BERKELEY, Calif. – On Sept. 11, Students For Justice in Palestine folded up their table and left the well-traveled main plaza at the University of California, jolted by the terrorist attacks and the questions classmates threw at them.
This weekend, the group dedicated to Palestinian self-determination was back in action at UC Berkeley with a national conference on pro-Palestine student activism. The conference was expected to draw as many as 300 people from around the country.
It had been scheduled for October but was postponed because of the attacks. In the meantime, old tensions have rekindled in the Middle East.
"We feel that now, the escalation of military aggression by Israel against Palestinian people warrants that activists come together, become organized and start to strategize about how we're going to end the 35-year military occupation of Palestine," said Snehal Shingavi, a conference organizer and member of Students for Justice in Palestine.
The conflict that underlies the conference took new casualties Saturday when a large explosion, apparently set off by a suicide bomber, ripped through a pizzeria in a West Bank shopping mall crowded with Israeli teen-agers. Three people were killed.
The Berkeley conference, scheduled to end Monday, included speeches, workshops and panels, focused on pushing universities to divest from companies that do business with Israel — a campaign modeled after the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.
Among the diverse group attending was Jesse Bacon, who is Jewish and a graduate student at Western Washington University. Bacon acknowledged that campaigning for Palestinian rights is harder now.
"It's like having your band discovered," he said.
At the time of the attacks, Students for Justice in Palestine was planning an "intifada week" to mark the one-year anniversary of the Palestinian uprising. The group eventually went ahead with the week, but dropped many of the planned events, including a mock trial of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
At the time, Shingavi said, the chief concerns were the impending war in Afghanistan and attacks against Arab-Americans and Muslims in the United States.
"Our activists' political and personal energies were directed elsewhere," he said. "We don't think that we went underground."
Now, he said, "there's appropriate space, time and energy."
Noura Erakat, a Berkeley senior and SJP member, said some students face hostility when they go public in support of Palestinian rights. Still, she said, more people are willing to make the stand.
"The really sad truth is that the situation for Palestinians in terms of their livelihood on a daily basis, in terms of really the military intransigence in their civilian neighborhoods has not changed," she said. "If anything, it's worsened."
Across the street, members of the Israel Action Committee planned a counter-event: a campaign to raise money for a number of charitable purposes, including aid to victims of the conflict.
"Our message is to say invest in Israel, invest in peace," said committee co-chairman Oren Lazar.