Pro-Palestinian group defying U.C. order to cease activities

The pro-Palestinian organization was temporarily suspended from campus last week in the aftermath of its April 9 occupation of Wheeler Hall. Additionally, 41 students face possible suspension.

In defiance of the university's order, the SJP was tabling on Sproul Plaza throughout the week. The group also planned a heavy presence at an International Socialist Organization-sponsored pro-Palestinian rally yesterday.

Group member Bahar Mirhosseni said the SJP planned to maintain a campus presence as "the suspensions are not justified."

Assistant Chancellor John Cummins believes that the group is thumbing its nose at the university — and this will be a factor in the upcoming academic hearings regarding individual and group suspensions.

The SJP has earned the enmity of nearly every Jewish group on campus, with Jewish leaders claiming that the organization's loud and well-attended Mideast rallies have blurred the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The SJP, which boasts several Jewish members, claims it is not anti-Semitic.

However, Jewish leaders were seething when the group chose April 9 — Holocaust Remembrance Day — for a major anti-Israel rally, despite being informed of the significance of the date numerous times by Jewish students and the university.

U.C. Berkeley Jews were further enraged when multiple speakers at the Holocaust Remembrance Day rally drew parallels between the Shoah and the current crisis in the Middle East.

"This is a group that constantly justifies, and, in some cases, glorifies terrorist groups such as Hamas," said Randy Barnes, co-chairman of U.C. Berkeley's Israel Action Committee.

"At the absolute very least, they refuse to condemn terror. The bottom line is they knew the campus code of conduct, and they were told beforehand that if they attempted to take over a building or some other gross violation, the codes would be enforced. And they knowingly and willingly did so anyway."

Via e-mail postings, fliers and demonstrations, the SJP is claiming persecution by U.C. Berkeley's administration, stating that because they are pro-Palestinian, they have been targeted for excessive punishment through a last-minute implementation of a "zero-tolerance policy" for demonstrators.

U.C. Berkeley administrators claim, however, the "zero-tolerance policy" is a figment of the SJP's imagination. In a meeting held two days before the Wheeler Hall occupation, several U.C. officials told the Bulletin that Snehal Shingavi, an SJP leader, was bluntly informed of the difference between an administrative and academic building. Shingavi was told that any "disruption of the university's academic mission" — including occupying a classroom building or library — would carry serious consequences.

Meanwhile, SJP Internet postings and press releases claim U.C. Berkeley has created an atmosphere that has "chilled" free speech.

"When people are dying half a world away with credible reports of massacres and flagrant disregard for human rights, the university should be nurturing the moral character it takes to stand up and say, 'Not in my name and not with my money,'" said Dave Saldana, an official with the National Lawyer's Guild, who is defending SJP members.

"Instead, the university is using an iron-fist rule to tell the students: 'Sit down and shut up.' What a terrible, terrible shame upon this place."

Cummins, the assistant chancellor, doesn't see it that way. Free speech is still protected at Berkeley, he says. Storming a classroom building and disrupting lectures and midterm exams is not.

Saldana's "basic argument is the nobility of their cause warrants their right to disrupt and abridge the rights of others. I think that's very faulty logic," said Cummins.

"There's no such thing as a 'zero-tolerance policy.' This is not a newly minted policy at all; the sanctions are in the student code of conduct. And in terms of them being targeted, there's no truth to that at all. Any group involved in a disruption of the academic process here would face similar sanctions."

Eyewitnesses of the April 9 occupation told the Bulletin that demonstrators roamed Wheeler's halls while chanting on megaphones and entering classrooms — including the 760-seat Wheeler Auditorium, where two protesters were physically pushed out of the room and neurobiology lecturer David Presti was forced to cut his class half-an-hour short.

SJP member and U.C. Berkeley student Roberto Hernandez, 23, was arrested for biting a police officer and released on $5,000 bail.

The SJP's decision to target a classroom building came as no surprise to Tomer Altman of Jewish Students for Peace.

SJP members "are indoctrinated into the ideology that says everyone else is secondary. They're not just students, they're martyrs for the Palestinian people," he said. "So everyone else's rights are secondary to their mission. They impose their values on others without their consent."

Daniel Davis, a member of Hillel and the campus American Civil Liberties Union affiliate, expressed deep disappointment with SJP's actions, especially after group leaders quoted in the April 9 Daily Californian said they had no plans to conduct a sit-in.

"The SJP was trying, when spinning the event in advance, to say they were not going to do things to be disruptive or create an uncomfortable environment on campus, yet they didn't hold to their word," he said. "It's a problem when they claim First Amendment rights to basically interrupt classes."

Jewish student leaders say it's time for SJP to reap the consequences of the trouble it has sown.

"This is not a free speech issue. The SJP violated the code of student conduct knowingly and willingly and now faces consequences for their actions, and they're throwing a tantrum to try and get out of it," said Barnes of the Israel Action Committee.

"And I think, if anything, this is going to backfire on them. They're acting like spoiled children who are refusing to go to their bedrooms after they've been grounded, and so be it. Finals are coming up and a lot of students just want to go to class and deal with their work. So let them do what they want to do."

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.