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Vandalism at UC Berkeley Unnerves Jews

Crime: Some students question their safety after anti-Semitic incidents. Many are bitterly divided over Mideast conflict.

April 11, 2002|KAREN ALEXANDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BERKELEY — A spate of anti-Semitic vandalism has stung Jewish students at the University of California campus, leading some to question their safety at school.

Known as a hotbed of political activism, many UC Berkeley students are bitterly divided over the conflict in the Middle East. Rallies and counter-demonstrations frequently turn into screaming matches. Now, some students say, the angry rhetoric has crossed the line from free speech to acts of destruction and hate:

* The glass door at Berkeley Hillel, the center of Jewish life on campus, was smashed with a cinder block March 27 as Jews marked the first night of the holy days of Passover. Anti-Jewish profanities were also scrawled on the center's recycling bins.

* Last Thursday, officials discovered anti-Israel epithets and the phrase "Free Palestine" spray-painted across the front a church next to the campus.

In a statement issued several days after the Hillel vandalism, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl called for calm. "Our greatest contribution to the resolution of this conflict is reasoned, thoughtful interaction based on compassion for one another," he said. "Our community must stand in opposition to such acts and in favor of reasoned, civil approaches to the resolution of conflict."

Berkeley police say they are investigating the incidents, as well as an attack last week on the 21-year-old son of a prominent rabbi and a man who came to his aid a block from the campus. Police Lt. Cynthia Harris said officers suspect the attack was an attempted robbery, but members of the Jewish community believe it was a hate crime, noting that the assailant took no money.

The door to the Hillel building was repaired before students returned from spring break, but the attacks have left them shaken. Jewish students say they have no idea whether the destruction is linked to any individual or group on campus. But many expressed exasperation and fear.

"It's tough to go from being so comfortable to being actively afraid of violence," said Daniel Frankenstein, 20, a member of the Berkeley student senate and the school's Jewish community.

"You think of Berkeley as this place of peace and love, but it's a very angry and bitter place," said Randy Barnes, 29, co-chairman of Berkeley Hillel's Israel Action Committee. "The strength of the opinions held here doesn't surprise me. It's the uniformity of thought and the lack of tolerance for other opinions that surprises me a lot. The dominant opinion at Berkeley is that the Jews are evil and Israel is evil."

Emotions flared again on campus Tuesday as competing vigils were held just yards apart.

Jewish students observed the Holocaust remembrance day, Yom Hashoah, for 24 hours by continuously reading the names of some of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. Pro-Palestinian students assembled nearby on a campus plaza at midday, marking the anniversary of a 1948 incident in which 100 to 250 Palestinian civilians were killed in the village of Deir Yassin by right-wing Jewish militants.

Speaking from a cell phone during the demonstration Tuesday, Basim Elkarra, leader of Berkeley's Muslim Students' Assn., said pro-Palestinian students are accused of being anti-Jewish in an attempt to silence their views.

"We have to distinguish between anti-Semitism and being against Israeli policies. That's a deliberate campaign they've been focusing on us for years," said Elkarra, who heads the association's West Coast chapter, which covers many college campuses in California. "We are against any vandalism or violence against any religion."

Nationally, anti-Semitic incidents, which range from harassment to actual crimes, declined 11% last year, according to an annual audit released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization that monitors such incidents. California had the greatest drop, with 122 incidents, compared with 257 the prior year.

However, ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman said one area where incidents did not decline nationally was on college campuses.

The number of reported campus incidents rose 23% last year, from 69 to 85, Foxman said. In 1999, 60 such incidents were reported.

Even as the tenor on college campuses becomes increasingly polarized over the conflict in the Middle East, many Jewish leaders believe the debate at Berkeley is uniquely rancorous.

"While there are obviously disagreements on many campuses, people have developed relationships over time and are able to work them out. Berkeley has been one of the unfortunate exceptions to that," said Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel International in Washington, D.C.

The vandalism of Berkeley Hillel was not the first time Jewish students have been harassed, students said. A group of students was pelted with eggs 18 months ago as they emerged from services celebrating the Jewish New Year.

The rabbi's son attacked last week could not be reached for comment.

According to Shneor Zalman Stern, 50, a lone male began beating the rabbi's son as he returned home from a walk. Stern, a family friend, was leaving his house at the time. He pulled the attacker away and then himself came under attack. Both men suffered bruises, and Stern was treated at a hospital for other minor injuries. No money or possessions were taken from either man.

"That was a robbery, and we don't have any reason to believe it was a hate crime," said Harris of the Berkeley police.

Stern, however, disagreed. "I was dressed in traditional garb for the holiday," he said. "I was unmistakably Jewish, and I feel it was a factor."

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