Israeli-Palestinian dispute over BDS breaks out on Sproul Plaza

Jennifer Tanji/Staff

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More than 200 protesters held signs, waved flags and exchanged heated words Tuesday on Upper Sproul Plaza as multiple student groups, Bay Area residents and interested bystanders protested on both sides of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, addressing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement directed at Israel.

The second annual International Day of Action on University Campuses for Palestine — co-sponsored by the campus Muslim Student Association, or MSA, and Students for Justice in Palestine — advocated Palestinian self-determination through BDS and sought to generate awareness of the conflict. Pro-Israel groups organized a simultaneous counter-protest in response.

“(The purpose) is to bring awareness of the issue of the occupation in Palestine, to gather everyone to take a stand, because we’ve become numb to statistics,” said MSA president and former Daily Californian staff writer Tahmina Achekzai.

Various campus pro-Israel groups, including Tikvah and Bears for Israel, were present at the event. A core group of about 40 members expressed discontent with the BDS movement, including an academic boycott, which they believe is discriminatory.

The pro-Israeli members carried — and in some cases donned — Israeli flags and held up signs that denounced the divestment from Israel as well as the recent violent outbreaks that have flared up in the conflict.

“Zionism has been turned into something that is a bad word,” said Becca Berman, president of Bears for Israel.

The Palestinian protest featured a lineup of speakers, including prominent Israeli BDS activist Ronnie Barkan, Palestinian student and activist Amir Toumie and UC Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian.

The speeches were punctuated with chants led by MSA member Unis Barakat, who emphatically exclaimed, “No justice, no peace,” “Free, free, Palestine” and “End the occupation now” as protesters held up signs and the Palestinian flag.

But some of the group’s chants — including “Intifada, intifada, we support the intifada” — proved extremely divisive among pro-Palestine and pro-Israel protesters.

Berman said that while “intifada” literally means “uprising” or “to shake off,” the word cannot be taken out of its historical context and connotative meaning, which refers to the First and Second Intifadas of 1987 and 2000, respectively, that left thousands dead on each side.

“It’s incitement,” said Michaela Fried, president of Tikvah, in response to the chant. “I agree it’s a movement for Palestinian nationalism, but it implies violence (in this situation).”

SJP and MSA acknowledged the literal definition of “intifada” — uprising and the changing of the status quo — but added that the word is used in response to violence and as the rallying call for equality, justice and liberation of Palestine.

“It’s not about starting violence — it’s about resisting structural violence,” said David McCleary, a campus graduate student and member of SJP. “As long as there is an occupation, there will be violence, and the only way to end occupation is BDS.”

Tensions rose throughout the protest as both sides sought to express their points of view. One pro-Israel protester pushed back when he was confronted by an older member of the crowd who tried to seize his poster and flag after a contentious verbal exchange.

“Pro-Israel shouldn’t mean anti-Palestine, and pro-Palestine shouldn’t mean anti-Israel,” Berman said. “It’s very sad when people on Sproul present it as a black-and-white issue.”

Numerous SJP members mentioned their struggles with being politically active, including not being able to provide their names because of the difficulty it presents when returning to Palestine and the possibility of not being able to return at all.

McCleary described how past harassment and targeting through social media, mail and phone calls by individuals who do not agree has created a “culture of fear” among SJP and affiliated members.

Mikey Geisinger, a UC Berkeley student and observer of the protest, was interested in both sides of the conflict.

“I just wanted to hear what both sides had to say,” he said.

Contact Alok Narahari at [email protected].