UC students demonstrate religious tolerance with sit-in on campus

By Hadas Ragolsky, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 19, 2001

More than 250 students, Jews and non-Jews, gathered Thursday at Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus for a sit-in to stand up against hate and anti-Semitism.  

Wearing blue shirts, yarmulkes and prayer shawls, the students sat down, holding signs, saying: “Sit down to stand up for tolerance,” and “Stop the hate.” 

The rally was called in response to last week’s physical assault against Aaron J. Schwartz, a 23-year-old Jewish student from San Francisco. The incident occurred after a religious celebration at the Hillel Student Jewish Center on Bancroft Way. 

As they do every year, Jewish students finished their service celebrating the day that the Torah was said to be given to the Jewish people, by marching out of the center dancing and singing in the streets. 

On the corner of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue, Schwartz said he saw a man giving a Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute as he goose-stepped in place.  

“I left the group to speak with him,” Schwartz said at Tuesday’s sit-in. “He immediately (narrowed) the distance between us. I didn’t move. I was then grabbed from behind by one of his friends. They punched me in my face, I fell down and they left.” 

At the sit-in, students took turns repeating Schwartz’s story and encouraged the audience to join the demonstrators.  

“An attack on anyone is an attack on all of us,” they chanted in unison. “Please join us in saying ‘no’ to hatred against all persons based on religion, nationality, or ethnic origin,” they said. 

“This isn’t the first time it happened,” said Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, who called for the sit-in. “It is the first time that there was a physical attack but there were multiple incidents over the last three months in which students have been verbally attacked and intimidated by anti-Semitic statements.” 

“Over the past year we had a few complaints of harassment or heckling of Jewish students,” said Capt. Bill Cooper from the UC Berkeley police department. “In terms of frequency, it seems rare but they don’t always report to us on those incidents. (The) Berkeley campus and, specifically, the police department are concerned about those kinds of incidents.” 

On Saturday night, more than 30 students met at Hillel and discussed how to respond to the assault. Some wanted to have a large rally with speakers. Others thought it was not the right time and preferred to write letters to the campus newspaper.  

In the end, they came up with the quiet sit-in idea “to educate people about the specific incident and make them aware of the racial crimes against racial minorities, religious minorities and ethnic minorities,” said Jackie Bliss, a second-year student who participated in the meeting.  

Bliss, a pro-Israeli activist, said several times in the last year, callers have left threatening messages on her answering machine. 

Weinberger said that he feels strongly that the hate messages come from the association with Israel.  

“People on this campus who are identified as Jews are hated because people associate them with Israel,” he said. “Jewish students on the campus hesitate to exhibit their Judaism because of that.” 

Other students from different organizations on campus, such as Stop the war coalition, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight For Equality By Any Means Necessary joined the Jewish students. 

“We are here in solidarity speaking out against all form of racism,” said Mary Boktor, a member of SJP who is originally from Egypt. “I think what happened (last week) is horrible.” 

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington joined the crowd wearing a star of David pin, which read: “Stand against hate” pin.  

“When we say we want Berkeley to be hate free zone, we means stopping all hate, against all groups,” he said.