The Israeli/Palestine conflict plays out on campus as a war for public perception.
Every spring since 2001, a group of earnest, impassioned students has gathered near Sather Gate, cordoning part of it off with emergency tape. Some of them don faux uniforms and brandish mock M-16s; others wear keffiyehs and traditional Arab robes. Then the actors set up a military checkpoint, a simulacrum of the hundreds of real checkpoints that pepper the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The “soldiers” allow “Israeli settlers” to pass unmolested while they yell at the “Palestinians.” They bind the wrists of a young man, forcing him to lie face down on the concrete; another they “shoot.” There is fake blood, a makeshift stretcher, the wailing of the wounded and bereaved.
Created by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the mock checkpoints first appeared at Berkeley, and have spread to schools from Arizona State to Yale. It’s easy to see why. As Liz Jackson, a recently graduated member of Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP, SJP’s Boalt auxiliary), puts it, “It’s a really effective form of street theater.”
The checkpoints are just one of the most visible elements in a decade-long, tit-for-tat struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on campus. It is waged through Palestinian movie nights and Zionist picnics; tables in Sproul stacked with literature quoting Edward Said and Theodor Herzl; and Palestinian “die-ins” and pro-Israel hip-hop shows. Ron Hendel, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies sums it up: “It’s a PR war.”
And wars are never pretty. Partisans have engaged in online flame wars in the comments sections of local newspapers, disrupted speeches by visiting scholars with shouted obscenities, and scrawled swastikas (aimed at both sides) on campus walls. Students even got into a fight at a 2008 campus concert.
In its dynamics, this local fight often echoes the flesh-and-blood conflict in the Holy Land—minus, thankfully, the body count. Too often, supporters of Israel are unwilling or unable to acknowledge Israel’s role in Palestinian suffering. Some conflate all criticism of the Jewish state with anti-Semitism, an understandable reaction given Jewish history, but a tactic increasingly used to stifle political opponents. Unfortunately, there’s enough real anti-Semitism out there to give such charges purchase. Too many Palestine supporters, meanwhile, have been just as tone-deaf, denying Israel’s right to exist or trampling the Israeli flag on camera—actions that, though perfectly legal, reinforce stereotypes about Palestinians as scary, angry Arabs, and hurt the Palestinian cause.
Israel has always had better PR. Leon Uris’s bestselling 1958 historical novel Exodus portrayed Israel as a heroic underdog surrounded by enemies, establishing a narrative that has colored American thinking and mainstream media coverage ever since. This story isn’t false, it’s just incomplete: The Arab inhabitants of Palestine were airbrushed from the picture. Israel’s creation in 1948 displaced some 800,000 Palestinians, and the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza have lived under Israeli military rule for more than 40 years. Meanwhile Palestinian terrorists, small in number but outsized in influence, hijacked planes, murdered Israeli Olympic athletes, and made it easy to dismiss these legitimate grievances.
In the summer of 2001, during the second Intifada—the Palestinian revolt against Israel’s military occupation—I lived in the West Bank city of Ramallah, up the road from Jerusalem. As a freelance journalist and researcher for a Ramallah NGO, I traveled the Palestinian Territories, negotiating checkpoints and documenting Israeli human rights abuses. I was covering the conflict, but I was also a participant in the parallel war of public perception.
In Rafah, a shambolic town in southern Gaza, Israeli army bulldozers had razed 20 homes a few days before I arrived. I interviewed the owners as they sifted through the rubble, trying to salvage what they could. An Israeli army spokesperson told me that though the demolitions (she called them “engineering works”) were regrettable, militants kept shooting at an army watchtower from the neighborhood. The Palestinians were hardly blameless. Suicide bombings, which regularly ripped through cafés full of Israeli civilians, were morally indefensible, as was the culture of martyrdom that glorified them. They were also tactically stupid, given their effect on world opinion. For the perpetrators, the symbolism of resistance trumped all, no matter how self-defeating its form.
