Letter from Berkeley | What Do Campus Encampment Protesters Really Want?

By | May 15, 2024
Young man in black and white wearing a keffiyeh stands infront of a building at University of California, Berkeley building. Around him is a colorful collage of tents and banners of an encampment.

[Update: Pro-Palestinian student protesters at UC Berkeley removed their encampment Tuesday after reaching an agreement with the university.]

We see our first keffiyeh as we turn from Free Speech bikeway onto Sproul Road. I am walking with Yael Levy, an Israeli-American artist and co-organizer of a loose network of activists called SF Bay for Peace advocating for a “third way” approach to Israel’s war in Gaza. Yael is tired—it has been a grueling six months—but she has agreed to meet me on the University of California’s flagship campus to introduce me to some of her friends at the encampment. I ask her to describe their vision.

Woman with dark curly hair wearing a purple scarf.

Yael Levy, Israeli artist and activist for SF Bay for Peace.

“The third way is for everybody to work together to stop this war and end the occupation,” she says wearily. “And yeah,” she says of Israelis and Palestinians, “everybody needs new leadership. That’s the part that can be harder. But it’s also the part that I feel I have less control over, while here [in Berkeley] I can use my voice and talk to people or bring people together to talk to each other.”

We pass under the black wrought-iron Sather Gate and enter a large brick plaza full of activity. The first thing that draws my attention are the rows of tents—orange, green, gray, and other colors—on the left. They sit three deep on a large grassy area between the pavement and the neoclassical Sproul Hall. Palestinian flags are tied to lampposts, draped over tents and spread on the low wall that stretches between the grassy area and the plaza. Many names are written in chalk on the wall, alongside the message ”Avenge the martyrs.” A sign asks professional journalists to check in at the purple tent. 

It’s a sunny day—many student protesters have keffiyehs draped over their heads, a few wrapped around their faces. It’s a diverse set of people, with some older folks mixed in with the younger crowd. I ask Yael to describe what we’re seeing. “I see some people painting, I’m interested in that,” she says. “I see a sign that says Liberate Palestine. I see another that says ‘fuck off zio.’” She pauses. “I would like a definition of ‘zio.’”

Of course, this is not Sproul Plaza’s first student protest—in 1964, graduate student Mario Savio and others demonstrated here against UC Berkeley’s ban against on-campus political organizing, which catalyzed a mass wave of campus civil disobedience known as the “Free Speech Movement.” The Free Speech movement, in turn, kicked off student protests as we know them today. Sproul Plaza was an active site of protest during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the divestment campaigns against apartheid South Africa, and many other historical moments. 

Sproul Hall, a neoclassical building at University of California, Berkeley, with a pro-Palestinian encampment infront and people roaming around it.

Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley.

In the center of the plaza, about twenty people are sitting on the ground and on lawn chairs listening to a speaker. The snippets I catch over my 90 minutes at the encampment reference Native Americans, LSD and Angela Davis. Banners are spread across Sproul Hall’s four columns: On top, one says “Free Palestine Encampment Until UC Divests; Glory to the Martyrs, Victory to the Resistance!” Below that, another banner lists the students’ demands: “1. End the Silence. 2. Financial Divestment. 3. Academic Boycott. 4. Stop the Repression.” To the left of that banner, a big sign reads “Student intifada.” To the right, emblazoned with watermelons, another sign reads: “People’s University. Gaza and Palestine. Palestinian Studies Now.” Below this last banner is a purple canopy.

Yael and I walk up to the young woman sitting at the table under the purple canopy. The table has literature and other resources spread out. An older man is yammering at her, giving loud and clearly unsolicited feedback about some aspect of the students’ messaging. Yael cuts in to ask about the topic of the talk happening in the middle of the plaza. Looking grateful, the young woman shifts her attention to Yael. The man—his thread cut loose—wanders away.

She doesn’t have the latest teach-in schedule. I step up to say that I’m a member of the media and am checking in as requested. The young woman says that no media contact is available right now, but she’ll keep an eye out. I thank her, wave vaguely at the plaza, and say I’ll be around.

Yael sees someone she knows—an older woman in a peach-colored t-shirt and black pants standing a few feet outside the teach-in circle. As we approach, I see the shirt says “hope” in English, Arabic and Hebrew in small black lettering. She holds a few leaflets of the same peach color. She is one of a handful of Israelis—different from Yael’s group—who have been coming to the encampment every Friday from 11-1 to hold informal dialogues with people.

