In Berkeley Public Schools, a War Gives Rise to Unusual Tensions

The controversy began with a walkout.

On Oct. 18, hundreds of Berkeley High School students, with the blessing of some of their teachers, left their classrooms in the middle of the day and gathered at a nearby park.

“Free Palestine!” they chanted. “Stop bombing Gaza!”

“From the river to the sea!”

One of their teachers, Becky Villagran, thanked the crowd of roughly 150, telling them not to forget that the toll of the victims of the war in Gaza was more than a number.

Just as on the nearby campus of the University of California — famed since the 1960s for its marches, sit-ins and progressive ideals — students at Berkeley High have a long history of hitting the streets in dissent. In the 1960s, they walked out to oppose the Vietnam War. In the 1990s, they pushed to create ethnic studies courses. More recently, they have shown up in droves to advocate for Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, reproductive rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

But this walkout reverberated in unexpected ways through the Berkeley public school system and the city’s ordinarily tight-knit community.

Some Jewish students, and their self-described Zionist parents, felt frightened by what they saw and heard, including a vulgar shout about Zionism — a claim vigorously denied by demonstrators.

Reflecting the complexity surrounding this dispute — where symbols, slogans and flags have different meanings to supporters of both sides — some Israel-backing parents saw the march and others that followed at Berkeley public schools as hateful.

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