The extent of the damage shows in a report from Gallup polling last year. In 2000, before the second Intifada began, almost half of Americans were neutral on the conflict. A decade later, only 20 percent were undecided. Sixty-three percent sympathized with the Israelis, up more than 20 percentage points since 2000. The Palestinians, then and now, got about 15 percent.
Despite the polling, attitudes on American campuses might be shifting. The mere fact of SJP’s existence—there are now almost 75 chapters nationwide—testifies to this change. Before its founding at Cal in 2000, nobody consistently spoke for Palestine. Now, its membership includes Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and they put on a full slate of activism, from performances by Palestinian rappers to films on the occupation to talks on the symbolism of the keffiyeh.
Part of the shift may be demographic. Cal doesn’t keep track of how many students identify as Arab, but nationally the numbers are growing. In 1980, roughly 600,000 Americans reported Arab ancestry. Now, the Arab American Institute puts it at 3.5 million. According to Steven Fish, a Berkeley political science professor and author of Are Muslims Distinctive? A Look at the Evidence, “What we might be seeing in microcosm on university campuses is a growing Arab-American population that is becoming politically assertive.”
This assertiveness hasn’t gone down well with supporters of Israel, who have long had a virtually unquestioned claim to the moral high ground. The checkpoints seem to provoke the most outrage from the pro-Israel side. “They give the impression that Israeli soldiers are sadistic monsters taking pleasure in harassing Palestinians,” says Jacob Lewis, a 20-year-old bioengineering and material sciences major. He is also co-president of Tikvah, a Zionist group founded in 2007 to provide a counterweight to the growing influence of Palestinian supporters. “It’s a complete lie to say that.” Further, he says, the checkpoints make Jewish students feel unsafe.
Nevertheless, University officials say the checkpoints fall within the boundaries of acceptable speech. Dean of students Jonathan Poullard explains, “Oftentimes in students’ minds there’s a blurring between protected speech and ‘How that makes me feel.'” Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof says the University fields one or two such complaints a year. In 2009, for instance, students charged that a pro-life group’s grisly display of abortion images was so incendiary that it posed a safety threat. The University disagreed. Discomfort, Poullard says, isn’t the same as danger. In SJP’s case, he says, the group and the administration worked together to ensure that the checkpoints don’t break any rules, and campus police monitor them closely. As for the content, Mogulof says, “We can’t put our finger on the scale.”
Of course, just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Sometimes pro-Palestine activists have been their own worst enemies. In a video that made the rounds of pro-Israel blogs, two SJP members were filmed standing on an Israeli flag, arguing with pro-Israel students. One of them accused the pro-Israel students of being Mossad agents. Fish, the political science professor, cites an example from his department’s graduation ceremony this year. One student had printed a map of Israel on his sash, with the word “Palestine” scrawled across the entirety of the country, from Haifa to Eilat—erasing the Jewish state from the map. “It’s his right to do it,” Fish says. “But it’s not the smartest thing to do politically.”
SJP says it has a non-engagement policy with Tikvah, and Tikvah says it doesn’t want trouble. The University says it can handle the loose cannons. But over the years, a steady drip of incidents—punctuated by the occasional flood—have clearly broken the rules. SJP and Tikvah have been the most frequent adversaries, but in some cases it’s impossible to know exactly who was involved. In April 2002, opposing sides of an SJP-sponsored protest at Sproul traded slurs and obscenities. The following year, a member of a now-defunct pro-Israel group dressed up as a suicide bomber and waded into an SJP “die-in” at Sproul. When an SJP member tried to stop her, she spat in his face. In 2004, pro-Palestine activists (including SJP members) repeatedly interrupted a speech by the pro-Israeli academic Daniel Pipes, reportedly chanting “racist” at its conclusion.
