U.C. Berkeley students protest hidden hate on their campus

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U.C. Berkeley freshman Bryan Rahmanan is on edge.

Impending finals aside, the Jewish student from New York has been nervous since swastikas — one in his hallway — recently were found at the Clark Kerr campus residence hall.

“Where I live and sleep, I don’t feel safe,” said 18-year-old Rahmanan. “This wasn’t random. Clearly there was a target.”

Gripping a painted sign that said “Unity begins with ‘U’ and ‘I,’ ” Rahmanan joined about 50 students, faculty and community members on Sproul Plaza April 30 to call for an end to the “hidden hate” or anti-Semitism that demonstrators — both Jewish and non-Jewish — say is infiltrating Berkeley’s campus, and going unnoticed or being dismissed.

“There is pure, unveiled anti-Semitism at Berkeley,” said a student organizer. “We can’t be apathetic, and we can’t ignore it.”

Students in white T-shirts handed out stickers that said, “Fight anti-Semitism at Cal!” and flyers explaining anti-Semitism, its roots, and the symbols and slogans associated with it. At times, up to 100 onlookers gathered around the demonstrators.

Stephanie Cohen, a 19-year-old sophomore from Los Angeles, said she never experienced anti-Semitism until she came to U.C. Berkeley last year. Since then, she’s spotted swastikas around campus and noted the lack of Jewish representation at the university’s multicultural center.

“I want to have a space to feel comfortable on campus,” said Cohen, the Jewish Student Union representative for the East Bay office of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “How else are we supposed to spread awareness if we don’t feel safe?”

Using a bullhorn, John Efron, U.C. Berkeley professor of Jewish history, said it was “unacceptable” that he and other demonstrators had to draw attention to the “hidden hatred” on a campus that “prides itself on tolerance.”

“All anyone has to do is go into the bathrooms,” said Efron. “There are swastikas everywhere and no one knows about it. This symbol is so terrifying for Jews to see.”

Efron compared the swastikas in Berkeley to several racially charged incidents at U.C. San Diego, including a noose found hanging in the campus library in February. Discovery of the noose sparked student protests and garnered national media attention.

However, he said, “the difference is, until now, Jewish students [at Berkeley] have been reluctant to file complaints, have their fears heard and let the administration know what a hostile environment this is for students.”

Only once did the demonstration take a hostile turn, prompting a campus police officer to step in and quell verbal sparring between two U.C. Berkeley faculty members.

A campus police officer blocks Andrew Gutierrez during a heated exchange.

While addressing the growing crowd, Ronald Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies, suggested a connection between the rise in anti-Semitism on campus and the divestment resolution.

Ecology professor Andrew Gutierrez, who was standing nearby, interjected “That is a lie! That is a lie!”

“[The demonstration] is a mechanism for suppressing decency on campus,” Gutierrez told j. toward the end of the rally, standing with two members of Women in Black. The group has met downtown every Friday afternoon for more than 15 years to protest the Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories.

“I’m against anti-Semitism, but my moral compass tells me when you have a propaganda campaign,” Gutierrez said. “To suppress others under the guise of anti-Semitism is horrible.”