Behind the Headlines: 30 Years Later, Movement Founders Recall Their Jewish Liberal Roots

Jeff Kline was gazing across Sproul Plaza at the University of California at Berkeley, where 30 years ago he helped ignite the Free Speech Movement.

This time, however, he was remembering his father’s mitzvot.

His father, Preston, a former director of the Jewish Free Loan Association in Los Angles, rented a Presbyterian church each year and helped lead High Holiday services for poor and unaffiliated Jews.

“His example was to be a leader, not being a leader that showed off, but to be a leader in a way that helps,” Kline said of his father, who died two months ago.

Kline, 48, is among the dozens of Jews who marched to the center of the Free Speech Movement three decades ago propelled by varying degrees of Jewish identity but carrying a common torch of American Jewish liberal activism.

Earlier this month, he joined 300 other veterans of the movement, marking their isolated struggle for First Amendment rights at Berkeley in 1964 that ultimately spawned a nationwide campus protest movement.

Now, as then, many Free Speech Movement activists shared a Jewish heritage. The FSM anniversary schedule of panels and events was crowded with names such a Neil Blumenfeld, the “psychiatrist” of the movement and now an activist with the group Global Exchange; Robbie Cohen, a U.C. Berkeley sociologist; Michael Rossman, the event’s organizer and an East Bay science teacher; and Ruth Rosen, now a Los Angeles Times columnist.

Kline’s perspective is typical of the group.

“I had a sense of empowerment from my father that Judaism was about social justice,” he recalled.

The Free Speech Movement Jews had teachers but no rabbi, Kline said. As Rossman put it, it “was a radically participant-democratic movement.”

Kline learned his father’s empowerment lesson as an 18-year-old Berkeley freshman. On Oct. 1, 1964, he joined graduate student dropout Jack Weinberg, then 24, and others to solicit donations in Sproul Plaza for civil rights groups.

By raising money for the Congress Of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, they defied a ban on student political activity imposed by then-U.C. President Clark Kerr under pressure from local business groups.

Kline remembered asking a student dean for a donation that day.

“He pointed at me, but I looked like I was 14,” Kline recalled, adding that he pointed at Weinberg instead and said “Arrest him.”

Campus police appeared and threw Weinberg into a squad car. But hundreds, then thousands of students surrounded the car for 32 hours, using the vehicle as a speaker’s platform until he was freed.

Protests against the political ban gathered steam, boiling over when students occupied the marble-columned seat of power, Sproul Hall, a month later. Faculty voted again the ban, and on Dec. 2 the school finally lifted it.

On a recent Friday, exactly 30 years after Kline’s near-arrest, Free Speech Movement activists rallied before 1,000 people crowding the plaza. The mood partly recalled the past: The smell of marijuana wafted through the autumn sunshine; long-haired, baggy jeaned students hooted as movement leader Mario Savio called Proposition 187 “know-nothing American fascism.”

The proposition, limiting rights for illegal aliens, was voted into law by California voters in November.

As Jackie Goldberg, then a sorority sister and now a Los Angeles City Council member saw it, her classmates gravitated toward the movement because they were following an American Jewish tradition.

“Jews were consistently fighters against racism, and a lot of the FSM was a fight against fascism, so it is to be expected the FSM had a lot of Jews,” she said.

Goldberg, a former Loss Angeles school board and now an openly gay city council member, grew up in a Conservative Los Angles congregation, organized youth groups, and said her Jewish identity “has always been a part of everything I have done.”

Every Jewish person “has this notion of tzadik, tzadik – justice,” she said.

Thirty years ago, Chanukah – the festival of lights and liberation – coincided with the Sproul Hall sit-in, and so Goldberg and others “had a huge Chanukah party” during the demonstration, lit chanukiah candles and danced the hora, she said.

Today, she said, she still sees the world “through Jewish eyes.”

The after Proposition 187 passed, Goldberg – wearing a yellow Star of David armband – urged a council lawsuit against the measure that would deny health care and education to children of illegal immigrants.

“I think I am required by 5,000 years of tradition to be on the side of justice,” she commented.

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