“Don’t read the news; it’s owned by the Jews,” the three pretty, little Muslim girls chant repetitively as they skip through the assembling spectators in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park. Their father looks on approvingly as the well-dressed girls wend their way across the green lawn in the bright morning sun repeating their ditty. Their innocence does not anesthetize the sting from their words. The father is pointing to Jerusalem Bus 19. Its bombed out shell is the centerpiece for the Interfaith Rally Against Global Terrorism, about to start on this warm Sunday in January. He is telling a reporter that all the Jews over eight years of age carry guns and are legitimate targets for the martyrs. He glances again toward the three little girls seemingly unaware of the irony of his words.
As you approach the twisted wreckage of the bus, the smiling faces of 975 Israelis, victims of suicide bombers, greet you from a poster board. It is not just the human face of the victims that grabs your attention, but how young most of them were. It’s not just buses that are favorite targets of suicide bombers, but also pizza parlors, discos, and places where Israel’s youth gathers. The suicide bombers’ war is not just against Israel but her future. If this is not genocide, it certainly has its earmarks.
This suicide bomber, an off-duty Palestinian policeman, detonated his explosives from the rear of the bus, murdering eleven other passengers, maiming another fifty, and shattering forever the lives of their families. In the back of the bus, the burn pattern is strongest and all the exterior paint has been totally charred by the explosion. Yet, on the top front end of the bus, the exterior green and white paint boldly remains. It shines incongruously and defiantly, almost as defiant as the woman whose indomitable spirit is responsible for the bus being on Center street next to the park this January 16th.
Sanne (Susanne) DeWitt is a Nazi victim and former Dachau inmate who, thanks to righteous Christians, survived the Nazis by being hidden in Holland. On Kristallnacht, the Nazis stormed the Jewish old age home, where her father worked as the resident physician. Now in her eighth decade, the four-feet, ten-inch DeWitt, tempered by tragedy, knows how to confront both opposition and adversity. For different reasons, the organized Jewish community, the City of Berkeley, Bay Area leftists, and Muslim activists did not want Bus 19 on display in Berkeley. Their opposition was formidable. So was DeWitt’s persistence.
On the day of the rally, as the little Muslim girls sang their rhyme, a counter-rally was forming across the street from the park on the steps of Old City Hall. The real story of the rally was not about what was happening on stage at the end of the park, but how the bus came to Berkeley, how the event split the Jewish community, and how the city whose name is synonymous with “free speech” showed that its willingness to accommodate free speech had something to do with who was speaking and what was being said.
DeWitt’s interest in the bus stemmed from an experience in Washington at the 2004 American Israel Political Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) Annual Meeting where the bus was on display. As part of the AIPAC activities, DeWitt was a member of a group that lobbied her congresswoman, Barbara Lee (D., Oakland), on behalf of a number of issues growing out of the instability in the Middle East.
When congress voted a resolution denouncing the International Court of Justice’s blatantly political decision against Israel’s construction of a security fence, Lee numbered among the minority of forty-five representatives who voted against the resolution.
To DeWitt, Lee’s vote was a moral outrage, for it said that Jewish lives were not worth saving. DeWitt really wanted to bring the bus to Oakland and park it in front of Lee’s local congressional office. That not being realistic, DeWitt decided to bring the bus to neighboring Berkeley, where she lives.
Berkeley is home to a University of California campus that houses a Middle East studies program infused with Saudi money and which pays homage to the Wahhabi view of Islam. The campus is also home to a number of anti-Israel student groups including an active chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). One Berkeley ISM meeting was reported to have ended with some participants chanting, “Kill the Jews,” as they had at subsequent rallies at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University.
DeWitt and Thalia Broudy, her septuagenarian co-chair at the activist Israel Action Committee East Bay (IACEB), wanted people to see the consequences of such slogans through the charred remains and twisted metal of the bus.
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most heavily politically left communities in the country, with a Jewish community that often serves up a significant number of people who need to prove their leftist credentials by being visibly anti-Israel. Women in Black, Jewish Voice for Peace, Middle East Children’s Alliance, and Tikkun are all here with a substantial and very out-in-front Jewish presence walking point.
