Lecturer confronts protesters outside East Bay JCC

A group of people opposed to the Jewish National Fund protested outside a Berkeley lecture last week by Israeli environmentalist Alon Tal.

Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who sits on the JNF international board, was at the JCC of the East Bay on Jan. 14 to speak about his new book, “All the Trees of the Forest,” a critical history of forestry in Israel.

Alon Tal (left) chats with protesters outside of Jan. 14 talk in Berkeley.

Outside, he was greeted by about 20 demonstrators, part of a protest campaign organized by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.

Days before the event, JCC staff was alerted to the planned protest, which also was posted on the Facebook pages of the International Solidarity Movement and Stop the JNF Campaign. “Greenwashing is not welcome in Berkeley,” the posting read, referring to the group’s claim that the JNF hides an anti-Palestinian agenda behind its “green” veneer.

The JCC alerted Tal, who is a visiting professor at Stanford University this year. He said that when he read the group’s materials, he “was appalled by the misinformation, about me and about the JNF.”

Sally Kauffman Flinchbaugh, executive director of the JCC of the East Bay, said extra security was hired and the Berkeley police were notified.

She also heard from the Ecology Center, a Berkeley nonprofit that had been promoting Tal’s talk on its website. “They said they got pushback” from Stop the JNF activists, “and they decided to take it off their calendar.”

Flinchbaugh said she had never encountered this kind of trouble before. “This was my first experience with it,” she said.

When Tal arrived at the JCC Tuesday evening, instead of walking past the protesters, he engaged them in conversation.

“I told them I’ve spent 20 years working with Palestinians and Jordanians on social issues,” he told J. “I said, come on in and let’s talk about it.”

Three protesters did sit through his talk, and during the Q&A one stood up and started yelling that Tal was a “liar,” among other things.

“He said that I support ethnic cleansing, which is completely disingenuous,” said Tal, adding that the man was eventually escorted outside.

After his talk, Tal once again tried to talk to the group. “It’s difficult when they’re not able to respect your narrative,” he said. “We spoke for about 15 minutes, but it was a ‘dialogue of the deaf.’ ”

Tal credited Flinchbaugh and the JCC staff with keeping the event peaceful and on track. He added that many other Bay Area venues that have booked him to speak have been pressured to cancel, “but none of them backed down.” — sue fishkoff