Woman in a peach colored shirt and glasses stands outside among a crowd of people.

Tal, former scientist and member of peace activist group.

“Hi, I’m Tal,” she says as I approach. I introduce myself, and ask what she’s doing here. “The big goal is to advance peace, to bring peace to the Middle East,” she says. “The way to do it is to express that we have to talk to each other. The division—one people stand here, the other people stand there—is the reason we are in a cycle of force. The only way that we will find a different path is by talking to each other, to listen to each other’s stories.”

Tal is a retired scientist who lives in nearby Marin County. She has an open, friendly face and describes how wonderful it is to be amid all of this youthful energy. I ask her to describe a memorable conversation—she tells me about one she had earlier in the day about Biden. The woman she was speaking with planned to vote for a third party but by the end of the conversation was reconsidering. 

“I think he’s doing an amazing job,” Tal tells me of Biden. “You know, he’s not perfect. He has positions that he needs to deal with and elections that he needs to think about, but for Israel I think he is doing an amazing job. He’s actually prevented a regional war, maybe a world war.” She notes that if not for his intervention with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government would likely be at war with both Iran and Lebanon right now. 

About seven or eight members of her group—identifiable by their peach-colored t-shirts—meet here every week. The group started long before the war as a singing circle of expatriate Israelis, but became more activist during the protests against the Israeli right’s proposed judicial overhaul last year. Most of the members were also involved in UnXeptable, a network of pro-democracy Israelis around the world who demonstrated against the overhaul. They started coming to the Berkeley campus to engage with pro-Palestinian protesters about four months ago.

I ask Tal if she’s felt personally unsafe while doing this. She says no, noting that her group is trained in a deescalation technique called Nonviolent Communication. She says that they had some seemingly productive discussions with some of the encampment’s leaders early on, but notes ruefully that she’s under the impression that they’ve recently started instructing protesters not to engage with her group. “You need to force yourself to be in uncomfortable places, and to hear uncomfortable statements,” she says. “I think that’s what we all need to do. We all need to hear each other, even if it’s hard, and to be able to control our triggers. And then magic happens. Magic happens when you listen to somebody fully, without being in your own thoughts.”

A tall, youngish man with a shaved head is speaking with one of the people in Tal’s group. He is an Israeli PhD student at Berkeley affiliated with the Jewish Studies Department. He has also been an active participant in the encampment’s demonstrations since they started two weeks ago, and has been involved with BDS for over a decade. Yael introduces us. He agrees to speak with me on the condition of anonymity—I’ll call him Ofer.

I gesture at the peach-colored t-shirts, and ask Ofer what he thinks about his compatriots’ efforts to have conversations with demonstrators. “I don’t know. They seem cute.” Ofer hasn’t seen this group before, but he doesn’t think much of conversation as an end in itself. “It’s a habit for liberal Zionists,” he says, to celebrate conversing with the other side but “never really commit to the results.” 

When mainstream Jewish institutions attempt to dictate the terms of the debate, Ofer says, the cherished liberal goal of dialogue for its own sake is pointless. “A lot of the fear and frustration that I’m feeling is like, this is the biggest political movement on campuses since the 1960s. And [Jewish institutions] have no ability to even converse with it—they don’t even know how to talk about it besides saying ‘This is against us,’” says Ofer. “It feels very empty, and very sad.”

Ofer tells me he stands behind all the demands of the camp, especially the financial disclosure and divestment. “I think those are very important goals that we can actually achieve this summer,” he tells me. “I think that the students very smartly are not saying that America should tell Israel/Palestine what to do—they’re saying, ‘We’re in America, we understand that there is a colonial relationship between America and Israel and Palestine—you know, like a three-tiered system, basically—and we are wishing for our tuition money to not be part of that colonialist dynamic, we want to pull it out.’ That is a very concise, very smart argument.”

I ask Ofer what he thinks would happen if the United States were to suddenly pull all of its money out of Israel—wouldn’t the country double down or move even farther to the right due to the influence of politicians such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich?

“When you look at private money coming [into the settlement project], there’s more donations coming from the United States than there are from Israel,” he tells me, adding that many of the donors are not even Jews but Christian evangelicals. “That project itself—the power base, the ability to put people on buses and take them out to demonstrations, the whole structure of the political movement of the settlements is based on outside money. So if you take that money out [through sanctions], you’re going to see a lot of changes in their ability to do things.”