Across the Bay from Berkeley, the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) at San Francisco State University (SFSU) boasts a strong, militant presence. The darling of SFSU President Robert Corrigan, the GUPS was permitted to hold on to its campus office space even after the office itself was closed for disciplinary reasons. SFSU’s public relations office has gone out of its way—including in correspondence with this author—to defend some of the most violent and outrageous of GUPS’ behaviors.
Tikkun, MECA, and Women in Black are known for their non-violence, but not the Palestinian and Muslim student groups or their leftist allies. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prevented from speaking in the City of Berkeley by a near riot in November 2000. Daniel Pipes’ February 2004 lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, had to be both moved and delayed in order to deal with security issues. Pipes’ speech took place amid a heavy campus police presence with officers lining the walls of the auditorium. Still the speech was repeatedly disrupted, and, at the end, the same security concerns forced the audience members to exit through a single door where they were inadvertently compelled to walk through a hostile and vicious gauntlet of Palestinians and Muslims waiting outside.
As much as DeWitt, Broudy, the San Francisco Voice for Israel, ZAKA (the group that retrieves body parts from suicide bombings), and other pro-Israel Jews who refer to themselves as “activists” wanted to display the bus, it soon became clear that the organized Jewish community and most of the community’s dignitaries did not. The bus issue would soon exacerbate tensions in the community between the activists and the established groups and leaders.
Lost in the charge and counter-charge of Jewish activists and the Jewish establishment is that both seek the same goals by different means.
For the leaders of Jewish organizations, the strategy and tactics of public demonstrations are not viewed as productive. The climate of opinion, for them, is to be shaped through lectures, editorials, and conversations with community influentials. For the activists, such mechanisms have their role, but they are no longer the only ones appropriate to the changing times. The anti-Israel opposition, according to the activists, should not be permitted to control the streets to the point where no one ever sees a pro-Israel demonstration.
The activists also feel that the Jewish establishment has been asleep at the wheel while the Muslims and their leftist allies have come to dominate both the climate of opinion and the Middle East course content at local colleges and universities. Identity politics has led to a highly partisan Middle East “identity curriculum” dominated by an ever-entrenched anti-Israeli presence purveying opportunistic myths as facts to a captive audience of naïve undergraduates.
Such highly partisan departments are not academic departments in the conventional sense of the term, but political interest groups hiding behind an academic front. The Saudis obviously have not dumped millions of dollars into Berkeley for the purpose of creating a scholarly and dispassionate study of Middle Eastern history and culture. Consequently, such departments are an effective means of disseminating propaganda, and they provide direction to those who want to take the anti-Israel struggle from the campus into the community and the streets.
The organized Jewish community saw the bus as inciting counter-demonstrations and the real prospect of violence. And if violence did occur, the message of the bus would be lost in the media’s frenzy to showcase the violence. In this characterization of both the opposition and the media, the organized Jewish community proved to be all too prescient. At the same time, it proved to be far less adept at understanding the political utility of the rally itself.
The Christians and the Jews
Jerusalem Bus 19 was in America because of Dr. James Hutchens, a decorated Vietnam War hero and retired Brigadier General. Hutchens and his Christian Zionist group, the Jerusalem Connection International, did not receive rave reviews from the leaders of the organized Jewish community, many of whom saw the bus as making a theological statement that neither their liberalism nor their Judaism could embrace.
DeWitt and the other activists saw the inability of the organized Jewish community to embrace the unselfish support of the Christian Zionists to further reflect the narrowness of the community’s political vision and its ethnic parochialism. As DeWitt notes, it was a Christian woman who at the risk of her own life hid DeWitt under false papers from the Nazi occupiers of Holland.
The organized Jewish community is quick to note its willingness to join forces with non-Jewish organizations that are pro-Israel, but such statements ring hollow to the activists who pointedly respond that when it came to building coalitions, it was DeWitt and not the organized Jewish community that knew how to create partnerships. In the end, DeWitt could accurately advertise the Interfaith Rally Against Terrorism as the creation of a broad-based alliance of Jews and non-Jews that included, among others, Schlinder’s Ark, director Christian Zionist Rosemary Schindler, and Democracies Against Terrorsim (DAT), led by Dr. Mihir Megani, and representing a group of Hindus whose culture had been the target of Jihadist extremism for a thousand years.
