UC officials take pains to avoid potential violence at protests

By Carrie Sturrock Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) BERKELEY, Calif. _ Worried that campus war protests and rallies could fracture along pro-Palestinian, pro- Israel lines, Cal administrators are trying to head off potential violence by holding talks between Muslim and Jewish community representatives. UC Berkeley officials, which created an advisory committee for guidance, also hope to avoid the public relations fallout that occurred after the university took a hard line against pro-Palestinian students who occupied Wheeler Hall last April to protest Israel incursions into the West Bank. Critics condemned the students’ punishments as politically motivated in what became international news. Administrators say they don’t regret their response, but do wish the public had better understood it. “The whole purpose is to communicate as broadly as we can how we’re dealing with protests on campus,” said UC Berkeley Assistant Chancellor John Cummins of the new committee, which includes representatives from the city of Berkeley. “Many of the students who had concerns about the Middle East situation also have those concerns with regards to this possible war in Iraq.” The discussions are going on as scores of students prepare for Sunday’s anti-war protest in San Francisco. To be sure, students and anti-war activists hold a wide range of views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And the most prominent campus group opposing the war is the Berkeley Stop the War Coalition, which has not take sides in that conflict. Still, at recent protests in San Francisco and on Berkeley’s campus, Palestinian activists have used the anti-war platform to loudly condemn Israel’s actions toward Palestinians. This has concerned some in the Jewish community _ on both sides of the war debate _ who consider some of the rhetoric anti-Semitic. “For a long time, university administrators’ inclinations were to stay out of what they saw as a predominantly political issue with two sides,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco and a member of the new advisory committee. “I think what has been learned is that there are significant dangers and consequences of staying on the sidelines.” Kahn’s organization supports invading Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction if diplomatic efforts fail. Observers say the pro-war movement at UC Berkeley should find strong support among Jewish groups such as the Israel Action Committee. Student David Singer, the committee’s co-chair, said his organization won’t take a position on the war unless Iraq fires missiles at Israel. Hatem Bazian, a lecturer of Near Eastern and ethnic studies at Cal and a member of the advisory committee, said he expects tension between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel activists. He doesn’t want a repeat of the university’s response to the Wheeler Hall occupation. Student activists face up to a one- year suspension, unusually harsh sanctions that Bazian believes have more to do with pro-Israel politics than enforcing campus rules. The university, he said, has fueled the erroneous notion that criticizing Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians is in and of itself anti-Semitic. “The university overextended itself and created points of tension that otherwise would not have (existed), had not the university acted with a political view of the situation.” Students for Justice in Palestine took over Wheeler Hall on April 9, the same day as Holocaust Remembrance Day, and called on the university to divest from companies that do business in Israel. The university had warned the students ahead of time not to occupy a building and disrupt classes and therefore felt justified in meting out punishment. Police arrested 41 students. Alameda County prosecutors decided not to prosecute, but the university nevertheless filed student conduct charges, including disturbing the peace. The conduct hearings ground to a halt last fall amid legal wrangling and a court order that forced Cal to destroy much of its evidence against the 32 student activists who didn’t settle their cases. UC Berkeley is currently in negotiation with them. Meanwhile, students this week have been painting anti-war signs and passing out black arm bands. Michael Smith, a student organizer with the Berkeley Stop the War Coalition, said the focus isn’t on Israel or the Palestinians but on stopping the war in Iraq. “I have confidence that we can,” he said. ___ ‘copy 2003, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at http://www.bayarea.com. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.