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Campus activists call for end to ‘Israeli apartheid’

By Hank Sims Special to the Daily Planet
Friday August 31, 2001

A movement born on the University of California campus last spring will spread across the nation this fall, if local Palestinian activists have their way. And Berkeley, as usual, will be ground zero. 

Students for Justice in Palestine are planning a series of events designed to draw attention to the “al-Aqsa Intifada,” the Palestinian uprising that started almost a year ago, and to ask the UC regents to withdraw their investments from companies that do business with the state of Israel. A similar divestiture drive is aimed at the city of Berkeley.  

SJP and allied groups will host a nationwide gathering of campus activists Oct. 12-14, they’re calling: “Holding the University Accountable: Divesting from Israeli Apartheid.” Organizers of the conference hope to spread the campaign which aims at getting the UC system and other universities to divest from Israel. People involved with the campaign, which began last year, liken it to the divestment drive against apartheid in South Africa that helped bring democracy to that country in 1991. Others disagree. 

“I do believe that the equation of apartheid in South Africa and the state of affairs in Israel is specious,” said Adam Weisberg, executive director of Hillel Jewish Student Center, on Bancroft Way, near the UC Berkeley campus. He cited several differences between apartheid-era South Africa and the current political situation in Israel: Palestinians are allowed to participate in politics, even holding membership in the Israeli Parliament, and are not taxed differently from Jews, as South African blacks were.  

Snehal Shingavi, an SJP member, defended the analogy. “What apartheid was, fundamentally, was a series of laws and geographic relationships, backed by military and police forces, designed to separate two populations. One population was allowed to live with the best kind of resources – the best schools, health care, meaningful jobs, etc. The other population was left to shantytowns and townships. That’s what makes the comparison appropriate,” he said. 

The SJP conference will include workshops on “Media Acitivism,” “Learning from the South African Campaign” and “Zionism.”  

“I believe incredible progress has been made, but the real boost will be the national connections forged at this conference. This campaign is becoming more than a campaign – it’s becoming a movement,” said Will Youmans, another SJP member. 

Youmans is also involved in a coalition of groups, including the San Francisco chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee that is planning to ask the city of Berkeley to deny contracts to businesses that trade with Israel.  

In a meeting held Aug. 19 at the Unitarian Church at Cedar Street and Bonita Avenue, citizens discussed the possibility of adding Israel to the city’s “Oppressive States” list, instituted in 1990. The list bars the city from doing business with companies that have economic relations with countries deemed to deny human rights and the fundamental freedoms of its citizens. Currently, the only region on the list is Tibet. 

“We should have very strict ethical standards about who we do business with – as a country, as a city and as individuals,” Youmans said. “The purpose of the city’s ‘oppressive states’ ordinance is an attempt to meet those standards, and Israel, we believe, qualifies as an oppressive state.” 

SJP and other campus organizations are planning to mark the first anniversary of the al-Aqsa Intifada Sept. 22-29, by holding “Intifada Week,” a seven-day commemoration of the uprising and protest against Israel.  

Last March, SJP gained media attention after a series of demonstrations on the UC campus. Thirty-two protesters were arrested when they blocked access to Wheeler Hall, which they had declared “occupied territory” for the day. Earlier, the group had organized “checkpoints” at Sather Gate, where passers-by were divided into “Israelis” and “Palestinians.” “Israelis” were allowed to pass through the Gate unmolested, while “Palestinians” were asked for identification papers and had their backpacks searched. 

“Intifada Week” will combine this type of street theater with speakers and teach-ins. Some of the events scheduled are a mock trial of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, art installations and a conference on international law. 

Critics of “Intifada Week” argue that the tone of the event will be an echo of the Intifada itself – an insurrection, they say, marked by its embrace of violence as a political solution.  

“I think it’s misguided,” said Randy Barnes of the Israel Action Committee. “The most productive thing that we, as student leaders, can do, is to work together, through dialogue, toward peace.” 

“I’m concerned from the outset, because the current Intifada has been incredibly violent,” said Hillel’s Weisberg. “I don’t think that it’s something we should be celebrating. ‘Intifada Week’ doesn’t seem like an exploration of issues – it’s more a call to arms.” 

The Israel Action Committee will be out during “Intifada Week” and the rest of the semester, talking to people and handing out pamphlets, Barnes said, underscoring that there will be no counter-demonstrations. 

“I'm confident that through interaction with people, we will be able to let them know the facts,” he said. 

Scott Newman, a member of Hillel, attended an international assembly of Jewish student leaders last week, to learn effective ways to spread their points of view. This year, for the first time, the annual gathering included a day of workshops called “Defending Israel on Campus.”  

Newman attended workshops called “The Birth of Palestinian Nationalism” and “Dealing with Muslim and Palestinian Groups on Campus.” 

“I had felt a little undereducated about what I could do on campus,” he said. “I got some information there about what I could tell people about Israel.” 

Newman says he, too, believes that dialogue is of primary importance, but that true communication between opposing groups is hard. In the past he has tried to organize meetings between Muslim and Jewish students to discuss the issue of Palestine, but was disappointed by the results. 

“It was difficult because both sides are so far apart on the issues,” he said. “I didn’t get much out of it, and I don’t think they got much out of it.”  


Students for Justice in Palestine can be reached at 551-7643 or 


Berkeley Hillel can be reached at 845-7793 or