As the momentum to bring Bus 19 to Berkeley moved forward, so too did the opposition. The Reverend James Hutchens was contacted directly by Jonathan Wornick, a prominent member of the Jewish community, who spoke on behalf of a number of Jewish leaders, and asked Hutchens not to bring the bus to Berkeley. Wornick, like other community leaders, makes no apologies for this decision or feels a need to reiterate a lengthy string of pro-Israel credentials. To them, Berkeley is a unique place, inhabited by leftist and Muslim groups with virulent anti-Israel sentiments and a willingness to go to the streets to show it.
Longtime acquaintances of DeWitt who worked with her in Jewish circles bombarded her with appeals not to have the rally. The Jewish opposition to the rally spoke of the inevitable counter demonstrations as well as the platform that would be given to Christians. DeWitt was unmoved.
Free Speech for Me but not for Thee
Formidable stumbling blocks, however, came not just from the organized Jewish community, but also from the City of Berkeley, where the permit process became transformed into a series of delays and obstacles.
DeWitt waited for two months before getting an official response to her application for a permit, an experience that stands in sharp contrast to that of the San Francisco Voice for Israel, which hosted the bus rally in San Francisco and had its permit granted almost instantly. After two months, Berkeley required DeWitt to meet with the City Administration on November 16, 2004. At the meeting, DeWitt felt the questions that were raised had far and away less to do with the ostensible issues of safety and security than with the pro-Israel content of the rally. The City demanded alternative sites and architectural drawings to be rendered of each site with precise measurements (as if the city did not know the dimensions and lay out of its own parks), and licensed security (the City Code only calls for “monitors”). This was allegedly in response to counter demonstrators.
In early December, with the date for the rally approaching and three months having lapsed since DeWitt’s application, she was still without a permit, and with no responses from the city administration to her inquiries about when she would get a permit. One pro-Israel activist noted cynically that it had been easier for the Nazis to get a permit to march in Skokie than it was for DeWitt to get a permit to protest global terrorism in Berkeley. Not to be deterred, DeWitt took her case to the conservative media.
Although the Bay Area is notorious for its left-wing politics and its liberal voting patterns, the Bay Area is also home to a less publicized, less sizeable, but highly responsive conservative population, Talk radio, and the rapidly growing Internet news services belonging to the right. The new conservative voice on the block is KNEW, which showcases the ever-controversial Michael Savage. Preceding Savage is an up-and-coming Jeff Katz, whose laid-back style, pensive voice, and insight have drawn his own following. DeWitt called Jeff Katz, who took to the issue like a Labrador retriever to water.
Here in Berkeley, the so called home of “free speech,” DeWitt was unable to get so much as a response to her quest for a permit to hold an anti-terrorism rally. The idea that if DeWitt had sponsored a pro-terrorist rally, the city would have been far more forthcoming with a permit was not lost on Katz’s listeners who well understood that the right of “free speech” in the Bay Area meant different things for different sides of the political continuum.
Katz’s outraged listeners assailed the Berkeley city administration with phone calls and emails. After a few weeks of conservative bombardment, DeWitt received an email from Manuel Hector, Jr., the city administrator responsible for granting permits, advising her that a permit would be granted. The permit arrived on January 6, 2005, just ten days before the rally.
What remained was for DeWitt to post a one million dollar insurance policy to indemnify the city from any liability associated with the rally. (Insurance can be waived at the discretion of the city administration in First Amendment situations, but this opportunity was not offered.) DeWitt also had to work out a security plan with the Berkeley police. Although the city would provide police protection around the perimeter of the rally, DeWitt had to hire private security (not monitors as the city code states) for the rally area itself.
Erick Upson, a Berkeley police sergeant, was designated to work with DeWitt to formulate a security plan. DeWitt found Upson to be highly professional, objective and responsive in dealing with the security issues. The problem was that the city wanted DeWitt to hold the rally at the Marina and away from the center of the city. The security arrangements were being worked out for the Marina. DeWitt felt this was an attempt to shove the rally off center stage and to hide it. DeWitt demanded and finally got Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park in the city center.
