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Israel-bashing Down on Campus, but Battle Still Rages at Berkeley

On most campuses in the United States, last month’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon has muted criticism against Israel — at least for now.

Not so at the University of California at Berkeley, which activists say has one of the strongest anti-Israel student movements in the United States.

Jewish students and the Hillel director at Berkeley say the Sept. 11 attacks have softened campus anti-Israel rhetoric and caused anti-Israel activists to shift strategy, but vocal criticism of Israel continues.

Pro-Palestinian students staged an “anti-war” counter-rally in response to a Sept. 24 “Rally for America” that Berkeley’s Israel Action Committee had coordinated together with campus Democrats and Republicans.

The Rally for America, according to Hillel Executive Director Adam Weisberg and IAC Chair Randy Barnes, did not call for war, and speakers there criticized racism and scapegoating against Muslims and Arabs.

At the counter-rally, according to Jewish students, several demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and distributed flyers accusing the IAC of “exploiting the World Trade Center tragedy” and “wanting war.”

One heckler reportedly yelled “Go back to Israel!” during a non-Jew’s speech at the Rally for America.

Poster boards left out around campus for students to express their post-Sept. 11 thoughts immediately filled with claims that Israel was to blame.

Criticism went beyond blaming U.S. aid to Israel.

“People put up things like ‘It’s the Jews’ Fault,’ and ‘Stop the Jews,’ ” said Barnes, who is a senior.

He noted that when he was handing out fliers for the Rally for America, two Muslim students he knew responded with comments about Jews controlling the media.

Anti-Israel sentiment is hardly new to Berkeley, where even some of the Jewish groups are anti-Zionist.

Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine is roughly three times the size of the Israel Action Committee, which has a core group of about 70 students.

But the pro-Palestinian movement is clearly weaker and quieter than last year, when Students for Justice in Palestine staged mock Israeli checkpoints, Palestinian refugee camps and war crimes tribunals for Israel, and took over a campus building in an unsuccessful effort to get the university to divest from companies that do business in “apartheid” Israel.

The pro-Palestinian group planned to host a national conference this fall to launch divestment campaigns on other campuses and had also planned an activity-filled “Intifada Week” for the week of Sept. 24.

But the conference has been postponed indefinitely, and the Intifada Week was scaled back. Evening lectures continued, but with virtually no publicity — and daytime events on the public plaza, such as a funeral march for Palestinians, were canceled.

The Sept. 11 attacks have put pro-Palestinian activists in a “tough position,” Barnes said, because the Israel- Palestinian conflict is no longer center stage on campus and because of widespread awareness about Palestinian street celebrations in the wake of the attacks.

The group essentially “went underground,” Barnes said, with members creating a separate “anti-war coalition.”

Hillel leaders are skeptical that SJP’s setbacks will lead to improved Jewish-Muslim or Jewish-Arab relations. The Muslim student association declined invitations to work with Hillel on a joint blood drive in response to the attacks.

Adam Weisberg, Hillel’s executive director said he had initially hoped the tragedy might be “a wonderful moment for everyone to step back and think about how they’ve been talking about one another.”

“Instead, we’re hearing Israel is wrong, it’s apartheid, there’s nothing to talk about, and that because Israel is wrong, terrorism against it is acceptable,” Weisberg said.

“Public demonstrations have been toned down, but the rhetoric hasn’t,” he added.

Barnes said his group plans to continue its advocacy for Israel, focusing particularly on how Israel has been a longtime ally of the United States and highlighting the ties between the two countries. It is also making sure people know that Palestinians celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks, while Israelis mourned them.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Barnes said. “We don’t want to be portrayed as, nor should we be, using this as an opportunity to boost a political cause. We’re balancing that ethical consideration with our mission of pro-Israel advocacy.”

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