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Violent rally shuts down California event featuring Israeli speaker

Jason Green, Bay Area News Group on

Published in News & Features

BERKELEY – An event at UC Berkeley featuring a speaker from Israel was canceled and its attendees escorted to safety Monday night after hundreds of protesters surrounded the venue and broke down the doors, according to university officials.

Chancellor Carol T. Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor Benjamin E. Hermalin addressed the incident in a letter to the campus community Tuesday. They said the actions of the protesters “violated not only our values, but also some of our most fundamental values.”

“We deeply respect the right to protest as intrinsic to the values of a democracy and an institution of higher education,” the officials said. “Yet, we cannot ignore protest activity that interferes with the rights of others to hear and/or express perspectives of their choosing.”

The incident happened at the Zellerbach Playhouse, where attorney Ran Bar-Yoshafat was scheduled to speak about his experience fighting in the war in Gaza, among other topics.

“Minutes before the event was to start, a crowd of some 200 protesters began to surround the building,” Christ and Hermalin said in the letter. “Doors were broken open and the protesters gained unauthorized entry to the building. The event was canceled, and the building was evacuated to protect the speaker and members of the audience.”

The event was organized by Students Supporting Israel, according to club member and second-year student Sharon Knafelman. The 19-year-old arrived at the venue to find protesters, many of them masked, blocking the front doors. As Knafelman made her way inside, a fellow attendee was grabbed by the neck and shoved, she said.

Knafelman said the protesters also shoved a second attendee and yanked on her arm hard enough to send her to the emergency room.

Just half of the expected audience of 60 was present for the event, which was originally scheduled to take place at Wheeler Hall and later moved to the Zellerbach Playhouse after another student club, Bears for Palestine (named for school mascot the Golden Bears), published a social media post calling on the community to shut down the event, Knafelman said.

The post claimed Bar-Yoshafat was dangerous and had “committed crimes against humanity.”

 

An online account for Bears for Palestine did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the post and its involvement in the incident.

The Zellerbach Playhouse was picked as an alternate location because it was believed to be more secure, university officials said.

“We approach events like this with two priorities: to do what we can so that the event can go forward, and to do what we can to safeguard student safety and well-being,” Christ and Hermalin said. “Last night, despite our efforts and the ample number of police officers, it was not possible to do both given the size of the crowd and the threat of violence.”

At one point, the protesters used a side entrance to get inside the building and tried to push past a contingent of university police officers who were providing security. Knafelman said they called the attendees “pigs” and other slurs, including anti-Semitic language.

The university police chief and another school official then arrived at the venue and told the attendees and Bar-Yoshafat they needed to leave, Knafelman said, adding that they were led out of the building through an underground passageway.

In their letter, Christ and Hermalin expressed their “deep remorse and sympathy” to the attendees, and urged them to report what they witnessed and experienced to law enforcement and the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.

“We share your anger and concern, and we understand that we must do all that we can to prevent anything like this from happening again,” Christ and Hermalin said.

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