Some people can’t rent the school district’s Berkeley Community Theater – rap groups, for instance, are barred, according to theater management.
But there’s no prohibition against visits by controversial political figures.
Berkeley played host Tuesday night to the former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu was pinch hitting for Henry Kissinger who was supposed to speak as part of the privately-sponsored Berkeley Speakers Lectures Series. Kissinger reportedly canceled due to a heart attack.
At noon Superintendent Jack McLaughlin got the word – the state department was insisting on clearing the campus after school. That meant canceling two basketball games, a soccer game, rehearsals for a school play and more. All teachers had to leave campus after school.
Netanyahu’s visit comes at a critical time, when Palestinian-Israeli tensions are escalating daily.
“Netanyahu supported building the settlements and the suppression of the Palestinian people,” said Barbara Lubin, executive director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance. “It’s kind of shocking that people would want to go hear Netanyahu, especially at a time when 10,000 young people have been injured in the West Bank and Gaza and close to 300 dead.”
As soon as Middle East activists from MECA, the American-Arab anti-discrimination Committee, the International Action Center and others – heard the conservative former Israeli official would be in the area, they began organizing the protests that took place outside the theater.
One of the last to know about the event were the Berkeley police, who called on some two dozen off-duty officers to keep order at the demonstration, said police spokesperson Lt. Russell Lopes.
“We were not notified,” Lopes said. “One of our officers is a ticket-holder for the event.” That officer informed the department of the speaker and need for added security.
Jud Owens, Berkeley Community Theater manager, disputed that statement and said the promoter has been working hand in hand with police on security for the event.
Organizers of the event don’t pay for police. “Taxpayers pay for the cops working overtime,” said Lopes, adding that the department has been asking for years for the sponsors of Community Theater events to be responsible for police presence, when it is needed.
The organizer in this case is Bruce Vogel, who runs the Berkeley Speakers Lectures Series, the Marin Lecture Series and the Peninsula Lecture Series.
“I run it, I own it,” Vogel said of the lectures. Contacted Tuesday by the Daily Planet, Vogel said he was too busy getting security for the evening event to discuss the lecture series or why he chose to bring the controversial politician. He promised to discuss these questions at a later date.
Asked whether a reporter could attend the event, Vogel said “It is closed to the press.” That requirement came from Netanyahu’s agent, he said.
And if individuals had hoped to catch a glimpse of Netanyahu, they couldn’t buy a ticket to do so. Tickets are purchased at $222 for open seating and $320 for reserved seating in advance for the entire series of eight lectures..
Benjamin Netanyahu, former head of the conservative Likud party, quit his post as prime minister in spring of 1999 and gave up his seat in the Knesset, or parliament.
After that time, Netanyahu turned to the lecture circuit which, as pointed out in an Associated Press article, pays considerably more than the $75,000 annual salary received by parliamentarians, who cannot get paid for their public appearances.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Netanyahu, 52, is the author of “Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism (1995).”
Last month the Berkeley Lecture Series hosted General Wesley K. Clark, the retired Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
Many other lecturers involved in the series are not involved in politics at all: Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, spoke in September. Neil Armstong and Lily Tomlin are on the schedule for later this year.
Students displaced from after-school activities stood around watching the San Mateo County Sheriff’s bomb squad bustle in and out of the Community Theater with their K-9 crew.
The two explosives-detecting German shepherds , Bill and Korhs, eagerly pulled at their short leashes as they were through a side door of the theater.
San Mateo Sheriff bomb technician Frank Dal Porto followed behind them. “We’re just going to take a sniff around and make sure everything is all right.”
Some students were taken by surprise. Cody Rose, Elizabeth Jensen and Halley Warren arrived for an afternoon composition class only to find the entire campus had been closed down. “We’ll probably just go to someone’s house to practice,” said Jensen.
John Geluardi of the Daily Planet staff contributed to this report.