An anti-Israel rally on the U.C. Berkeley campus and a pro-Israel counterprotest in the same plaza became a contest in effective street theater this week.
The so-called “International Day of Action for Palestine,” organized by West Bank–born U.C. Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian, called for anti-Israel protests at campuses across the nation on Sept. 23, the day before Rosh Hashanah.
However, despite Bazian’s call, it appears that “Day of Action”â€ˆevents took place only at U.C. Berkeley, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. One reason was that many schools hadn’t started classes yet.
At Cal, where classes began Aug. 28, around 100 protesters and 60 counterprotesters gathered in Sproul Plaza. Many on the pro-Palestinian side were carrying signs that read “Zionism Is Racism” or pictured maps of Israel covered over with the colors of the Palestinian flag.
They also staged a die-in, during which protesters sprawled on the ground to mimic Palestinians killed by Israel.
A Facebook page promoting the event was hosted by American Muslims for Palestine, and the Sept. 23 protest was led by U.C. Berkeley junior Unis Barakat, a member of the campus Muslim Student Association, according to the Daily Cal student newspaper.
The core message of the speakers, including Bazian, who teaches Middle Eastern studies, was to promote a comprehensive academic boycott of Israel, eliminating joint research, visiting lecturers from representatives of Israeli universities, visits to Israel by American university presidents, and collaboration with Jewish agencies such as the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Community Relations Councils or Israeli consulates.
Simultaneously, a few yards away, dozens of pro-Israel counterprotesters matched the “Day of Action” activists in symbolism and black clothing.
Made up of alumni, faculty, students and members of Tikvah, a pro-Israel student organization, the counterprotesters wore black T-shirts adorned with the words “#CutTheTape.” In conjunction with that message, they cordoned themselves off with yellow caution tape, which they said represented the marginalization of Israel.
“We needed a symbol for discrimination and being excluded,” said Michaela Fried, Tikvah president and one of the organizers of the counter-protest. “We wanted the theme to be to cut this metaphorical discriminatory tape.”
Pro-Israel demonstrators remained quiet and respectful throughout the hourlong event.
“We realized there’s only so much yelling and screaming we can do,” Fried added. “It wasn’t in our best interest, and we didn’t want to set a precedent of destroying the other person’s [protest].”
At the beginning of the anti-Israel rally, Barakat admonished “Day of Action” attendees that this was to be a peaceful gathering, with no violence or hate speech.
He and other speakers condemned Israel’s recent war in Gaza, claiming that Israel routinely cuts water and electricity to the territory. One speaker read out the names of children killed in the Gaza conflict, allegedly by Israeli forces.
During the die-in, as protesters lay on the ground, a man festooned in Aztec garb pounded drums and a speaker intoned, “When we fall to the ground, we are demonstrating our anger and disappointment with world leaders.”
Then Barakat led the crowd in chants of “Free, free Palestine” and “Long live the intifada.” That latter chant, which tacitly glorified Palestinian suicide bombings, proved too much for some in the pro-Israel camp.
“It shows their character that there was such aggressive content,” said Ori Herschmann, 21, a political economy major and member of the U.C. Berkeley student senate. “They tested us with that chant.”
Cal alumnus Ariel Kaplan, wearing a “Cut the Tape” shirt, said he attended the counterprotest to support the preservation of academic freedom. “It’s ridiculous for this university, on the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement, to push for the stifling of an entire nation,” he said. “To say no to academic collaboration is against the sprit Cal stands for.”
Also attending was U.C. Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who has been outspoken in condemning what she sees as increasingly virulent anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment on college campuses. She blasted the academic boycott effort.
“When you go after study-abroad programs, you hurt the students,” she said. “This is part of a campaign of anti-normalization. Their goal is to ensure that the pro-Israel narrative becomes illegitimate. There is a silencing, a bullying of students and faculty, who don’t want to get caught up in this.”
Fried was pleased that many passersby approached her and others wearing the “Cut the Tape” shirts, asking what it meant. She saw it as an opportunity to start a dialogue with people.
“All you had to tell them was that [the anti-Israel protesters] were trying to end study-abroad,” Fried said. “Students can relate to that, and realized the other side was a little flawed in their messaging.”
The event concluded with no violence and virtually no hurling of insults, and Tikvah members considered their counter-protest a success.
Still, Fried, a 20-year-old junior, decried the pervasive anti-Israel sentiment she sees on campus.
“On Sproul, every day, you walk around, and it’s really surreal to hear students screaming for the death of your country,” she said.