Pro-Palestine versus Pro-Israel events continue long history of contention between groups

Tony Zhou/File
Pro-Palestine and Pro-Israel groups square off at a mock checkpoint set up by Students for Justice in Palestine.

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Students for Justice in Palestine and Tikvah Students for Israel recently sponsored events with opposite messages about Israel-Palestine affairs, which reflected an ongoing history of contention between the two groups.

The Israeli Apartheid Week, sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine, and simultaneous Israeli Peace and Diversity Week, sponsored by Tikvah, continued long-standing disputes between the groups, which have involved disagreements over mock checkpoints, a lawsuit and allegations of harassment over the years. The Office of the Dean of Students will meet with student leaders from several organizations Monday to assess the events and to “re-establish rules of engagement moving forward,” according to Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard.

Mock checkpoints on Sproul Plaza Feb. 28 meant to portray the situation on the Israel-Palestine border were the main source of contention during Apartheid Week. Student actors and members of Students for Justice in Palestine participated in the mock checkpoints.

The checkpoints were established in Israel following terrorist attacks by Palestinian militia groups, with the aim of ensuring security. Students for Justice in Palestine contends that checkpoints infringe upon the human rights of Palestinians, but Tikvah members opposed the mock checkpoints with signs reading “Fiction ahead.”

According to Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, a UC Berkeley graduate student and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, the events of Apartheid Week were not intended to criticize Israeli culture but Israeli government policies that he said “punish millions of Palestinian civilians under the pretext of national security.”

David Sverdlov, co-president of Tikvah, said violence at the checkpoints occurs rarely and not to the extent that pro-Palestine students claim.

“Under any pressure you’re going to have incidents that are not perfect, but luckily Israel is a democracy, and luckily problems that do occur at checkpoints are documented and soldiers are prosecuted,” he said.

Both student groups have also reported vandalism of each others’ signboards in previous years, especially during Apartheid Week.

Huet-Vaughn said vandalism of Students for Justice in Palestine’s signboards was reported to UCPD in 2007, 2010 and 2011, and Tikvah co-president Jacob Lewis said Tikvah’s signboard was vandalized last year during Israeli Peace and Diversity Week.

“We are not accusing anyone of the vandalism, but I do think it came from the hostility that Students for Justice in Palestine has fostered,” Lewis said.

The campus has tried to bring together the two groups in the past, though tensions remain.

“No direct attempt has been made to pull these two student organizations together since 2008, rather the Office of the Dean of Students and the Center for Student Leadership has worked with the groups individually to address concerns and assist in providing strategies/counsel for their activities, especially as it relates to protest issues,” Poullard said in an email.

Sverdlov said dialogue is compromised by events like mock checkpoints.

“Tikvah is unwilling to meet with us, and I am skeptical that something good would come out of dialogue,” said Tom Pessah, graduate student and Students for Justice in Palestine board member.

And hostilities between the two groups have extended beyond campus disagreements to the courts and student government.

A recently filed amended complaint to a lawsuit — dismissed with a leave to amend in December — alleges that the university has not provided a safe atmosphere for Jewish students and that it violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by allowing the construction of checkpoints during Apartheid Week in 2011.

“The university has a responsibility beyond free speech to create a safe place on campus for students,” said Brian Maissy, Tikvah member and plaintiff for the complaint.

Huet-Vaughn said the lawsuit was baseless. According to Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri, the campus has taken the position that the lawsuit had no merit because it addressed activities protected under the First Amendment.

Campus tensions also emerged in March 2010, when an ASUC Senate bill calling for the campus administration and the UC Board of Regents to divest from companies that support the “occupation of the Palestinian territories” was vetoed by then-ASUC president Will Smelko.

Basri said he would encourage students to make distinctions between strongly disagreeing with political opinions and “issues of actual safety” that are not threatened by political conflict.

“The campus cannot prevent a variety of political opinions from being expressed, and it does everything it can to ensure students’ safety,” he said.

Sybil Lewis covers Berkeley communities.