Instead of a rightward lurch, therefore, Ofer thinks Israel will be forced to come to the table for a real dialogue with the Palestinians, perhaps based on the template of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “In my opinion, as someone who’s been in this struggle for a long time, I think that’s the next step forward. All the people who live in the region need to agree that we want to have a shared truth. And we want that shared truth to inform the legal structure of the state that will come after the transformation.”

I walk back to the purple tent to see if a media contact is available, and am greeted by a young man named Hamza Mahmoud. He is wearing a green sweatshirt and a black and white keffiyeh wrapped around his neck. We walk over to a bench in the shade. On the ground nearby there is a beautiful chalk drawing of a woman in a blue hijab, her eyes closed. A plane marked “USA” drops missiles over her head, and the words “the desire to live is within us all” float nearby. 

Hamza is a sophomore studying environmental design at UC-Berkeley, as well as outreach coordinator for the Wild Oyster Project, which works to restore oyster habitat in San Francisco Bay. He has been sleeping at the encampment since it started on April 22. I ask him why he’s here. He hesitates, and takes a deep breath.

Young man with short dark hair and a mustache, wearing a keffiyeh, stands in front of a line of tents.

Hamza Mahmoud, Environmental Design student at UC Berkeley.

“There’s like this overpowering feeling of helplessness that so many of us feel,” he says. “There are so many students—so many Muslims, so many Jews, so many Palestinians, so many people from different identities, but the thing that brings us all together is that we’re American, and we are complicit in the war crimes that Israel is committing and has been committing for the last 75 years…We know that we’re deeply entangled in and responsible for those war crimes. And so this is an opportunity for us to make a stand and say we don’t want our tuition dollars going towards the funding of genocide.”

I ask Hamza whether he’s spoken to the people in peach—he says he has, and that they wanted to talk about the so-called day after. “And for me, it was like, let’s talk about the day after when we get to the day after. There has not been a ‘day after’ in the last 75 years. For me, it’s a distraction to talk about the day after when we haven’t dealt with today. Like right now, people are being killed. Obviously, we all want to live together peacefully, but [right now] that’s taking away from what we’re all here collectively trying to do, which is to dismantle the last colonial project of the United States.”

So in other words, I ask, now is not the time for dialogue? “Dialogue is always important, but they’re not addressing any of the real issues,” says Hamza. “They’re not actually dialoguing about anything that means anything.”

I ask how he’ll know when “the day after” has arrived, and it’s time for dialogue. “When Palestinians have the right to return, the right to life, the right to live as first class citizens alongside everyone else. When invasion is not a threat at any point. When the siege is gone, when illegal arrests are completely out of the picture, when intimidation tactics are out of the picture. When the fear and terror tactics used by the IDF are completely eradicated, which can only be eradicated by the IDF being eradicated, because that is the essence of what the IDF is.”

I point out that from the Jewish Israeli perspective, the IDF is there for protection. I mention October 7 as a case in point about why Israelis feel justified in that belief. His response takes me aback. “I mean, the IDF killed so many Israelis on that day. So like, is that actually a genuine belief that Israelis have, that the IDF is protecting them? They killed so many Israeli civilians on October 7.”

It takes me a few seconds to digest this. I respond that the only reports of mass friendly fire I was aware of were discredited. He emphasizes that his point is that, from the perspective of people in the camp, the IDF is not a defensive force, but an offensive or occupational force designed to intimidate. He pivots.

“So your question was like, how do we get [to the day after]? I guess my response is, that’s for the people on the ground to figure out. For us as Americans, I don’t want to be complicit. I don’t want to be involved. I don’t want to be funding it. That’s me as an American. That’s my focus, and I’m not going to get distracted. We could talk for hours and days and years about what the best route is. But in reality, you and I have no control or power over that. We do have control over who we’re funding. What we’re giving people the green light to do. And so once we’re free of that, and we’re on a more neutral level, then we can talk.”

