2 student groups protest Tuesday over issue of Israeli academic boycotts

Ariel D. Hayat/Staff

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Drums and microphones met caution tape and signs as two separate student groups protested on Upper Sproul Plaza on Tuesday over the issue of academic exchange between UC Berkeley and Israeli academic institutions.

Approximately 250 students from various Palestinian advocacy groups on campus rallied during the International Day of Action for Palestine, which advocates an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, among other points.

The protest, led by UC Berkeley junior Unis Barakat, a member of the campus Muslim Student Association, and co-sponsored by groups such as CalSERVE and Students for Justice in Palestine, protested academic collaboration with Israeli institutions, including study abroad programs in Israel and joint research with Israeli institutions.

About 45 students staged a simultaneous counterprotest led by Tikvah, a Zionist group on campus, advocating “academic freedom” and “the free flow of ideas,” according to the event’s Facebook page. The group urged the ASUC to denounce Tuesday’s Day of Action in SB 11, which was tabled indefinitely at an ASUC committee meeting Sept. 15.

Dressed in black, students participating in the Day of Action carried posters depicting Palestine’s geography and wounded Palestinians, waved flags and lay on the ground to interrupt pedestrian traffic on Sproul Plaza, intended as a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. Chants of “Free! Free! Palestine!” and “Long Live Gaza!” came from Barakat’s loudspeaker.

“The purpose of this demonstration was to remind our peers that their voices do make a difference and that they have the power to bring about social change,” Barakat said. “Palestine is a human rights issue, and it’s time our student body realized that and upheld Berkeley’s legacy of social change.”

The protest also included a speech from Hatem Bazian, a campus lecturer in the department of Near Eastern studies, who spoke on the importance of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, saying UC Berkeley should be “No. 1 in challenging the structure of power.”

Adjacent to the Palestinian advocacy groups, the Tikvah counterprotesters stood silently in a circle of caution tape to symbolize what they allege is discrimination against Israeli students as a result of the academic boycotts.

Wearing black “#CutTheTape” T-shirts, the counter-protesters held signs that said, “Progress comes from cooperation not discrimination,” “You can’t put thought in a concentration camp” and “Stifling academia is stifling progress.”

“Whatever we would have yelled would have been construed as us trying to silence them, and that wasn’t the point of our protest,” said Michaela Fried, president of Tikvah.

SB 11, titled “A Bill in Support of the Free Flow of Ideas and International Academic Collaboration,” called for the ASUC to endorse “academic freedom” by rejecting boycotts against Israeli academic institutions.

According to Bakarat, the academic boycott encourages academics to use nonviolent means to fight for justice for Palestinians.

Fried said she was not surprised that the bill was postponed and does not believe Tuesday’s demonstration will change the bill’s fate.

“It would be nice after today … to know that the student body recognizes my right to exist,” Fried said. “But I don’t really have faith in that student body anymore, and I don’t expect anything.”

Student bystanders Gabby Padilla and Zeru Feki did not know of the protests before arriving on Sproul, but they supported both groups’ expression of their opinions and personal experiences.

“We will never just get one side; seeing two separate groups on Sproul (Plaza) is amazing,” Feki said. “It’s cool (that) we get both perspectives.”

Contact Amy Jiang and Robert Tooke at [email protected].