With the change in venue came a change in liaison with the police. A police lieutenant was now assigned to the rally, but he was unable to meet with DeWitt until Wednesday January 12, 2005, just four days before the rally. The lieutenant had no knowledge of the prior discussions DeWitt had with the police about security.
With four days to go, the police lieutenant started the security process de novo making new demands and presenting new obstacles. He refused to permit the bus to be parked next to the park until 11:00 a.m. DeWitt protested that her permit called for 10:00 a.m., and she needed time to set up the bus and accompanying display. DeWitt also feared that bringing the bus in as the counter demonstrators were gathering would cause them to make good on their promise to prevent the bus from getting to the park.
The lieutenant then pointed out that DeWitt only had a permit for the park, not for the adjoining parking area on the street. She needed permission to close off the parking adjacent to the street.
DeWitt was flabbergasted since, from the inception, the bus was the centerpiece of the rally; now just days before the rally was to take place, she was being told that she did not have permission to bring the bus to the rally.
With seventy-two hours to go, DeWitt dashed back to the municipal office that had long ignored her initial request for a permit in an attempt to get the administrator to sign off on the parking. He was nowhere to be found and no one in the office claimed authority to sign off on the parking.
DeWitt was about to have her rally, but absent the bus, which was being towed toward Berkeley by Reverend Hutchens. With one day to spare, DeWitt finally got her parking. Even so, the diminutive septuagenarian had to personally post the signs.
On the day of the rally, DeWitt had the bus, which was kept hidden by a local church group, brought in before 10:00 a.m. She was going to have her rally, bus and all, even if she had to be arrested for it. She had come too far, jumped through too many hoops, climbed over too many obstacles and borne the brunt of too many delay tactics to quit now.
DeWitt’s private security firm, HighCom, had been willing to provide the police with a high tech radio containing special bands so that security in the park itself could be coordinated with the police presence on the periphery. The police refused to coordinate directly with the private security firm. Section 646.070 of the Berkeley City Code on Park Events, subsection A-6, requires that liaison between private security monitors and the city police be established. The police told DeWitt that she personally would have to provide the liaison relationship, an impossible task since she was running the rally. Consequently, there was no real coordination between the private security firm and the police.
The Organized Jewish Community Strikes Back
Days before, the organized Jewish community was still fighting a last ditch effort, if not to prevent the rally, then to reduce its impact. The American Jewish Committee of Northern California, one of the initial supporters of the rally, had withdrawn its support in tandem with the Jewish Federation’s refusal to support the rally back in August of 2004. Prior to that, AJC’s Executive Director Ernest H. Weiner had strongly supported the rally. Weiner had changed his mind.
DeWitt’s own rabbi, Yair Silverman of Beth Israel, who had agreed to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead, bowed out at the end of December; apparently the pressure of Jewish community influentials had made itself felt. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation, however, agreed on short notice to come from Los Angeles to say the Kaddish for the victims of terrorism.
With days to go, Rabbi Stewart Kelman of Netivot Shalom, speaking from the pulpit and through email, denounced the rally, noting that with Arafat’s death a new era of peace was in the air and that this was not the time to remind Palestinians of past atrocities.
Even for liberal Jews, Kelman’s denunciation of showcasing the reality of terrorism because of unfounded optimism of a new era was met with derision. Indeed, Kelman could have walked the few blocks down to the Berkeley campus to witness that with or without Arafat, for the activists on the other side of the barricades, nothing had changed.
If DeWitt had to jump through all the hoops, over all the obstacles, and experience the frustration of all the delays of getting a permit, no permit was required for the counter-demonstrators, who assembled across from the park, on the steps of Old City Hall, simply by showing up. The official explanation was that since the counter-demonstrators were not using the park, they could demonstrate without a permit. But Berkeley’s own regulations for “street events” (Section 13.444.040-020 Definition D) pointedly say otherwise, especially since the counter-demonstrators were in effect obstructing the sidewalk in front of Old City Hall.
