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Kehilla’s Moment in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle

Jan - Apartheid article photo

By Rabbi David J. Cooper


  Nelson Mandela was still at that time in Pollsmoor Prison, and Kehilla was only one year old in May 1985, when protests broke out all over the University of California campuses to push the university to divest from companies investing in apartheid South Africa.

The regents of the UC system would be meeting in the East Bay on May 16 to consider the divestment issue. A few Jewish activists co-led by Laurie Zoloth and Rachel Richman (who would later become a Kehilla member), decided to have a Jewish community-wide protest at University Hall on the morning of May 15, the day before the regents met. The idea was for a rabbi from every synagogue in the East Bay and a leading lay-member of the synagogue to sit in at University Hall and get arrested there.

Remarkably, they succeeded in getting every synagogue to participate. Rabbi Burt would be there for Kehilla, and I (at that time not a rabbi) would be the lay-person representative from our “Steering Committee” as it was called at the time. The organizers wanted some sort of prayer gathering on the patio on Crescent Drive near Oxford and Addison before we processed across the street to University Hall where we would block the entranceway until arrested.

But since this service was to be one for Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Renewal Jews, we needed it to be acceptable within all movements which meant that even though it would take the format of a morning (shacharit) service, that it would not be one which observant Jews would regard as a proper service per se (in which case we would need to separate men and women and make other accommodations). So it fell to Kehilla to devise a service in which all could participate and I worked out a service, mostly in English, and made copies for us to use as we led the inter-movement group in prayer.

It was a pretty large crowd for a Wednesday morning, about 200 people. About 50 people were ready to be arrested. As the service ended, a bit of a debate ensued as to whether to wear our talises when we sat in. Some said that we should take them off since we weren’t praying. I and several others citing Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the protest was itself a form of prayer and we elected to keep our prayer shawls on.

We arrived and those expecting to be arrested moved in to the entranceway and sat down. The others collected on the sidewalk along Addison. And we waited. And waited. Photographers from local papers had nothing interesting to shoot.

Nothing happened and it began to get boring, which is probably what the university officials were probably hoping for. Then the folks on the sidewalk started singing rousing Jewish songs, some by Shlomo Carlebach. I decided that this was a good moment to get up and dance. So I got up and put my hand out to Barry Barkan of the Aquarian Minyan, and wrapped in our talises we started to dance. All the news photographers flocked to the entrance and the staccato sound of many camera shutters could be heard.

When the arrestees gathered on Addison after we were released by the campus police, we gathered in a circle. Leah Novick (not yet a rabbi at that time) did a final blessing, which I recall well: “May those arrested protesting in South Africa be dealt with as gently by the police there as we have been here this morning.” It was a good reminder that we should not get too cocky about the humble sacrifice we had made.

The next morning, as the regents prepared to meet, a large photo of me and Barry made it to the front pages of the SF Chronicle and the Daily Californian. Subsequently I learned that the same photo from the Chron was printed in papers across the country including the Miami Herald and the LA Times which reprinted it a few months later in their year of religion in review issue captioned “Two rabbis do a jig as they await arrest at a University of California anti-apartheid protest.”

The regents balked at divestment at that meeting. But a month later they voted to have a committee investigate their investment priorities. Republican Governor George Deukmejian initially opposed divestment. But then within a year, Deukmejian reversed himself citing his family’s history in the Armenian genocide by Turkey. UC then did divest $3 billion in South Africa investments over a four-year period and the State of California divested $12 billion.

Nelson Mandela cited California’s divestments as a major moment in the struggle against apartheid. Five years after our little protest, Mandela was released from captivity.


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