My exploration of the struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on the UC Berkeley campus, in which I trace a decade of passion, protest, and bad behavior, runs in this month’s California magazine.
Every spring since 2001, a group of earnest, impassioned students has gathered near Sather Gate, cordoning part of it off with emergency tape. Some of them don faux uniforms and brandish mock M-16s; others wear keffiyehs and traditional Arab robes. Then the actors set up a military checkpoint, a simulacrum of the hundreds of real checkpoints that pepper the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The “soldiers” allow “Israeli settlers” to pass unmolested while they yell at the “Palestinians.” They bind the wrists of a young man, forcing him to lie face down on the concrete; another they “shoot.” There is fake blood, a makeshift stretcher, the wailing of the wounded and bereaved.
Created by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the mock checkpoints first appeared at Berkeley, and have spread to schools from Arizona State to Yale. It’s easy to see why.
The checkpoints are just one of the most visible elements in a decade-long, tit-for-tat struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on campus. It is waged through Palestinian movie nights and Zionist picnics; tables in Sproul stacked with literature quoting Edward Said and Theodor Herzl; and Palestinian “die-ins” and pro-Israel hip-hop shows. Ron Hendel, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies sums it up: “It’s a PR war.”
And wars are never pretty. Partisans have engaged in online flame wars in the comments sections of local newspapers, disrupted speeches by visiting scholars with shouted obscenities, and scrawled swastikas (aimed at both sides) on campus walls. Students even got into a fight at a 2008 campus concert.
In its dynamics, this local fight often echoes the flesh-and-blood conflict in the Holy Land—minus, thankfully, the body count.