As they made their way through the crowd, five or six men dressed in battle fatigues began shouting "Hezbollah! Hezbollah!" Then one after another the men praised their fallen martyrs — the Palestinian suicide bombers who died in recent weeks while blowing up innocent Israeli men, women and children.
One of the men announced he was ready to make the same sacrifice. As he and his companions spoke, they repeatedly stomped and spat on the Israeli flag beneath their feet.
Was this scene enacted in Gaza City or Hebron? In Tehran or Damascus? No, on the steps of U.C. Berkeley's Sproul Hall on Friday of last week during a rally organized by the Muslim Student Association to praise the murderous actions of Hamas.
Having attended Cal myself in the 1960s, I thought I had witnessed every imaginable kind of rally. But until that Friday I had never seen anything remotely like a dramatic re-enactment of suicide bombers receiving blessings from their cleric before embarking on their mission.
I thought it was obscene.
Fortunately, though the crowd did not seem taken in by all the hysterical anti-Israel rhetoric, this rally was anything but benign. It had a clearly unnerving effect on the Jewish student community, which was staging a peace vigil nearby. The numerous Jewish professionals like myself who came to express solidarity with the Jewish students found themselves no less unnerved.
As upset as the Jewish students were about the rally itself, they were also disturbed by what they perceived as a weak response on the part of U.C. Berkeley chancellor Chang-Lin Tien. Tien chose not to add his name to those of prominent public officials and student leaders who took out a full-page advertisement in the campus paper, The Daily Californian, condemning terrorism and expressing hopes for peace both in the Middle East and at U.C. Berkeley.
Instead, Tien placed his own advertisement in the paper. His statement was addressed "To the Campus Community," and began with this assessment:
"International events of the recent weeks have stirred renewed debates on our campus, especially among the Jewish and Muslim communities. Violence and the death of innocent people are reprehensible, and I know our community wishes for peace in the Middle East. I encourage the entire campus community to engage in constructive and respectful dialogue on these important issues."
For the most part, I agree with many Jewish students that the chancellor was too vague and soft in his condemnation of violence. Protecting others' free speech does not mean the chancellor cannot exercise his own free speech to state more clearly that the suicide bombings were repugnant acts that cannot in any way be justified.
The conclusion of his statement was more explicit and direct, asserting that "the University will take whatever action is necessary to prevent, correct, and discipline behavior which violates the spirit and intent of regulations designed to promote respect and civility, and will take whatever steps are necessary to foster mutual respect among the campus community."
I do believe the chancellor's statement was a helpful step, though it would have been better had he also signed the full-page advertisement. A year ago the administration was slow to react to explicitly anti-Semitic remarks at a Muslim Student Association rally, and slow to respond to Jewish students' concerns as revisionist David Irving repeatedly attempted to speak on campus. This hesitation contrasted sharply with Tien's immediate and forceful condemnation of a racist incident at Boalt Hall, the university's law school. Why should attacks against Jews on campus receive any less of an effective response?
Repeated meetings between Berkeley Hillel and the administration have begun to make a difference. At least now there is a voice coming from the chancellor's office. Like many university administrators, however, he appears overly cautious about acting on what he perceives as a free-speech issue.
The central matter at hand, however, is not criticism of Israel, nor even the trampling of the Israeli flag, obscene as that is. Rather, the problem is that a small group of Muslim students are trying to make Jews on campus feel uncomfortable — even threatened.
Friday's rally crowned a two-week campaign of intimidation directed against Jewish students: This campaign included daily taunts around the Israel Action table in U.C. Berkeley's Sproul Plaza — a public area where diverse student groups offer information about themselves. The Muslim group also distributed a flier disparaging Jews for celebrating Purim.
The chancellor is right about the importance of debating issues in a university environment. But what he calls "constructive and respectful dialogue" is neither possible nor desirable when Hamas supporters are preaching death and destruction. These hateful views must be repudiated loudly and clearly by the administration, so that real dialogue can resume in an environment free of intimidation.
At this time, Cal alumni in our community (there are tens of thousands of us) and those associated with the U.C. administration must urge the chancellor to act more forcefully toward preventing a hostile atmosphere from taking root.
Action on the part of the administration should include: immediate and explicit condemnation of extreme views expressed at the Muslim Student Association rally and other such forums on campus, frequent meetings with members of the Jewish student community to address concerns about the current campus environment and assurances that campus personnel will be present at pro-Israel activities to prevent intimidation.
At Friday's rally, a figure idled near the steps from which such hate was spewing. The figure was Hatam Bazian, who personally created an anti-Jewish environment while he was student body president at San Francisco State University. Bazian is now a U.C. Berkeley graduate student. As I stood in Sproul Plaza gazing in his direction, I wondered whether Bazian and his comrades will succeed again on new turf. The administration can act now to prevent it.