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Pro-Palestinian speaker at UC San Diego sparks outrage among campus Jewish community

A sign at UCSD depicting the Israeli flag was painted over with the words "You are proud of apartheid — free Palestine."
A sign at UC San Diego depicting the Israeli flag was pictured May 5 painted over with the words “You are proud of apartheid — free Palestine.”
(Blake Dickman)

The presence of pro-Palestinian speaker Taher Herzallah at UC San Diego on May 4 spurred outrage among Jewish campus organizations that contend he is a threat to their safety — an alarm sounded further the day after his appearance when a pro-Israel sign was found vandalized.

The UCSD group Students for Justice in Palestine organized a talk by Herzallah, associate director of outreach and community organizing for American Muslims for Palestine.

The talk was planned as part of SJP’s “Justice in Palestine Week.”

Ahead of Herzallah’s appearance, pro-Israel groups such as StopAntisemitism and Hillel San Diego called for the talk to be moved off campus. The groups said AMP and Herzallah have “repeatedly called for violence” against Jews.

A representative of SJP who would not give a name said in an email to the La Jolla Light that “Zionist [organizations] both on campus and off campus have been attempting to paint a false image of Palestinian activism since their inception. If it wasn’t Taher Herzallah it would’ve been someone else.”

An April 30 article on StopAntisemitism’s website labeled Herzallah “The Hateful Heckler” for interrupting Israeli speakers and noted that in February 2017, Herzallah was arrested along with five others for protesting during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on David Friedman’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Israel.

According to news reports, Herzallah was charged with unlawful disruption of Congress but the charge was later dropped.

Blake Dickman, who is on the executive board of several UCSD-affiliated Jewish organizations such as JHealth and Tritons for Israel, said Herzallah’s presence at UCSD caused him to be concerned for the safety and well-being of Jewish students on campus.

Dickman said he organized a peaceful sit-in May 4 outside UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla’s office and was able to speak with Khosla directly to express his concerns.

Dickman said he was appalled that UCSD would allow Herzallah to speak on campus.

“I am ashamed to be part of a so-called ‘inclusive’ university that leaves its Jewish students undermined,” he said.

Dickman said Khosla “failed to condemn” Herzallah or take further action beyond providing additional security at the event, citing the right to free speech.

Herzallah is due to speak again Monday, May 9, as part of a panel during a webinar called “Global Freedom Struggles from Kashmir to Palestine,” scheduled by the UCSD Institute of Arts and Humanities. Dickman said Khosla also declined to cancel that talk.

A petition on Change.org condemning the decision to allow the events has collected 590 signatures of as May 6.

In a statement to the Light, UCSD associate director of communications Leslie Sepuka said the university “supports the right to free speech, which is a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution as well as academic freedom.”

She added that UCSD is home to many organizations with a wide range of views that “are not endorsed by and do not necessarily reflect the views of the university.”

“Student groups or related organizations and departments have the freedom to host events on topics of their choice and interest,” Sepuka said. “We encourage and promote civility and respect in every exchange in accordance with our Principles of Community.”

Dickman, who did not attend the May 4 event, said previous attempts at “civil dialogue with SJP have been rejected.”

The SJP representative’s email confirmed that UCSD provided extra security for Herzallah’s May 4 appearance and said two or three “agitators [attended] and they were largely silent,” though it added they “harassed one of our attendees.”

On May 5, several students noticed that a sign depicting the Israeli flag in the campus’s “Grafitti Park” — an area meant as a free space for artistic expression — had been painted over with the words “You are proud of apartheid — free Palestine.”

The SJP representative stated “we are not aware of anything” related to the vandalism and added that “we would love for someone to educate us on how calling out apartheid and demanding human rights is anti-Semitic. We have many Jewish allies, and the last thing we’d want to have are conflicting interests.”

Sepuka said “the university takes and responds to reports of bias and discrimination seriously.” ◆