The next few years were relatively quiet, but in the fall of 2008 things got out of hand. In September, a pro-Israel poster at a bus stop was defaced with swastikas. A couple of days later, someone scrawled “SJP, Don’t F*ck with Jews on this campus ANYMORE!” in Dwinelle Hall. The next week, more anti-Israel graffiti appeared, this time on Star of David Bridge. Then in November, a fight broke out when members of SJP unfurled a Palestinian flag at a Zionist hip-hop concert at Eshleman Hall. Accounts of the confrontation were diametrically opposed, and it’s hard to know who took the first swing. Initially, police cited two SJP members and a Tikvah member, but the Alameda County District Attorney declined to file charges. Soon after, the law school’s LSJP members mounted a successful recall campaign against a Tikvah member and student senator who was present at the fight. (He insisted he wasn’t brawling, and accused SJP of lying about his role.) The week after the fight, Tikvah members, sounding an airhorn, interrupted the Jewish anti-Zionist scholar Norman Finkelstein, calling him “a disgrace to your people!” In early 2009, Tikvah disrupted another SJP “die-in” by holding aloft a banner reading “Victims of Palestinian Terror” over the prone SJP members, almost causing another fight.
The PR war reached its apogee with last year’s divestment debate. Drafted by SJP members, the measure, which called for both the ASUC and UC to divest from two corporations that supply Israel with some of its military technology, was the Berkeley iteration of a growing international effort to link Israel in the public mind with apartheid South Africa. There weren’t any SJP members in the senate that year, but senators from CalSERVE—the party responsible for Cal’s 1986 bill demanding divestment from apartheid South Africa, as well as a 2005 measure on Sudan—gave the resolution momentum. The bill passed 16–4 on March 18, following a week of heated campus argument, but a veto from the ASUC president a week later sent it back to the senate. The re-vote was postponed, allowing each side more time to campaign.
And campaign they did. Many of Israel’s supporters insisted that the bill wasn’t just anti-Israeli but anti-Semitic. Hanan Alexander, a Haifa University professor who was then Goldman Visiting Israeli Professor, argued in the Jerusalem Post that because Israel is a Jewish state, criticism of it “does unjustifiable harm to those Jews” who live there. Judith Butler, a Jewish professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at Cal, argued for the other side in a campus speech, assuring divestment supporters that “you are in the middle of that struggle against oppression and for freedom, a struggle that knows that there is no freedom for one until there is freedom for all.”
The debate quickly lost all pretense of being a local affair. Advocacy groups from the Anti-Defamation League to the Palestinian Federation of Chile piled on, and a sort of Nobel Laureate arms race broke out. Five laureates signed on to divestment, including Desmond Tutu. The anti-apartheid icon wrote that life in Israel “reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa.” The Israeli side, meanwhile, countered with no fewer than seven Nobel winners, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who urged Berkeley students to ignore “those who preach hatred towards Israel.” After an all-night forum at the end of April, the senate fell one vote short of overriding the veto.
Another incident in March that year contributed to the tension. Depending on whom you ask, it was either an egregious assault on a Cal student because she was Jewish, or a trumped-up attempt to score political points against Israel’s enemies. On March 5, 2010, Jessica Felber, a Tikvah co-founder and Cal senior, was taking part in a counter demonstration to an SJP “Israeli Apartheid Week” event on Upper Sproul when an SJP member named Husam Zakharia either rammed or accidentally bumped her with a large cart full of toys bound for children in Gaza. Felber, who graduated this spring, filed suit against both the University and the UC system (though not, interestingly, Zakharia), charging them with tolerating “the development of a dangerous anti-Semitic climate on its campuses.” Felber referred questions to one of her attorneys, but had told a Jewish blog that she sought treatment for “bruises and cuts” from the Tang Center, and that she was scared to leave her apartment for the rest of the semester.
Zakharia, who is said by SJP members to have been born in Gaza but grew up in California, was already notorious in activist circles. He was involved in the Eshleman Hall fight, and he was one of the guys in the video standing on the Israeli flag. University police arrested Zakharia a few hours after the alleged assault, but the Alameda County DA declined to file charges. It’s tough to say more either way, because federal privacy laws prevent the university from disclosing whether it disciplined Zakharia, or even if there was a hearing. (Zakharia didn’t respond to a request for comment.) SJP and LSJP members speak of Zakharia as something of a free radical. SJP member Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, an economics graduate student who co-authored the divestment bill, dismisses the charges as “fabricated” and says Zakharia was no longer an SJP member at that point.
