A Jewish student group’s disruptive protest at a lecture at U.C. Berkeley last month has created friction within the campus Jewish community.
The Jewish Student Union, a student-led body that oversees 15 Jewish student groups, has placed Tikvah: Students for Israel on probation for staging a protest it said reflected poorly on JSU.
Students in Tikvah say they did nothing wrong and were simply exercising free speech.
The incident that sparked tensions occurred at Boalt Hall on Oct. 15, when some Tikvah members attended a lecture titled “Israel, Palestine, and the Rule of Law: A Discussion on The Rights and Wrongs of Israel’s Occupation of Palestine.” The speakers were Norman Finkelstein, a university professor, author and outspoken anti-Zionist, and John Dugard, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Duke University. Three groups organized the event: Boalt Hall Committee for Human Rights, Students for Justice in Palestine and Law Students for Justice in Palestine.
Just before Finkelstein started to speak, about a dozen Tikvah members stood up, sounded a siren from a bullhorn and started shouting in the lecture hall, accusing Finkelstein of being anti-Semitic and promoting hate speech.
“While we respect their message, we did not agree with the manner in which it was delivered,” said Dan Rosen, president of JSU and a senior at Berkeley.
“The bottom line is that [Tikvah’s] actions jeopardize JSU’s potential to receive funding from the Associated Students of the University of California,” Rosen added. “And it jeopardizes [JSU’s] ability to function effectively.”
JSU’s decision came Oct. 23, when 40 students involved in JSU-sponsored organizations met to discuss Tikvah’s actions at the Finkelstein event.
No one from Tikvah, which organizers claim has about 100 members, attended the meeting, though they were invited to, Rosen said.
Rosen issued a formal letter to Tikvah, in which he wrote that the group would be taken off probation if it issued an open letter to Students for Justice in Palestine and the campus community apologizing “for the manner in which they delivered their message … not for the message content.”
John Moghtader, a junior and president of Tikvah, said that’s not going to happen.
Students for Justice in Palestine, he said, “are the last group on this campus who deserves an apology. If anyone deserves an apology it’s us. They’ve harassed our members and committed hate speech.
“It’s a joke to think we’d issue any letter to SJP,” he said.
If Tikvah does not fulfill the terms of the probation, it will lose its JSU affiliation. That would mean a loss of funding, the ability to reserve rooms on campus and to use Hillel space for meetings and events.
Moghtader said Tikvah is prepared for that.
“I don’t think we want to be part of a body that thinks speaking out against Finkelstein is a bad thing — it’s really that simple,” he said.
Well, not entirely.
JSU president Rosen and Tikvah president Moghtader are housemates in the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, an organization that is also a member of JSU.
“There is friction in our house,” Rosen said. “It’s always hard to disassociate one’s social life from their more professional life. People are learning to draw the line of where Tikvah and JSU ends and AEPi begins.”
Rosen said despite the difficulties of drawing those blurry lines, JSU’s decision to put Tikvah on probation was the right one.
Hillel, which provides meeting space for JSU but does not run the organization, is trying to remain supportive
of both student groups without getting too involved in the dispute, said Gordon Gladstone, Berkeley Hillel’s executive director.
“At the end of the day, this doesn’t change the fact that we’re really invested in keeping our doors as wide open as humanly possible,” Gladstone said. “We want every Jewish student to feel like they can come to Hillel and can be a part of this community.”
This is not the first time a JSU-affiliated group has butted heads with the umbrella organization.
In 2004, a left-leaning Jewish student group decided JSU did not represent its interests and declared itself independent from Berkeley Hillel and JSU. And in 2003, a right-leaning Jewish group was voted out of JSU because it was not student-led. Neither group exists anymore.
Tikvah is also on the hot seat with another overseeing body, the Office of Student Conduct, which informed Tikvah on Oct. 24 that it is under investigation for possible violations of three sections of the Campus Code of Conduct.
Tikvah has a meeting with the Office of Student Conduct scheduled for the end of November, Moghtader said, adding that he hopes to work out the issues so Tikvah can remain a university-recognized group.
Hillel staff that declined to put their name on the record contend that a community activist who is not a student at Cal instigated Tikvah’s aggressive display Oct. 15. They described the activist as confrontational and an agitator.
Moghtader called those charges are unfounded. “Tikvah is entirely student run,” he said. “There is support for us in the community, sometimes adults come to events, but it’s 100 percent, absolutely student run.”