Observers of the Berkeley political scene had a different interpretation of the disparity in the city’s accommodation to the two groups of demonstrators. Up until the 1970’s, the City of Berkeley, unlike the the campus, was a fairly middle of the road to conservative city. In the 1970’s, the ranks of the citizenry swelled with former students and leftist activists who had come to Berkeley to be involved in the social movements that began with the Free Speech Movement in 1964. Some of these students did not leave, even if they graduated. Enchanted by the Berkeley lifestyle and political scene, they stayed and directed their political activism into local politics as well as into national issues. By the mid-1970’s, the Berkeley City Council reflected this new political reality.
The council is composed of what some call pragmatic liberals and militant leftists. The pragmatists share some of the visions of their more militant counterparts but know how to temper their ideology in the day-to-day needs of running a city.
The council, like any city council, has its constituencies, and the confluence of constituency and council ideology comes together at the far left end of the political spectrum. Consequently, the leftist anti-Israel demonstrators on the sidewalk in front of Old City Hall are by and large the constituency to which the council responds. There are exceptions to the general rule. The former Mayor of Berkeley Shirley Dean was on the platform of the rally against terrorism. The current Mayor Tom Bates sent a message, but to both the rally and the counter rally.
Caught in the vise of the current political reality is the Berkeley police force. The people that the police confronted in the street demonstrations of the sixties and seventies became their civilian bosses. And people who share that ideology are now their current bosses.
The police do not have a dog in the Mideast conflict, but they do know, as do all police forces, what the city council wants and what it will tolerate. The Berkeley police are generally viewed as a good force, with some outstanding people in the upper ranks, but they are not the police force they once were prior to the change in the politics of the city administration.
Berkeley police similarly knew what the political climate expected of them and were not about to inquire if the counter demonstrators on the steps of Old City Hall have a permit, put up an insurance bond, met with the council and city administrators, or allow unobstructed access to the sidewalk even though DeWitt had been held to the strictest interpretation of the city code.
DeWitt’s IACEB was not the first group to find it difficult to exercise the right of free speech in the home of free speech. The acclaimed Berkeley-Peninsula-Marin lecture series moved to Oakland, citing the inability of the Berkeley city manager’s office and its police department to protect the right of controversial speakers not on the political left to exercise their first amendment freedoms in the alleged home of free speech. Bruce Vogel, director of the respected series, excoriated the Berkeley police department and the city manager’s office for creating a “frustrating and unnecessarily expensive experience” when it came to guaranteeing the right of speakers whose opinions did not resonate with the leftist political climate in Berkeley. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom Vogel’s group had sponsored, was prevented from speaking by a near riot, which imposed the “heckler’s veto.” And former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s speech had to be moved from Berkeley to Oakland for security reasons. Vogel eliminated the Berkeley venue from his group’s name and location. DeWitt would encounter Vogel’s “hugely frustrating” experience with both the police and the city manager’s office.
Speaking of Vogel’s plight pointedly, Berkeley Councilwoman Polly Armstrong summed up what longtime observers have noted, “Berkeley is losing track of what tolerance means.” She went on to say that the city staff and the police were subject to the political winds of Berkeley’s left-leaning council.
DeWitt arrived on the morning of the rally to find that the police would not help put up their own barricades to separate the two opposing groups of demonstrators. Determined to the last, the septuagenarian DeWitt, her husband, her two sons, members of San Francisco Voice for Israel and even a number of homeless people carried the steel barricades across the park.
DeWitt also found that while she had a permit for the park, she did not have an exclusive permit. Consequently, anti-Israel activist Jerry Merrill, viewed as a front for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, unhindered by any permit or insurance requirements put up a table to disseminate anti-Israel literature at the rally. He was joined by the omnipresent Allison Weir, whose campaign against Israel is a personal crusade punctuated with near-hysterical claims of death threats from Zionist forces.
At the rally site, there were Zionist Jews and non-Zionist Jews. Tikkun paraded around with its signs of moral equivalence, equating the death of an Israeli child with that of a suicide bomber. People of all political leanings on the Middle East conflict were engaged in debate, often heated, punctuated with emotion, but not violent (at least not until a group of Muslim and Palestinian militants crashed the rally). For all her claims of being the target of Zionist assassination plots, Allison Weir walked freely among hundreds of assembled Zionists.
