Pro-Palestine student group kicks off controversial Israeli Apartheid Week

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Monday marked the start of the annual Israeli Apartheid Week at UC Berkeley, organized by Students for Justice in Palestine to raise awareness of the conditions of Palestinians in Israel, which the group characterizes as unequal and subject to human rights abuses.

The demonstrations have previously been a source of contention on the campus, which saw nearby clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups during a protest Saturday and a recent complaint alleging that mock checkpoints set up during Apartheid Week violate the Civil Rights Act. The events will also occur at the same time as Israel Peace and Diversity Week, organized by a pro-Israel student group.

Israel Peace and Diversity Week — sponsored by Tikvah Students for Israel — is occurring this week in an effort to educate the community about Israel’s diversity, tolerance and steps for peace with Palestine, according to Tikvah co-president David Sverdlov. The events began Thursday with a speech by Congressman Barney Frank on the U.S.-Israel relationship and will continue until Friday with speeches from Israeli soldiers and a peace rally.

Sverdlov said the group’s events are not a response to Apartheid Week, but some members of Students for Justice in Palestine disagreed.

“There is no coincidence that (Tikvah) chose the same week,” said junior Maria Lewis, a member of the group. “They are trying to put a pretty face on apartheid.”

The week’s events come on the heels of an incident Saturday at which three people were pepper-sprayed by pro-Israel supporters during a pro-Palestine protest. Lewis said the incident was “reflective of the violence that (Apartheid Week) is protesting.”

Apartheid Week began with a demonstration on Sproul Plaza Monday morning, at which members from the group held up letters spelling out the word “boycott.” Events will continue until Wednesday.

The group is also carrying out its Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns throughout the week to pressure companies to stop doing business with Israel. Sometime during the week, Students for Justice in Palestine will have a mock checkpoint event to “demonstrate the discriminatory restrictions on their movement that Palestinians have to endure,” said Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, a campus graduate student and member of the group.

The mock checkpoint is the focus of an amended complaint to a lawsuit dismissed in December, which contended that the campus and the UC system failed to mitigate a climate averse to Jewish students. The complaint was filed Jan. 6 by UC Berkeley alumna Jessica Felber and current student Brian Maissy and claims that the checkpoints violate Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

“The lawsuit is based on false information, as evidenced by the fact that it was thrown out of court,” said junior Madeena Rafiq, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The rest of Apartheid Week will include a speech Tuesday by New York Times bestseller Max Blumenthal about American politics around Israel, and activists from Egypt, Syria and Palestine plan to share their experiences in democratic movements on Wednesday.

Sybil Lewis covers Berkeley communities.