Jewish students celebrate, Palestinian group protests
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People holding calla lilies lay motionless in the Cesar Chavez Student Center as part of a dead-in while a fellow protestor waved the Palestinian flag over them. Across the street from campus, cotton candy drifted through the air at the Hillel House while Jewish students celebrated Israel's Independence Day with music and traditional Jewish food.

April 20 marks a decidedly different day for two prominent groups on campus. For students involved with the Hillel House, a Jewish student center on Banbury Street that creates community and holds Shabbat dinners for students, the day was one of celebration and hope for peace.

"We want a welcoming day for our students, especially on this day that's supposed to be a celebration. And for others, a tragedy," said Dona Standell, 22, a recent SF State graduate who now works at Hillel House as the undergraduate student coordinator. "But Israel has saved a lot of people. My grandmother is Syrian and she found safety there. We like to remember that."

For the group of students in the student center, the day is known as "the day of catastrophe" for Palestinian people. The group of protestors wore white face masks and held signs calling for SF State to divest, or de-invest, in companies that are pro-Israel and donate funds to military spending.

"We're out here showing how it's all connected," Hira Zahir, 21, anthropology major, said.

Specifically, the group of students was protesting the student center's investment in pro-Israeli companies, according to Zahir. Companies like Halliburton Co., Johnson & Johnson and Exxon Mobil Corp. have products that the bookstore and the student center sell, something that Zahir referred to as "appalling."

"Why are we investing money in killing people?" Zahir asked. "This is supposed to be a campus that's committed to social justice... All of the budget cuts wouldn't be happening if it weren't for war, so how do you feel about SF State spending money on companies that fund the military?"

The protest, which was supposed to counter the Jewish organization's celebration of Israeli independence, stood alone when the Jewish celebration was moved to the Hillel House due to a forecast of rain.

"It might look like we moved it because of the protest, but really it's just because the forecast showed it was 90 percent likely to happen," Standell said, pointing to the sunny sky. "Obviously, that didn't happen."

Hillel House is an umbrella organization that provides a foundation for Jewish college students. Hillel's San Francisco chapter is located across the street from the University in a house that the group uses as an office and place to hold meetings and events.

In previous years, confrontations between the celebrators and the counter-protestors have gotten explosive, drawing a heavy police presence to oversee the action this year. Because the Israeli group was not there, the event was reasonably mild, but officers still stood in the stairways and watched the protestors.

"We have a undercover guy in that window pointing a camera at us," said graduate student Nachshon L'tzedek. "This is an audacious day to protest. One country's celebration is another country's catastrophe."

L'tzedek is a Jewish graduate student studying social work who was part of University of California, Santa Cruz's chapter of Hillel House. He says he has struggled with his Jewish identity since he was 12 when an Israeli soldier came to his class in Hebrew school.

"He tried to explain to me why he had to shoot Palestinian kids who were throwing rocks at him. They were about the same age as me," L'tzedek said.

"I feel obligated to be a part of this because I'm Jewish," he continued. "If anyone understands ghetto-ization, persecution and genocide, it's the Jewish people. Specifically because of my Jewish values I can sympathize with the Palestinians."

Although the Hillel House is intertwined with events that are political, the student president Sharon Vaknin emphasized that the organization was not created for political purposes. Rather, it aims to give Jewish students a chance to continue to engage with their culture in college.

"The bottom line is we're not a political organization, we're a cultural organization," said Sharon Vaknin, 20, president of Hillel House. "(When it comes to divestment,) what (the protestors) are offering is a very narrow, very black-and-white viewpoint."

Members of the Hillel House planned on giving out white and blue T-shirts that promoted peace and discussion at the celebration. Many of them wore the shirts as they hung out at the celebration, tossing balls around or munching on falafel and blue cotton candy.

"I wear this shirt because I am open to dialogue and I see a possibility of peace for the future, but it comes down to who's willing to talk," Standell said. "We want our students to feel proud and comfortable talking about Israel."

"I'm more like, let's see now what to do with it, if not now in the Middle East then on campus," Standell said.

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PHOTO
Sasha Tivetsky | staff photographer
Danial Shahbaz carries a Palestinian flag during a silent protest with other San Francisco State students in Malcolm X Plaza on April 20.

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