A cute little boy—Hamza’s cousin—runs up to us and gives him a big hug. His aunt, who is also wearing a black and white keffiyeh, and another woman are walking by, visiting from Fremont (about an hour’s drive south) to check out the encampment. They smile and wave at him. I’m relieved at the pause, because our conversation has gotten a little heated now as we both try to insist on the obvious—for me, that Israeli Jews and Zionists will need to feel some amount of safety before they will stand down, and for him, that funding the Israeli government amounts to complicity in genocide and that anything else is a distraction.

Colorful chalk mural on the ground of a woman in a hijab with an American plane dropping a bomb over her head, the words "The desire to live is with us all" accompany her.

“The desire to live is within us all.”

“People involved with Jewish Voices for Peace have done a good job of demonstrating that Zionism does not equal Judaism,” he tells me. I point out that JVP is not representative of most American Jews, particularly not of religious ones, who remain mostly committed to Israel’s continued existence.

“So what does existence mean?” he asks me. “Like, its system? Its current system, how it runs right now? Or does that mean Jews living in that land? Because yes, we all believe that you should have, like, the people who are ethnically from Palestine who are Jewish, stay there.”

The question of Jews being ethnically from Palestine or not is a whole new can of worms. Hamza and I go back and forth for a few more rounds of this—I mention that the daily Jewish liturgy has for hundreds if not thousands of years included a prayer for the Jewish return to that land. He asks what that has to do with his family getting kicked out. I say our shared experience of exile should be a bridge. He returns to his core message:

“Here’s what I would focus on. You’re trying to shed light on the encampment and the kinds of people that are in the encampment. This is literally all you need to say—we don’t want our tax dollars or tuition dollars funding the current invasion of Gaza. Before, we wanted to divest because it was under siege, and we wanted to divest because of the illegal settlements. And once there’s a ‘cease-fire,’ even after that, if there’s illegal settlements that are still existing, if there’s still siege, if there’s still control of Palestinian life to every small detail, then we’re going to call on our university to divest. It’s not that deep. It’s not that philosophical. It’s just about where I want my tuition dollars and tax dollars to go. And I don’t know why there needs to be so much questioning around that. Like, I feel like it’s pretty clear.”

It’s time for me to leave. As I pass the center of Sproul Plaza again, I hear someone announce that the midday Friday Jummah prayers are about to begin. Mats have been laid out in the center of the plaza, and groups of Muslim men (in the front) and women (in the back) begin to congregate. The announcer asks allies to form a human chain around the worshippers for their protection, noting that the service will take about 40 minutes. I see a contingent of Jews from IfNotNow take their place in the chain. The worshippers face east on a line not quite parallel to Sproul Hall and the tent encampment, towards Mecca and Jerusalem.

One thought on “Letter from Berkeley | What Do Campus Encampment Protesters Really Want?

  1. David Wasser says:

    I really appreciate the chance to hear the thoughts of the spokesperson for this encampment. I’m distressed, though, at his insistence that his group’s stance on this issue is “not that deep,” “not that philosophical,” and doesn’t require “so much questioning.” I thought people went to college because they wanted to learn to think deeply, be philosophical (literally “loving knowledge”), and to actively question their own, and others’, preconceptions, assumptions, biases, understandings, etc.? It’s quite unsettling that students at an elite educational institution are content to insist that the most complex and confounding situation of the last 100 years is “not that deep.”

    I’m left with a couple of questions.
    1. Does the college/university belong to the students? They pay for services from the university – e.g. the right to attend classes, a place to live, maybe they buy a meal plan, etc. Does this make them owners of the school with a right to dictate how the college is run? That would seem to be an untenable assumption given the ever changing sentiments of cohort after cohort entering the college. What if the environmentalists at a college demanded divestment from all businesses that profit from the use of fossil fuels? What if vegetarian students demanded divestment from any business involve in the production or sale of animal products? No institution like this can function without investments; and no investment portfolio can succeed if it is continuously subject to disruption at the whims of any particular interest group.
    2. If they object to the school’s investments, why did they voluntarily accept admission knowing their tuition dollars would be used by the school as it sees fit? Aren’t they as complicit in everything the school supports as the school is? Should they have done their research before entering into a contract with the school? Wouldn’t the ethical thing to do now be withdrawing from the school? If I disagree with McDonalds’ investments, I’m not going to continue buying their food on a daily basis. I’m going to stop patronizing them. That’s how you, as a consumer or customer, make your objections felt. It doesn’t strike me as if these students understand how to enact change. A protest without commitment is just theater.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.