Students supporting Israel
A rally at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza on October 27, 2023. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

Hundreds rally at UC Berkeley to demand action on Gaza hostages

A rally Friday afternoon on the UC Berkeley campus drew about 250 Jewish students and their supporters to Sproul Plaza, with one clear message: Bring the hostages home. 

“Bring them home! Bring them home!” shouted the mostly student crowd leading chants from the plaza steps, as supporters looked on.

Several campus groups were represented, including Tikvah: Students for Israel, Berkeley Hillel and the Jewish fraternity AEPi. Other students told J. they weren’t part of any group. They were “just Jewish” and wanted to be part of the rally. Flyers with the photos and biographies of each of the estimated 220 hostages that Hamas took into Gaza on Oct. 7 were strung banner-like across the plaza. Students handed out more of the flyers for attendees to hold aloft. 

Then the chanting began, led by student organizers with megaphones.

“Release! Release! We stand for peace!” was one oft-repeated chant, along with “Bring them home!”

Friday’s event, which kicked off at 1:30 p.m., was the latest in a series of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian rallies held since Oct. 7 on the Cal campus.

Competing rallies on Oct. 16 erupted in shouting and some shoving between protesters. Since then, the two sides have held events on different dates or in separate locations.

Friday’s “Bring Them Home” rally followed a large pro-Palestinian rally two days earlier that featured chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” That slogan is widely understood as a call for the elimination of Israel.

At Wednesday’s rally, two pro-Palestinian protesters tried to steal an Israeli flag from a pro-Israel student, an incident that ended with a pro-Palestinian protester hitting the pro-Israel student over the head with a metal water bottle, according to campus police.

By contrast, Friday’s rally was intense but calm.

The only counter-protesters were a white-bearded man holding a Palestinian flag and an individual who rambled loudly about American and Israeli evils.

Big-picture politics were at a minimum. A few people held anti-Hamas posters, but the focus was kept clearly on the need to free all the hostages immediately. Demonstrators sang “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Hatikvah.” 

Speakers addressed the crowd. Offir Gutelzon, co-founder of UnXeptable, a pro-democracy group started by Israeli expatriates in the Bay Area, implored the students to share images of the hostages on social media and to write letters to their elected officials, urging U.S. action. 

“And let’s thank President Biden for all he’s doing,” Gutelzon added, which elicited a cheer. 

A louder cheer erupted when the students caught sight of a plane circling the campus, trailing a banner that read “Berkeley stands with Israel.”

Rabbi Gil Leeds of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at Berkeley took the microphone to read psalms before launching into a rousing rendition of “Oseh Shalom.” Students quickly joined in.

At one point, a student organizer called for a moment of silence to remember the hostages. He then read dozens of names of hostages, adding where they were kidnapped from. When he said that one of the hostages “was 36 when she was kidnapped from her home,” another student shouted back, “She is 36 — is, not was.” He quickly corrected himself. 

A small crowd of Muslim graduate students stood nearby, watching the rally silently. Several wore the floor-length caftans and head coverings of the devout, while others had draped keffiyehs around their shoulders.

Asked whether they felt afraid or unsafe watching the pro-Israel rally, they said no.

“The first rally did,” one said, saying he had been spit on by Jewish students.

None of them had heard of the joint statement posted Oct. 12 by Ron Hassner, a professor and faculty director of the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, and Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian lecturer on Middle Eastern languages and cultures and the founder of Students for Justice in Palestine. The statement asked students to refrain from violence. But the Muslim students all said that tempers had cooled in the past two weeks, and they did not expect this or upcoming rallies to be interrupted.

“It’s media fatigue,” one of them offered.

Steve Tadelis, a professor in the Haas School of Business, addressed the crowd, saying that he had never before spoken at a rally but felt compelled now because of what he described as “blatant antisemitism” on the rise at his campus and nationwide. 

“I want to acknowledge that emotions are high for everyone,” he said. “Everyone has the right to their opinion. But it is important not to confuse opinion with truth. I want to acknowledge there are many innocent residents of Gaza. At the same time, I want to point to the vitriol on this and other campuses that will not acknowledge the atrocities of Hamas.” 

Decrying Wednesday’s pro-Palestinian rally for its anti-Israel tone, he pointed out that calling for the destruction of Israel means calling for the killing of Jews — millions of Jews. 

“And that’s antisemitism,” he said. “Antisemitism must be confronted no matter what. By standing here together today, we voice our opposition to that.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].