'Their conflict management puts the onus on Jewish students'

An Israel studies professor at Berkeley is staging a sit-in for his Jewish students

Ron Hassner tells pupils he won’t leave his office until the school takes sufficient steps to protect them amid intense anti-Israel protests during the ongoing Gaza war

Ron Hassner, chair of the Israel studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, is holding a one-man sit-in in his office to press the university to better address tensions among students heightened by the Israel-Hamas war. (Courtesy Hassner via JTA)
Ron Hassner, chair of the Israel studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, is holding a one-man sit-in in his office to press the university to better address tensions among students heightened by the Israel-Hamas war. (Courtesy Hassner via JTA)

Ron Hassner is sleeping on a mattress on the floor. He’s told his students he will be teaching classes only on Zoom. And people keep dropping by with plates of food.

That’s because Hassner, the chair of Israel studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has announced that he will not leave his office until the school does what he believes it should do to keep students safe amid intense protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

His sit-in flips the script on protest at Berkeley, which has been the site of radical political acts and stunts for more than 70 years — nearly always taken on by students. Top university administrators have met with Hassner since he began his protest on Friday, but he says he anticipates remaining in his office for some time, perhaps weeks — and he’s OK with that.

“This has become the happy place, where Jewish students and faculty come to chat with one another and eat together and keep me company and encourage me, because I still smell good,” Hassner told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Friday. The big thing he’s missing, he said, is a shower: “It’s going to go downhill real fast.”

Hassner’s humor belies his very serious concern that Berkeley must take swift action “to prevent violence between students.”

Already, last month, a violent mob of pro-Palestinian activists shut down a planned talk by Israel Defense Forces reservist Ran Bar-Yoshafat on campus, breaking windows and reportedly attacking other students. That incident has triggered a federal civil rights investigation, and Berkeley says the school is investigating it as a hate crime.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Jewish students and others on campus peacefully confronted pro-Palestinian protesters at Sather Gate on Monday.

Illustrative: A pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel student protests at the University of California, Berkeley’s Sather Gate October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Liedtke)

Sather Gate, a central landmark on campus and a site of significance to Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement protests of the 1960s, has been the site of pro-Palestinian demonstrations for weeks. According to local reports, students occupying the gate have harassed passers-by with audio purportedly of Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza and filmed some Jewish students without their permission.

“For too long, the administration’s strategy to manage campus conflict relating to the Middle East has been to rely on the restraint and good behavior of Jewish students,” the Jewish and pro-Israel organizers of “Liberate the Gate” said in a statement. “We will not tolerate this treatment any longer.”

The rally had support from the local Jewish Community Relations Council, which brought in private security.

But Hassner, whose research focuses on religion and war, worried that such confrontations were turning his campus into a ticking time bomb. Though staunchly pro-Israel and angry that his university has done nothing about the gate protesters, he has publicly pushed for civility on campus since the October 7 Hamas-led massacre that killed 1,200 people and saw 253 more abducted to the Gaza Strip. While Hassner didn’t think the counterprotest was a good idea, his sit-in meant he couldn’t have joined even if he’d wanted to.

Jewish students crowd into Ron Hassner’s office on the first day of the professor’s sit-in over the University of California, Berkeley’s handling of antisemitism and anti-Israel protests on campus. (Courtesy Hassner via JTA)

“They said that they would march across campus. I am desperately worried that that march involves a confrontation at the gate,” Hassner said about the Jewish students prior to the counterprotest. “And so I am sorely worried that students will come to blows.”

The organizers said they intended to remain peaceful, and that they had been in touch with campus security to avoid any direct, violent confrontation; they also held nonviolence training before the march.

“Jewish students on campus are deeply committed to a peaceful, non-violent march,” graduate students Daniel Solomon and Hannah Schlacter told JTA in a statement before the demonstration.

“JCRC shares the concerns of Cal students and faculty who feel the University is not doing enough to stand up for Jewish life on campus,” a spokesperson for the organization told JTA.

But Hassner believes his protest could be more likely to yield results. He wants three things from the administration: Sather Gate clear of protesters; a letter of apology and a makeup invitation to Bar-Yoshafat as well as anyone else on campus who is “shouted down or mobbed”; and mandatory training to recognize antisemitism and Islamophobia for any student “in a supervisory capacity,” such as resident advisors.

“Many on this campus don’t understand the complex relationship between anti-Israel and antisemitism,” he said.

A camera-packing demonstrator is in police custody after being taken out of the student picket line in front of Sather Gate, the main entrance to the University of California campus, February 5, 1969, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo)

Research studying the efficacy of protest — and finding that nonviolent protests are consistently more effective than violence — may recommend Hassner’s approach. Social psychologist Eric Schuman was a researcher at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2020 when he found that “nonviolent nonnormative” protest — disruptive but nonviolent tactics like strikes, boycotts and sit-ins — “can be an effective means for advancing social change because they are disruptive in a way that generates pressure for political change but also lead people to view the protesters as constructive.”

But whether the university is in a position to deliver quickly on Hassner’s demands remains to be seen.

A spokesperson told JTA that the university had been in contact with the pro-Palestinian protestors who are usually found at Sather Gate, as well as the organizers of the Jewish counterprotest. They said the university hopes to end  “aspects of the nonviolent protest at Sather Gate” that violate its policies, while rejecting calls to forcefully remove the protesters: “Use of force against this form of rule breaking frequently results in turmoil and escalation, often to everyone’s detriment,” they said.

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters face off outside a planned speech by Ran Bar-Yoshafat, the Israeli reservist and advocate whose speech at the University of California, Berkeley, was derailed, Los Angeles, February 29, 2024. (Jacob Gurvis/JTA)

The spokesperson also said the school hopes to address “rising tensions on campus” through “dialogue.”

In an updated statement on Sunday, a university spokesperson commented directly on Hassner’s sit-in.

“Insofar as Prof. Hassner’s protest is concerned, we wish to share that the university remains committed to fostering an environment conducive to robust free speech and in which all members of its community feel that they may engage in campus life without fear of harassment,” the spokesperson said. “The administration is committed to confronting antisemitism and holds Prof. Hassner in great esteem and it is in conversation with him about his concerns.”

For now, Hassner says his office is full of good vibes as students pass through. He also said that he’s planning to keep his light on overnight to serve as a beacon to Jewish students on campus, communicating to them “that this matters to me.”

And despite his concerns about how Berkeley is handling the current crisis, Hassner insists that the school remains a great place for Jewish students. The Israel Studies program is one of the best-funded in the country, he notes, and there’s both kosher dining and a Jewish museum on campus.

“But then, on occasion,” he said, “awful things happen.”

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