Jews denounce a pro-Hamas rally at U.C. Berkeley

Jewish students held a small counter-demonstration nearby.

The noontime rally, sponsored by the Muslim Unity Group, took place on Sproul Plaza four days after the fourth recent suicide bombing in Israel. The death toll of those Hamas-organized attacks now stands at 62.

"It was almost surreal. At a time when Jews are mourning victims of terror, they are mourning what they call `victims of Zionism,'" said Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, Northern California Hillel Council's executive director. "It elevates doublespeak to a new level. It was beyond nerve and gall."

Sharone Sheffer, a U.C. Berkeley junior majoring in psychology and a member of the student-run Israel Action Committee, agreed.

"That someone can see these tragedies in a good way is very disturbing," she said. "It really scares me."

The counter-demonstration, which was organized by U.C. Berkeley Hillel, the Israel Action Committee and the Israel Project, seemed to ease tensions among some Jewish students.

Against the backdrop of an "Israel Wants Peace" banner and billboards listing the names of terrorism victims, speakers called on students to educate themselves further about Zionism and Israel. A Muslim community member, who denounced the pro-Hamas rally, also spoke.

"Our goal was not to stop words of hatred," said Elisha Wolfin, a speaker at the Jewish event and an associate at the Israel Center in Oakland. "Our goal there was to give the Jewish students a sense that we're there for them."

But community leaders and students agree that more needs to be done. At the top of the list are plans to urge U.C. Berkeley chancellor Chang-Lin Tien to condemn the Hamas rally's anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Tien did run an advertisement on the day of the rally in the campus newspaper, The Daily Californian.

"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," his ad read in part.

Tien had declined to sign another ad in the campus paper that featured a Star of David and language "condemning these vicious acts of terrorism." The ad, which was organized by the local Jewish community, ran the same day. It was signed by 67 individuals and groups, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean and six city councilmembers, the University Religious Council, U.C. Berkeley's student body president and 11 student senators.

U.C. Berkeley's chief spokesperson Jesus Mena said Tien chose to issue a separate statement so he would not appear to be taking sides.

"He has to be mindful of keeping peace on the campus," Mena said. "He wants to play the role of mediator to the extent that's possible."

For many Jews, Tien's balancing act didn't play well.

"To have a mealy-mouthed ad is completely insufficient," said Peter Altman, director of the Israel Project, which works to strengthen pro-Israel advocacy on Northern California campuses.

"We need to demand a complete denunciation of the Muslim rally by the powers that be, including chancellor Tien," Altman added. "If not, we would be allowing the establishment of an extremely low standard of behavior toward Jews. I think that would be very dangerous."

Early this week, Mena said Tien was not issuing any new statements after the rally.

Jonathan Segal, a graduate student in linguistics and co-chair of the Jewish Student Union, was disappointed with Tien's actions both before and after the rally.

The pro-Hamas rally wasn't the first anti-Semitic incident on the campus since the barrage of suicide bombings began on Feb. 25, he noted.

Since then, Segal said, Hamas backers have been taunting Jewish students staffing the Israel Action Committee table set up on Sproul Plaza. Others handed out leaflets condemning Purim as a Jewish holiday celebrating the massacre of Jewish enemies. And the pro-Hamas rally organizers wrote inflammatory messages, such as "Zionism is Fascism," in chalk on campus sidewalks.

"Tien's silence seems to be implicitly condoning things like that," Segal said.