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At Pipes Talk, Berkeley Jews Worry About Obama

17 October 2008 No Comment

By Casey Miner  At his talk at UC Berkeley Thursday night, controversial Middle-East scholar Daniel Pipes discussed many threats to the existence of the state of Israel. But the audience was worried about a threat closer to home: whether Israel would be safe under a President Obama.

“I think a lot of us here support Obama,” said Berkeley resident Dan Spitzer, 58. “But we’re worried about his associations.”

Mr. Spitzer, who described himself as pro-Israel, named some people who particularly worried him: William Ayers, a former member of 60’s domestic terror group the Weather Underground; Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter; and the late Edward Said, a Palestinian thinker and activist. These men and others, said Spitzer, did not support Israel, and he feared that their views had shaped Senator Obama’s own.

In response to Spitzer’s question, Pipes said he felt Obama would move US Israel policy closer to that of the Europeans, which emphasizes Palestinian rights. In his talk, Pipes derided that approach as ineffective.

Mr. Pipes’ last solo appearance at the university in 2004 drew national attention when members of the Muslim Student Association, a pro-Palestinian group on campus, protested and disrupted the talk.

This time, the lecture went on as planned.

Though Pipes did not discuss Obama’s personal associations at length, on his website he has published a number of articles suggesting that the senator has practiced Islam and identified as a Muslim. Throughout the campaign the Senator has said he is Christian.

On his website, Senator Obama expresses strong support for Israel, as well as for the military and economic assistance it receives from the US. In the past, the Senator has supported Palestinian rights as well, and his Web site endorses a two-state solution.

Questions about Obama came up several times during the half-hour question-and-answer session. Afterward, audience members said they still felt uncertain.

“I support Obama on most things,” said Spitzer after the talk. “And I’m going to vote for him because I’m an American. But I’m more than a little wary of some of the people he’s been close to.”

Jonathan Wornick, 44, said that up until a few weeks ago, he had been regularly raising money for Republican candidate John McCain. Now, though, he said he felt conflicted, because he agreed with Obama on many social issues but wasn’t sure he could trust him on Israel.

Danny Ponticello, 20, a third-year political science major at UC Berkeley, said all the discussion about Obama had thrown his vote into question.

“I’m conflicted now,” he said. “Before this talk, I had been leaning towards Obama. But I’m pro-Israel, so I’m going to have to look up some more information on his stance.”

Two other students who were talking with Ponticello both said they supported McCain.

Over a hundred people attended Pipes’ talk, which was held at the Boalt School of Law under high security: five uniformed police officers stood inside and outside the lecture hall, and students screened audience members with hand-held metal detectors at the door. Anyone who attempted to disrupt Mr. Pipes as he spoke would be “forced to leave,” said John Moghtader, the president of Tikvah, the pro-Israel student group that sponsored the event, before the lecture began. He added that “there may be sanctions imposed.”

Zohair Jamal, communications director for the Muslim Student Association, said before Thursday’s event that no protest was planned.

“They are entitled to their freedom of speech,” he said. “We feel that if we disagree with an event, whatever it may be, it would be a much better use of our time to use our voices on campus and hold our own events countering what was said.”

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