A meeting of the UC Berkeley student union deteriorated into shouting and threats this week as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates clashed over a controversial display that pro-Israel students said glorifies terrorists.
An estimated 200 people crowded the main chambers of the Associated Students of the University of California for a committee meeting on Feb. 3 that had to be moved from a smaller room after more than 110 people signed up to deliver public comments, said junior Shelby Weiss, a Hillel member and ASUC senator.
At the center of the controversy is a display put up by the group Bears for Palestine, a campus affinity group that seeks to raise awareness of the Palestinian experience and culture.
The display is inside a room designated for student groups in Eshleman Hall, the building where the ASUC student union meets. The Bears for Palestine cubicle is decorated with a string of Palestinian flags, heart cutouts, a green olive and the letters “BFP” in red cellophane, and a row of photos and short biographies of female Palestinian leaders, including militants who targeted Israeli and diaspora Jewish civilians.
They include Rasmea Odeh, a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was convicted by the Israeli government for participating in a 1969 supermarket bombing in Jerusalem that killed two college students, and Leila Khaled, who attempted a number of plane hijackings, including an El Al flight in 1970 that injured a flight attendant.
The biography underneath Khaled’s photo, which shows her holding an AK-47, describes her as “the first Palestinian woman to hijack a plane.”
Milton Zerman, an ASUC senator and member of Tikvah: Students for Israel, introduced a resolution to the senate condemning the display and asking that it be removed or altered.
“The glorification of murderers and attempted murderers merely because their targets were Israeli citizens can be seen as both insulting and threatening to Jewish and Israeli students at UC Berkeley,” the resolution says.
Conflicts between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students are nothing new at Cal, but the confrontation over Zerman’s resolution, which must pass the six-member University and External Affairs Committee if it is to move on to the full student senate, raised the pitch of the debate.
Weiss, who sits on the committee, moved to begin the public comment portion early to allow enough time for debate, but things escalated quickly, with insults flung from both sides.
Zerman, a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, reportedly provoked some members of the pro-Palestinian contingent by calling the Popular Front a “secular group” that should not have the support of Muslim students, according to a report in the student newspaper. “Their members are godless, and so are the Bears for Palestine,” Zerman said.
Pro-Palestinian protesters held signs accusing Israel of being an apartheid state and labeling Zionists as terrorists. One Jewish student reportedly was called a Nazi. “We turned around to look at [the name-caller], and he looked at us and said, ‘Yeah, it was me,” said Beny Mizrachi, a sophomore.
The scene at the UC Berkeley student union meeting Feb. 3. (Video by Beny Mizrachi)
The two groups also clashed over the use of cameras, with some protesters demanding that they not be filmed, even though the meeting was open to the public. As comments continued, the atmosphere eventually reached a boiling point.
The pro-Israel students were outnumbered. Protesters from outside the university showed up, including members of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, plus a local politician, Berkeley City Council member and pro-Palestinian activist Cheryl Davila. Davila held a sign that read “Let Gaza Live.”
The incident was familiar to those who follow Berkeley’s ASUC. In April, a similar dustup occurred after a Jewish student’s complaints were written off as “Zionist tears” by a pro-Palestinian student. At that meeting, a student who had an Israeli flag sticker on her laptop was asked to leave by a fellow student. And in November 2008, Eshleman Hall was the site of a brawl between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students during an outdoor concert sponsored by the Zionist Freedom Alliance. Campus police were called to the scene, issuing multiple citations.
Videos from this week’s conflict circulated on social media, raising new concerns about a hostile atmosphere on college campuses for pro-Israel students. The right-wing philanthropist Adam Milstein tweeted footage of the fracas to his more than 140,000 followers, writing, “Jewish students threatened with violence.”
UC Berkeley Jewish students threatened with violence at student government meeting
— Adam Milstein (@AdamMilstein) February 5, 2020
In the videos, protesters are seen in the center of the room wearing kaffiyehs, waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Free, free, free Palestine!” Some hold signs that say “Israel is an apartheid state” and “Dammi Falastini,” which translates from Arabic to “my blood is Palestinian.”
Mizrachi, a political economy major from San Diego and a member of Tikvah, spoke during the public comment period and attempted to lower the temperature in the room.
“This attitude doesn’t get us anywhere,” he said. “Why do we have this environment on our college campus? We’re all here to study. We’re here to be students.”
He said pro-Israel students tried to focus the debate about the display in the student union building, rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole.
“This is not about the conflict,” Mizrachi said. “It’s about condemning support of two activists — whatever you want to call them — who killed innocent Jews for the simple act of being Jews in Israel. They conflated this issue with the overall conflict.”
As the temperature rose, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters held signs in front of a row of Jewish students to block their view in a manner that felt “intimidating,” one Jewish student said. Multiple people reported that a pro-Palestinian activist told another Jewish student, “I’m gonna kick your ass.”
At that point, said Weiss, “Jewish students stood up to try to get the attention of the chair, to try to bring the meeting to a halt.” When the meeting continued, the Jewish students left, Weiss included. The committee later decided to table the resolution.
University Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof told J. on Feb. 5 that Chancellor Carol Christ, who is being honored next month by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, “has been flooded” with emails from “across the ideological spectrum.”
“They all claim different offenses,” Mogulof said. “They share a degree of dismay and concern” and express “fears about their safety.”
The ASUC, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is considered an autonomous student body, with its own funding sources. Mogulof said the administration is “deeply disturbed by what happened at the meeting” and wants to “have a better understanding of why.”
Christ planned to release a public statement expressing the right of pro-Palestinian students to support advocates for their cause, and the right of pro-Israel students to oppose posters showing individuals they consider to be terrorists, a spokesperson for the university said.
The postponed resolution, called “Condemning Bears for Palestine for Their Display in Eshleman Hall Glorifying Violent Terrorists,” was rescheduled for debate and a vote on Monday, Feb. 10.