I could not wait to attend my first political activist event on the Berkeley campus Friday, Oct. 2 while I waited for my daughter to finish her midterm exam. Not only was I going to see my daughter’s tuition dollars at work, fighting for justice and against oppression, but I was going to learn more about a subject in which I am very interested: life in the West Bank of Palestine. Speaking was Bassem Tamimi, a human rights activist from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. The event was held in a small classroom in Wheeler Hall and attended by fewer than 50 people. A few minutes into the talk, the classroom door suddenly burst open, and a young man with his face covered by large, dark glasses burst into the classroom, holding a dark-black object (luckily, it turned out to be an iPhone) and screaming while pointing the phone’s camera at all the attendees. This very real and scary scene occurred just one day after a crazed gunman murdered nine students and a teacher at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
Needless to say, it was a very tense and intimidating moment for everybody in the room. His ranting went on, and he refused to leave the room or let Tamimi continue his discussion. Moreover, he repeatedly called everyone in the room terrorists and made sure we all knew he was recording our faces. Clearly, his goals were to prevent Tamimi and all of us from executing our First Amendment rights and to intimidate us by recording our presence. It was also a clear case of anti-Semitism.
Now, you may be asking: How is an individual who is targeting a Palestinian activist and his audience anti-Semitic? It is because I and most of the people in the room were Semites, which are defined, according to Dictionary.com, as “members of various ancient and modern peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including the Akkadians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs.” Although my religion is Roman Catholicism and I was born in the United States, I am also half-Lebanese, born to a first-generation son of Lebanese immigrants. In addition to French and English, my grandfather spoke many Arabic dialects, Aramaic and Hebrew. Thus, my children and I are Semites. Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked by the Jewish community and used only to reflect discrimination against Jews and not racism directed at other Semites who may be Muslims, Christians, Atheists or Semitic-speaking peoples of other religious faiths.
My experience made me reflect on the recent controversy regarding the UC Board of Regents’ rumored possible adoption of the U.S. Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism. Surely, a prestigious institution such as UC Berkeley would not adopt an incorrect, exclusively Jewish, biased and racist definition of anti-Semitism. The current definition dismisses the greater majority of Semites who are not of the Jewish faith. If the regents choose to include anti-Semitism in their list of prohibited acts on campuses (which I believe they should), they must also acknowledge that anti-Semitism may be directed at Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Sikhs and Atheists, as well as Jews. Moreover, if they include the “demonization” or “delegitimization” of Israel in their edict, they must also include the demonization or delegitimization of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, etc. In fact, they need to list all countries and territories of the world in their edict if they truly want to prevent activities that demonize or delegitimize a state.
As the intruder continued to accuse, denounce, harass and scream at the audience, I was amazed at the calmness of the group. No one physically touched him, and the tone of the audience was more of disgust than of anger. Many of us asked him to leave or at least take a seat and listen to Tamimi, but he was determined to not let him continue. After about 10 minutes, police officers arrived and physically removed him from the classroom.
What an experience — my first opportunity to see UC Berkeley and its activism in action! I could not wait to tell my daughter what had happened and how proud I was that she was attending a college with such a rich history of tolerance, public debate, free speech and the protection of our First Amendment rights. I pray that the UC regents come to their senses and recognize that singling out Jews and Israel as the only targets of racism and anti-Semitism is wrong and in itself racist and anti-Semitic.
George Salem is the parent of UC Berkeley student.