Isaac Goldstein enrolled at San Francisco State University (SFSU) in part to get away from the anti-Semitism he experienced in the small Northern California town of St. Helena. "I got called a dirty Jew all the time and harassed," says Goldstein, who was one of only three Jews in his high school class of about 120 students. "I thought San Francisco was a liberal, open-minded city and people would accept all kinds of thought."
It hasn't quite turned out that way. As the Middle East crisis has heated up this spring, Jewish students at SFSU and across the bay at the University of California, Berkeley, have spent the better part of their spring semester enduring a barrage of hateful invective. In April a flyer advertising a pro-Palestinian rally at SFSU featured a picture of a dead baby, with the words "CANNED PALESTINIAN CHILDREN MEAT--SLAUGHTERED ACCORDING TO JEWISH RITES UNDER AMERICAN LICENSE"--casually reintroducing the 900-year-old myth that Jews eat gentile children. Then, on Passover, a cinder block was thrown through the glass doors of UC Berkeley's Hillel building. One week later two Orthodox Jews were badly beaten one block from the UC Berkeley campus, and anti-Zionist graffiti appeared on sidewalks and buildings near the school. During a vigil for Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 9, students reciting the Mourner's Kaddish--the Jewish prayer for the dead--were shouted down by protesters who said prayers in memory of suicide bombers.
The rash of incidents culminated on May 7 when approximately 30 Jewish students at SFSU, cleaning up after a peaceful, university-authorized, pro-Israel demonstration, were surrounded by at least twice as many pro-Palestinian students who screamed, "Hitler didn't finish the job," "Fuck the Jews," and "Die, racist pigs." (At least one person was caught on videotape hurling anti-Palestinian epithets back.) University and city police formed a barrier, and the Jewish students were trapped for more than 20 minutes before police funneled them out of the plaza. "I felt very threatened," recalls Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, who attended the rally and was present when the counterdemonstrators closed in. "I'm convinced that if the police had not been present there would have been violence."
When it comes to the treatment of Jews on campus, in other words, Isaac Goldstein didn't choose well. Pro-Palestinian activism certainly isn't confined to SFSU and UC Berkeley. But on most campuses the protesters--while often hyperbolic--have been careful to avoid explicit anti-Semitism and threats of violence. When students at Harvard and MIT circulated a petition calling on their universities to divest from companies doing business with Israel, for instance, they were careful to call "the recent attacks on Israeli citizens unacceptable and abhorrent." But in the Bay Area anti-Israel activism has a far more militant and far less liberal flavor. That's not because UC Berkeley and SFSU have unusually large or radical Arab populations; it's because they are home to a deep wellspring of free-floating, hard-left authoritarianism. And unfortunately for Goldstein, today's left-wing authoritarians have set their sights on Israel.
Bay area campuses have enjoyed a reputation for activism since the 1960s, when Mario Savio started the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley and student militants at SFSU successfully pushed for one of the nation's first ethnic-studies programs. But in recent years the protests at both schools have grown increasingly strident. In April 1999 dozens of members of a pro-ethnic-studies organization called the Third World Liberation Front took over a campus building at UC Berkeley, resulting in 103 arrests. When six of the students charged with the most serious crimes--such as assault on a police officer--went on trial a few months later, Third World Liberation Front members took over the courtroom, resulting in 25 more arrests. And it hasn't just been the ethnic-studies movement. Last March pro-affirmative-action demonstrators at UC Berkeley rioted and looted downtown stores. Even Bay Area bicycle activists have gotten into the act, staging "Reclaim the Tarmac" actions--like dumping pieces of furniture in the middle of city roads--to "tak[e] back the streets from automobiles and their corporate sponsors." As UC Berkeley philosophy Professor John Searle--who in the '60s became the first tenured faculty member to back the Free Speech Movement--lamented to The San Francisco Examiner on the movement's thirtieth anniversary, "The saddest thing was that it gave a whole lot of people a model of political life which is totally unrealistic. They wanted to keep sitting in buildings and then finding that policies change."