This stood in sharp contrast with the behavior of the Muslim and Palestinian activists at the north end of Old City Hall who not only refused interviews but made menacing physical gestures entreating the Zionist across the street to come over for a dose of physical persuasion. This noisy group, using sound equipment without a permit, attempted unsuccessfully to drown out the rally speakers. Palestinians and Muslims flying flags and honking horns from cars running up and down the adjoining streets augmented their attempts to drown out the speakers. None of these received a police citation.
The group in front of Old City Hall was opposed by a Christian Zionist who stood directly across the street and blew the Shofar, the ceremonial Jewish ram’s horn, at them. They were also confronted by signs from a Sacramento-based group known as “Protest Warrior” that effectively uses street humor to parody leftist and anti-American demonstrations.
After about an hour and a half of being incapable of disrupting the proceedings, the raucous group of Muslims and Palestinians, flags and banners waving, marched unchallenged across the police line into the rally. Several observers at the point where the line was crossed saw a Berkeley police officer waving them through. A spokesperson for the Berkeley police denies this, stating that the police officer was waving for more officers to come and join him to prevent the Palestinians and Muslims from getting into the rally. This interpretation is challenged by the observation that the Palestinians and Muslims actually reassembled once they crossed the street that separated them from the rally and stood there unchallenged, as they placed children in the front ranks.
The tactic here, one used at other demonstrations, is to merge Palestinian flags into the pro-Israel rally to make it appear that the opposition dominated the rally. As the counter demonstrators, children up front, pushed into the rally they purposely collided with a number of elderly people and were quickly met by a number of rally participants and the private security force, with the Berkeley police coming up last on the scene to separate the two contingents.
Although the Berkeley police maintain they mobilized as quickly as possible to separate the two sides, numerous observers disagree. As the Palestinians and Muslims broke into the rally punches were exchanged between a Palestinian youth and a rabbi from Oakland. The police later released the Palestinian, noting that he was a minor, but omitting in conversation that he weighed over two hundred and twenty pounds and stood about six feet tall. The police claim the rabbi threw the first punch, a claim both the rabbi and others challenge, noting that while the rabbi stood down when challenged by the police, the Palestinian had to be forced to the ground and physically subdued by several police. The charges against the rabbi were later dropped. For his part, the rabbi said that the young Palestinian got caught up in the heat of the moment and was basically a very decent kid whose emotion got ahead of his maturity.
The incident caused further criticism of the Berkeley police. They noted that the Palestinians breaking through the police line was something they sought to prevent, for ultimately once the counter demonstrators crossed into the rally, the police had more work cut out for them. Indeed, standing around in heavy protective gear on a warm day separating two potentially violent groups is a difficult and aggravating task. It is one that is made even more difficult by both groups periodically wandering into the street, oblivious to both oncoming traffic and police attempts to control them. Nonetheless, observers of the Berkeley political scene claim that the last thing the police wanted was a direct confrontation with the Palestinians and Muslims and found it politically expedient to separate the two groups only after the rally participants and private security had already intervened.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the media found the short exchange of punches between one Palestinian and a rabbi to be the lead story, overwhelming both the messages from the rally speakers and the presence of the bus. In this, the collective cynicism of the organized Jewish community about the ensuing media coverage was more than sustained. Despite the lead, however, the twisted picture of the bus and the words of the speakers did get through. What DeWitt understood, and the organized Jewish community did not, was that such rallies are also needed to reinforce the belief systems of the participants and to sustain their shared alliances despite whatever might capture the ephemeral and halting attention of a largely disinterested mass public. No matter how the major media portrayed the event, for those who were there, it was clear who broke into whose rally and that one side was engaged in debate while the other taunted its opponents with threats of violence.
The tragedy of this split in the Jewish community, as one observer noted, is that as the Jewish community splits on tactics and strategies, the opposition, whether on campus or in the streets, continues to speak with one voice, one ideology, and an agreed upon strategy—delegitimizing Israel as a state and ultimately attempting to destroy it.
Abraham H. Miller is emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a former consultant to the National Institute of Justice on counter terrorism.