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"This is worse than the Warsaw ghetto," muttered a Jewish man in the queue.
As campus police assembled at the entrance to the hall and prepared to open its doors, a kaffiyeh-clad protester hoisted a placard that read: "What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct." The quote was attributed to Mahatma "Ghandi" in 1938, albeit a decade before there was an Israel. A silver-haired man, older than most in the crowd, burst out of the line to confront him.
"Do you know what it's like to be on a bus, and to see that bus blow up and see heads roll down the street?" the older man shouted, arms wild at his sides. "I've seen it -- in Israel."
The sign-bearer stood firm. "Well, they should have been killed," he yelled, his voice rising. "They should have been killed! They should have been killed because it wasn't their land! They should have been killed and it should have been more."
"You don't know history," the older man yelled. "You don't know anything."
The protester gave as good as he got: "You can leave. Get your ass out of here and back to Israel." Then, equating Israelis with criminals who have broken into someone else's house, he said homeowners in such an instance have the right to kill. "If you broke into someone's house and stole something ... you'd deserve to die! The Jews broke into Palestine and stole the land -- so they deserve to die. ... What's your address? Why won't you tell me? Are you afraid? I'll come break into your house and we'll see if you try to kill me. It's natural."
Berkeley students always have found something to protest since the beginnings of the Free Speech Movement in 1964. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, radical rhetoric took a brief sabbatical. Activists cast about for an issue with the proper political pedigree, one that could capture the hearts and minds of a new generation of students. And then, in the late '90s, many on the campus left adopted Palestine: a struggle involving both economics and ethnicity, one in which an underclass battled a militarily and economically dominant opponent. Today, politics at Cal are stoked by a faraway conflict that affects students' rhetoric, the clothes they wear, and the screamed curses that will echo forever in their college memories. While a sizable portion of UC Berkeley's thirty thousand students remain more or less oblivious, angry factions clash, spit, and hit. They lob verbal Molotov cocktails: apartheid, atrocities, genocide, fascist, Nazi, racist, terrorist. Both camps claim to have history -- and, if it comes to that, God -- on their sides. Every historical detail, every phrase, is the subject of fierce wrangling. Even little slogans such as "End the occupation" are hives of controversy. After all, to some, "occupation" refers exclusively to Jewish settlements founded after 1967 in the West Bank; to others, it means the Jewish presence in all of present-day Israel.
In Berkeley's version of the struggle, Israel is more often cast as the villain, the denier of statehood, the vector of violence, the mocker and crusher of human rights. "Israel," pleaded a poster on a visiting instructor's door this term in Barrows Hall, "Stop Killing Peace."
Israel has always been a fait accompli for most young Jews, a fact taken for granted. Many have never set foot there nor even especially wanted to, not because of politics but because they'd rather see Prague or Cancún. For many in their parents' generation, however, Israel is not a rats' nest of fascism and right-wing aggression, but a socialist and largely secular paradise where the ideas of the midcentury left finally bore fruit. But these days, Jewish students at Cal are compelled to take sides for the first time in their lives -- redefining old attitudes and, in the process, defining themselves.
As the old joke goes: two Jews, three opinions. Even inside the pro-Israel camp, approval for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government is far from unanimous. Ditto opinions on the settlements, the separation wall, the Oslo accords, and Palestinian statehood. More than twenty different Jewish student groups are affiliated with UC Berkeley. For some, support for Israel comes down to the bottom line: a basic belief that the Jewish state has a right to exist -- since millions around the world believe it doesn't.
Amid this polarizing rhetoric, "Zionist" has become the most cutting of slurs. To say that this word -- coined in 1896 to name a movement based on the idea of Jews returning to the region from which they dispersed after Jerusalem was ravaged by the Roman army in 70 CE -- means different things to different people is a wild understatement. Micki Weinberg shakes his head in disbelief when remembering a newspaper article "that described me as an outspoken Zionist -- as if that was a bad thing."
And yet Jews are among the most vocal members of Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group founded at Cal in 2000 that now boasts chapters at dozens of other universities, including Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. The group's most ambitious project, one inspired by past campus campaigns urging divestment from apartheid South Africa, is its drive to push the UC regents to divest from companies that do more than $5 million a year of business with Israel. The petition has acquired more than six thousand signatures so far from UC faculty, students, and staff. Jewish surnames abound on the petitions.
The tension on campus started long before the latest intifada. One March day in 1996, a group of battle-fatigue-clad young men made their way across crowded Sproul Plaza chanting "Hezbollah! Hezbollah!" -- the name of the Lebanon-based organization in whose ranks suicide bombing is said to have been invented. When they reached Sproul Steps, the men took turns praising Palestinian suicide bombers who had carried out recent attacks in Israel: The preceding two weeks had been marked by two bus-bombings, a bus-stop bomb, and a shopping-mall bomb with a total of 67 killed. One of the demonstrators led the group in loudly declaring his willingness to become a martyr. The men then trampled and spat on an Israeli flag. In preparation for the event, "Zionism is fascism" had been chalked onto sidewalks surrounding the campus.
By April of 2001, Students for Justice in Palestine had become large enough to stage a high-profile sit-in at UC's Wheeler Hall. The group had demanded that the regents divest from companies with significant holdings in Israel. When the regents failed to respond, dozens of group members chained shut nine of the building's twelve doors. They formed human chains to block two of the remaining doors and ushered students out of the building through the last door. Professor Gordon, who had an important class scheduled that day in Wheeler, burst through the chain of students only to be showered with spit and hit by a student. Gordon filed a formal charge of assault against the student who had taken the lead, and his assailant was required to perform community service and write a formal apology.
Later that year, 23-year-old Aaron Schwartz was walking toward the Hillel building as part of an obviously Jewish group celebrating the annual holiday Simchas Torah. According to accounts in The Daily Californian and the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, one onlooker mocked the procession by goose-stepping in place, chanting "Heil Hitler," and performing the Nazi salute. After punching Schwartz in the face and knocking him to the ground, the man and his two companions strolled away.
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