israel, in the proposed design, and little details such as the fact a Jerusalem cityscape features a mosque and church but no temple. Like others, Shalev was also confused by representations of the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building behind Said’s shoulder — a representation that looks more than a little like the Twin Towers.

During the last six months, Shalev says he’s expanded his staff so he can have Hillel employees on campus to nip in the bud confrontations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.

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.