U.C. Berkeley pro-Palestinian rally vilifies Israel during Yom HaShoah

As one man recited Kaddish, hundreds of enraged fellow Jews roared their disapproval and broke into loud and angry chants of "Shame! Shame!"

Held on Yom HaShoah, this was not your everyday U.C. Berkeley pro-Palestinian rally.

Roughly 500 to 800 Palestinian supporters, 100 to 200 Israel supporters and hundreds of curious onlookers gawked at the spectacle Tuesday at U.C. Berkeley's Sproul Plaza.

Organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine, the rally was meant to commemorate the April 9, 1948 killing of more than 100 residents in the village of Deir Yassin. It also fell on the Day of Remembrance for those slain in the Holocaust.

"Students and community members here today were deeply offended and even appalled at the SJP's attempt to appropriate the Holocaust and draw equivalence between the wholesale slaughter of an entire people and the fighting going on between Palestinians and Israelis," said Adam Weisberg, the executive director of Berkeley Hillel.

SJP organizers said they didn't realize Yom HaShoah fell on April 9 when they planned the rally back in February — yet more than a few of the rally's speakers likened "Israeli genocide" to the Holocaust, and many demonstrators hoisted signs referring to the Shoah.

"I think Israel hides behind the fact the Holocaust happened," said Bob Krause, a Berkeley software engineer, who held a large sign reading "Holocaust or not, everyone must be held accountable for their actions," and another saying "God Bless America, but Damn Israel and Damn Bush."

"Just like someone who is abused as a child is more likely to also abuse, Jews lost their dignity because of the Holocaust," said Krause. "Victory would get them their dignity back, but, in doing so, they're treating the Palestinians like the Nazis treated them."

Other signs read "No Palestinian Holocaust" and "Israel Cannot Continue to Use the Holocaust to Oppress Others," while many of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators wore yellow armbands reading "Never Again."

An SJP poster publicizing the rally juxtaposed images of death camp prisoners and captive Palestinians with text reading "Do not let it happen again." SJP members said the poster is an old one, and it was not specifically created for this event.

The SJP's Noura Erakat opened the rally calling for a moment of silence for "those massacred at Deir Yassin" in addition to other victims of genocides, including Native Americans, blacks, Jews, Armenians, Bosnians and Iraqis. Then she urged the large crowd to "make a commitment to end the ongoing genocide of Palestinians now."

Hatem Bazian, a U.C. Berkeley graduate student in Near Eastern studies, said the Mideast violence is "not a war between Jews and Muslims or Jews and Palestinians, even though some would like it to be framed that way. It's a war of the occupied versus the occupier, racists versus anti-racists, those who fight for justice for all against those who fight for injustice perpetrated by a few."

Some of the loudest cheers from the pro-Palestinians — and loudest boos from the pro-Israelis — came for Micah Bazant, a short, slight man wearing a shirt reading "Free Palestine."

The child of a Polish ghetto survivor, Bazant told the crowd, "I love Judaism and the Jewish people and consider it a gift [that] a small portion of my family survived the Shoah. It is the fullest expression of my Jewish culture to speak in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism."

Bazant accused "mainstream Judaism" of "using all of its money and fear tactics to convince the world that we must not differ politically from the views of the state of Israel," before he began reciting Kaddish.

During Bazant's recital of the prayer, a visceral roar of anger erupted from the pro-Israel contingent.

"He recited for the Palestinian side but not the Israeli side," said Eran Halperin, an Israeli postdoctoral student in computer science. "It was pretty sad that he did that. He hurt many people's feelings."

Weisberg summed up the rally as "more of the same — a complete blaming of Israel and no willingness to take ownership of the fact that Palestinians have contributed mightily to the situation they are in today."

Following the rally, pro-Palestinians marched through the campus shouting slogans, and some eventually occupied Wheeler Hall. The U.C. Police Department cited and released 79 demonstrators for misdemeanor trespassing. Six were additionally cited for resisting arrest, and a man who bit a police officer was taken to the Berkeley City Jail and arrested for assault on a police officer.

A number of bystanders felt the timing and content of the pro-Palestinian rally was in poor taste.

"They could have had a peaceful commemoration of Deir Yassin instead of a political rally with speakers. This was a disgrace to Yom HaShoah," said Dror Weitz, an Israeli doctoral student in computer science. "This shows they have no respect. It's like in the middle of the funeral, another party starts shouting and playing music."

Michael Jones, a U.C. Berkeley sophomore who expressed sympathy for both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, said, "It would have been a kind gesture" to postpone the Deir Yassin rally. "I think the Holocaust is something very sacred. It's not something to be shouted over."

Roughly 100 feet from the tumult of Sproul Plaza, Jewish students quietly read the names of Shoah victims for more than 24 hours straight, from Monday evening to Tuesday evening. Brandon Tuman, a sophomore, said those participating in the Holocaust ceremony were not interrupted by demonstrators.

The rally "was something that took away from people observing Yom HaShoah. I know they had their reasons to do it, but I think it was extremely inappropriate."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.