Hundreds of UC Berkeley students gathered at Sproul Plaza in a nationwide walkout demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, Oct. 25, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Over 400 students walked out of class Wednesday to call on UC Berkeley to stand in solidarity with Palestine in the Israel-Hamas war, now in its 19th day.

The protesters joined college students on campuses across the United States, calling for a ceasefire in a war that has left thousands dead in less than three weeks. About 1,400 Israelis were killed in a surprise attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, while Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes have since left 5,500 dead in Gaza, according unverified data from the Gaza Ministry of Health, an agency of the Hamas-controlled government.

At the rally and teach-in on Sproul Plaza, the protesters demanded that UC Berkeley divest from arms manufacturers that create weapons used by Israel and make a public statement supporting Palestine.

“We denounce the one-sided and dehumanizing narratives parroted by politicians, corporations and institutions, including UC Berkeley and especially Berkeley Law School, regarding the genocide of the people of Gaza,” Abo Emad, a UC Berkeley student, said at the rally.

Since Hamas seized power in 2007, Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip, home to more than 2 million Palestinians, controlling trade and restricting residents’ movement in and out of Gaza.

Student organizers led the crowd in chants decrying Israeli brutality and backing Palestine’s right to what students described as justified resistance while a handful of young people waved the Israeli flag nearby. “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide,” students chanted.

Hundreds of UC Berkeley students gathered at Sproul Plaza in a nationwide walkout demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, Oct. 25, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
UC Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian spoke at the rally. “The university acts as if it’s a desk in the Israeli Foreign Ministry rather than being a university here,” he said. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The protest is the latest in a swell of pro-Palestinian activity on college campuses since the war began. On the day of the attack by Hamas, Bears for Palestine, a pro-Palestinian campus group, released a statement offering its “unwavering support of the resistance in Gaza,” describing it as the product of decades of violence by Israel.

A statement signed by at least 250 UC Berkeley faculty condemned the portrayal by some on campus of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks as a freedom fight to be celebrated. “This is repugnant and indefensible,” the statement said. 

“[I]t was shocking to realize that literally while Hamas terrorists were going house-to-house seeking to murder as many Jews as they could, some pro-Palestinian organizations on our own campus were gathering petition signatures for statements that celebrated these Hamas terrorists as freedom fighters and rejected any critiques of their actions,” the statement said.

Disturbed by what he saw as a broader attitude against Jews on campus, UC Berkeley Law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon urged law firms not to hire students who sided with anti-Zionist student groups in an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal.

Berkeley Hillel organized their own teach-in today, “exploring Jewish sources for peace, justice and truth,” according to a statement posted on Instagram.

From the sideline near the stage, a small group of Jewish and pro-Israel UC Berkeley students silently attended the rally. “We wanted to give them respect to protest, too. We are here to represent our people,” said a Hass School of Business student. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The pro-Palestinian movement has won some public support on campus, even as some have sounded the alarm about rising anti-semitism.

Iris Rosenblaum-Sellers, a graduate student in mathematics who joined a newly formed pro-Palestinian group for graduate students a few weeks ago, called Palestine “the biggest humanitarian issue of our time.”

Several professors at UC Berkeley joined the teach-in on Sproul Plaza, drawing comparisons between the historic protests against apartheid in South Africa, when students called on the university to divest from companies doing business there.

“The university acts as if it’s a desk in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, rather than being a university here,” said Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at UC Berkeley who spoke at the rally and teaches about Palestine and colonialism. Bazian founded Students for Justice in Palestine as a graduate student at Cal.

Bazian and other students criticized UC Berkeley’s academic programs with ties to Israel, like the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Studies and study abroad programs in the country.

Chancellor Carol Christ’s public statements have encouraged compassion and respect. “I am heartbroken by the terrible violence and suffering in Israel and Gaza,” Christ wrote in a statement shared with the community on Oct. 11. 

In 2018, Christ joined the nine UC chancellors in signing a statement affirming her “long-standing opposition” to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and scholars, saying that a boycott posed a threat to academic freedom and discourse. 

Christ’s “perspective has not changed,” Dan Moguloff, UC Berkeley spokesperson, wrote in an email.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described a statement by UC Berkeley faculty condemning the Hamas attacks on Israelis. It was not authored by Berkeley Hillel, though the group posted the statement on its Instagram page.

An electric engineering undergrad student hung threads of thousands of cotton pads painted with colors, each representing a Palestinian person killed in Israeli bomb strikes. “I was on the phone with my brother when the death toll reached five thousand people, and I wanted to do something. I went to Target and bought their whole supply. It took me six hours to make the threads,” said the Cal student, who declined to give her name. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...