Felber’s complaint cycles through many of the last decade’s flashpoints, accusing SJP and the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of committing “terrorist acts” against Cal students. It cites SJP’s disruption of the 2004 Pipes speech as evidence of this climate, but doesn’t mention Tikvah’s 2008 similar disruption of the Norman Finkelstein speech. SJP’s checkpoints come in for special condemnation; as the suit puts it, they are “terrifying … and endanger the health and safety of Jewish students.” According to Felber’s lead attorney, Joel Siegal, a San Francisco civil rights and personal injury lawyer, the checkpoints are a massacre waiting to happen. “Look what happened at Virginia Tech,” Siegal says, referring to the 2007 shootings. “This could lead there.”
The University disputes the suit in its entirety. “On legal and factual grounds we reject the complaint’s unfounded claims and allegations, and we intend to vigorously contest this lawsuit,” Cal spokesman Mogulof says.
When I spoke to Siegal, he downplayed the suit’s First Amendment issues, insisting that the case is merely about safety. But the lawsuit’s political aspect is inescapable. As Josh Davis, director of the University of San Francisco Law School’s Center for Law and Ethics, observes, “a lot of the complaint doesn’t have much legal bearing. What the plaintiffs are doing is accusing Berkeley of allowing too much speech. That’s a tough sell.” Though the claim that Cal allowed Felber’s safety to be endangered could gain traction if the evidence is sound, he says the suit is mostly composed of “hand-waving and atmospherics. This is a battle of propaganda.”
That’s what the Palestinian side thinks, too. Jackson, the Boalt grad, notes that the suit uses the phrases “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Israel” virtually interchangeably. If successful, it would undoubtedly make SJP’s work harder, though it wouldn’t shut it down. To her, the motivation behind the legal push is obvious: “It’s a sign that what we’re doing is working.” It may signal an escalation of the PR war, too. “It’s a form of ‘lawfare,'” she says, “intended to silence critics of Israel on campus.”
A number of recent efforts target campus critics of Israel using the courts and federal laws. (Siegal says there are no connections between Felber’s suit and the Jewish organizations pursuing these efforts.) The second attorney on Felber’s case, Neal Sher, is former national executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group that wields enormous influence over U.S. policy towards Israel. Sher is involved in a similar suit, also filed in March, by a student at Ontario’s York University. Last year, a collection of 13 U.S. Jewish groups successfully argued that Jewish students should be protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the ground of “race, color or national origin.” In March, the Office for Civil Rights opened their first investigation, into claims that UC Santa Cruz tolerates an atmosphere hostile to Jews. The right-wing Zionist Organization of America, meanwhile, is pushing for an investigation of Rutgers, UC Irvine, and San Francisco’s UC Hastings law school as well. (Hastings hosted a conference on litigating human rights abuses in Palestine.) The stakes are high: If the schools are found to be in violation, they’ll lose federal funding.
This February, the Berkeley School of Law announced the opening of the Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy, and Society. Supporters hope it will shift the campus focus from the occupation to broader-based discussions of Israeli life. The new institute could be seen as another form of hasbara (colloquially, propaganda), but if so it’s one that holds out hope for actual dialogue. The aim, law school dean Christopher Edley told the Contra Costa Times, is to “transform the atmosphere on campus,” shifting the focus from conflict to reasoned scholarly debate. (Law school officials declined to comment because this story also reports on the lawsuit.) Jackson says LSJP will approach the institute about working together.
Regardless, the PR war will grind on. Felber’s lawsuit faces long odds, but the fact of its filing may slow SJP’s progress. Similarly, even though SJP ultimately lost the divestment vote, Huet-Vaughn judges it a success. “The debate crystallized a lot of opinions, and a lot of them were for divestment,” he says. “We have the momentum on our side.” Both sides seem to understand that victory lies not so much in any formal adjudication but in relentlessly getting the message out.