Israeli, Palestinian Backers Clash During Campus Rally

View more photos from yesterday's demonstrations here.

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Tension between Berkeley supporters of Israel and Palestine soared to alarming heights yesterday as a noon rally prompted activists to trade fiery accusations and slurs, and resulted in the takeover of Wheeler Hall.

Seventy-nine protesters were arrested during the five-hour siege of the central campus building.

The rally, organized by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine, drew approximately 1,000 people to Sproul Plaza, where heated debates erupted spontaneously in the audience-one man could be heard denouncing an Israeli supporter as "a fucking Nazi"-and chants of "Stop the suicide bombings" rippled throughout the crowd.

At its low point, crowd members waved Israeli flags and shouted "sacrilege," "anti-Semite," "shame" and "fuck you" amid a general uproar as speaker Micah Bazant, a Jewish supporter of Palestine, invoked the kaddish-a traditional Jewish prayer of mourning-in honor of Palestinians who had been killed in the conflict.

"Words cannot express my disgust," said Israel Action Committee President Randy Barnes in response to Bazant. "What he did was an outrage, and all I can say is shame on him."

Staff/Ben Miller
An angry protester is one of 79 arrested for participating in a five-hour siege at Wheeler Hall.

Animosity between the two groups ran even higher than normal yesterday due an unfortunate twist of fate. Supporters of Palestine annually observe the April 9, 1948 "Deir Yassin massacre," where they contend that over 100 Palestinian civilians died at the hands of Zionist militias. To them it symbolizes the start of an ethnic cleansing campaign by Israelis.

But yesterday also coincided with the Holocaust Day of Remembrance, observed annually according to the Hebrew calendar. Jewish student leaders viewed Students for Justice in Palestine's decision to proceed with the rally, despite the day's significance to the Jewish community, as a slap in the face.

"We sent messages through the Office of Student Life to (Students for Justice in Palestine) about the significance of this day," Barnes said. "They had the opportunity to move the rally, and they refused." He noted that a similar student group at UCLA had done so at the request of Jewish student groups on that campus.

Students for Justice in Palestine leaders contend that, in the spirit of Deir Yassin, the rally aimed to condemn the racially motivated slaughter of innocents, and as such, not only did not conflict with the aims of Holocaust Remembrance Day, but reinforced them.

Staff/Ramin Rahimian
Supporters from both sides face off in front of Wheeler Hall (above), while Palestinian protesters hold a sit-in inside the building and march through campus (below), to protest the Israeli occupation of what they claim to be Palestinian territories.

"We condemn anti-Semitism, and we condemn hate crimes that happen everywhere," said Abdul Zahzah, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. "These two events complement each other. We remember Jewish victims of the Holocaust, just as we are trying to stop another massacre from happening in Palestine right now."

Nevertheless, speakers at the rally tended to use the issue as a stepping stone for more controversial demands on Israel, the United States and UC.

One speaker, UC Berkeley senior Noura Erakat, praised the Palestinian people on being "steadfast in their refusal to leave" Palestine, and drew wild cheers from the mostly pro-Palestinian crowd when she accused Israel of "racist, apartheid practices."

Subsequent speakers continued in a similar fashion, demanding that Israel end its military occupation of Palestine and that UC divest itself of Israeli holdings.

Will Youmans, also a member of the pro-Palestinian group, thought the rally provided for a productive discussion.

"Heated debates are not a bad thing," Youmans said. "The majority of the ideas were intelligent and intellectual."

But some students felt that the rally was consistent with an increasingly hostile attitude toward Jews on campus.

"They fostered a climate of hate and anti-Semitism on campus," said Israel Action Committee member Oren Lazar.

The unspoken fear on behalf of many was the lingering possibility of violence, which seemed to be validated by the visible presence maintained by UC police throughout the afternoon, as well as by Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean.

"I am here to urge people to come and have a civil discussion," Dean said. "I am urging everyone to remain calm."

The fighting never went further than words, prompting some to declare the event a success.

"Today was a tremendous success," said Dean of Students Karen Kenney. "Students on all sides did a terrific job of controlling the event."

The relative calm surprised UC Berkeley junior Saner Birincioglu.

"It was a lot more peaceful than I expected," he said.

After 30 minutes of speakers, rally organizers announced plans to march on campus. Approximately 500 protesters marched 10-abreast from Sproul Plaza and around Doe library, before arriving at Wheeler Hall, where they crowded into the foyer of Wheeler Auditorium.

Clapping and chanting "At Berkeley, U.S.A., the people fight back," the crowd's roars echoed up and down the hallways of the building, even as classes were still in session.

Hoang Phan, an English graduate student and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, led the crowd in reciting a list of demands that it wished to negotiate with UC, among them that UC give up its financial holdings in Israeli companies.

"This is a message that we are students, that our tuition feeds their portfolio," he said. "We want our university to divest itself of its $6 billion in Israeli holdings."

In short order, UC police had handcuffed each of the building's doors closed and barred further entry into the building. They notified protesters that they would be subject to arrest, and, if they were UC Berkeley students, possible suspension or expulsion, if they did not leave Wheeler Hall immediately. The protesters disrupted a midterm at the roughly 600-capacity Wheeler Auditorium. The test continued despite the loud chants just a few feet away.

But most students were not phased by the threat of possible suspension from UC Berkeley and remained in the building.

"It doesn't worry me," said David Raymond, a history graduate student. "If they expel 50 students there would be thousands the next day."

Seventy-nine protesters were arrested, cited for trespassing, and, in some cases, resisting arrest. All but one were released. One protester wound up in jail, on a charge of felony battery after he bit a police officer.

The same pro-Palestinian group took over Wheeler Hall nearly a year ago protesting UC ties to companies that support Israel. Then, in a scene similar to yesterday's, police arrested dozens of students. In recent university history, Barrows Hall and Sproul Hall have also been occupied by protesters.

Campuses across the country also played host to protests. Today's Palestinian protest and Israeli memorial were part of national campaigns.

Tensions at UC Berkeley prompted Chancellor Berdahl to run an advertisement in Tuesday's Daily Californian calling for "civil debate."

"For most of the campus community and people everywhere, it is not about taking sides, but finding a means to the end of suffering on both sides."


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