So it's hardly surprising that pro-Palestinian activism--the latest cause to sweep Bay Area campuses--has also tested the limits of civility. Of the nearly 27,000 students enrolled at SFSU, there are only 50 to 60 Palestinians, estimates Fadi Shamieh, a student organizer of the General Union of Palestinian Students. UC Berkeley, which boasts a student body of 31,000, has fewer than 1,200 students of Arab descent. But Arab students have found eager allies among the Bay Area's preexisting, off-campus lefty groups. The pro-Palestinian organization at UC Berkeley, for instance, receives assistance from Left Turn (a Socialist group), the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the International Socialists Organization (ISO). The pro-Palestinian camp at SFSU also benefits from such outside help. "I don't know their background or their history," SFSU Palestinian activist Shamieh says of his ISO allies, "but all I know is they support us in anything we do." Even Berkeley's city council has plunged into the fray: A sizable minority of its members recently--and unsuccessfully--pushed resolutions to boycott Israel and to call on the district attorney to drop the investigation of the 79 pro-Palestinian activists who took over a UC Berkeley classroom building during midterm exams on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The hard left has given pro-Palestinian groups in the Bay Area an unusual capacity to turn out large crowds. "At every one of our pro-Palestinian rallies we outnumber the other side, sometimes by as much as six or seven to one," says Snehal Shingavi, a UC Berkeley graduate-student instructor who gained notoriety earlier this year for offering a class entitled "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," warning in the course catalogue, "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections." (The line was later removed.) "Many people [at the rallies]," Shingavi goes on, "tell me they knew nothing about Israel before the last year." And along with the increased numbers has come increased stridency. "When people are taking to the streets, it tends to attract people from the fringes and makes it a little hard to control," says Jonathan Bernstein, the Anti-Defamation League's San Francisco regional director. "People latch on with their own issues, and I don't think there's been much effort to put parameters around [the movement]." Indeed, California has become something of a magnet for anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic figures from across the country. In recent months supporters of David Duke have distributed flyers railing against "Israeli genocide" on the University of California, San Diego, campus; at Stanford, Lyndon LaRouche adherents have handed out literature condemning Israeli oppression; and Holocaust denier Bradley R. Smith recently ran an op-ed in the UC Berkeley student newspaper condemning the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians.
Pro-Palestinian student leaders say they reject some of the more outlandish views of their supporters. The head of the Muslim Students' Association at SFSU, in a qualified apology to the university president, placed blame for the April "blood libel" flyer on nonstudents despite the fact that the poster was advertising an event sponsored by his group. "Please understand that the flier was actually designed by a nonstudent community member," the student leader wrote. "We in no way intended nor desired to have this obviously offensive and injurious phrase on our flier." But Jewish students complain that the apology was never sent to any of the Jewish groups on campus. And when SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan condemned what he called "[a] small but terribly destructive number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, many of whom were not SFSU students," for "abandon[ing] themselves to intimidating behavior and statements too hate-filled to repeat," pro-Palestinian activists from both SFSU and UC Berkeley held a joint press conference to denounce Corrigan for "capitalizing on the atmosphere of fear and fostering intolerance against Arabs and Muslims on campus."
The irony is that if the pro-Palestinian demonstrators weren't so belligerent, they might find common ground with the Jewish students they're attacking. As opposed to Eastern campuses--where many Jewish students take neoconservative, almost Likudnik stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--Jewish students in the Bay Area tend to be on the far left of the American-Jewish political spectrum. Laurie Zoloth, director of the Jewish Studies program at SFSU, explains, "The Jewish students here are absolutely people who stand in the peace camp. These are students who have steadfastly called for a two-state solution and tried desperately to work with the pro-Palestinian groups.... But at San Francisco State to say that I believe in a two-state solution and the right of Israel to exist becomes a right-wing position." Says Goldstein, "It has become politically incorrect among the left to show support for Israel, and that scares me because I really don't want to become a Republican. I really don't." In the Bay Area, he might not have a choice.
This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.