Firebrand Theater

Daniel Pipes as a cool medium

"We totally support Mr. Pipes' right to speak on campus," says Lisa Stampnitzki, of the student group Tzedek, an affiliate of Berkeley Hillel, "but as a Jewish group we're very concerned that Hillel has chosen to sponsor him, due to the fact that he has made many anti-Muslim statements and also the fact that his organization is clamping down on academic freedom. We're concerned that Hillel's sponsorship would lend the appearance that the Jewish community supports his views."

She's referring to the controversial Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, who is appearing at the University of California at Berkeley's 523-seat Pimentel Hall. Elegantly titled "An Evening with Daniel Pipes," the event has a built-in protest factor, spiced up by its being set in the historic capital of campus unrest. Sure enough, the call has gone out for demonstrators against the "Zionist Racist." An hour before the speech is set to begin, about 200 demonstrators have already shown up to, well... heckle Pipes? Grill him? Scare him? Support him? Stop him from speaking?

This question goes to the root of Pipes' appearance and its value as theater. One of the speaker's central contentions is that American universities have become tiny gulags of radical intolerance, places where voices like his are not only (in the words of the anti-Pipes demonstrators) "not welcome," but forcibly silenced. In preparation for the dustup, Pipes has already made a last-minute change of venue and brought in his own security detail—by my count there are about 30 uniformed cops of one stripe or another milling around outside or already in the building. "I encourage those sympathetic to my message to come out and support it and me," Pipes has advised his mailing list.

As I cruise the crowd looking for troublemakers, however, the goals seem somewhat less radical. Every comment I hear is prefaced with "We support his right to speak."

"I assume he's going to [speak]," says Polly Rich, head of a group she calls September 11 Action. "I would like to help orchestrate a counter-element. I brought a few signs, I brought a Kerry button. I'd like to send a message to Pipes, saying, 'You're out soon because Bush is out soon.'"

Will she be engaging any of Pipes' supporters, who seem to be out in roughly equal numbers?

"I don't think that would be effective," she says. "I'd like to organize an effective message. It may mean getting a group with Kerry buttons to go in. I've seen this work well when you do it non-verbally. It upsets the speaker. They get a very clear message that there is a movement out there that unsettles them. With signs, through visuals, and then by walking out you can get a very clear message across without saying a word."

Nor does there appear to be much interest in a showdown from crowd members who are more sympathetic to Pipes. "I neither support him nor do I oppose him," says Seymour Kessler of the Israel action group Bridges to Israel Berkeley. "I'm here to hear what he has to say." As for the demonstrators, he says, "It's wonderful. It shows that we're living in a democracy. And it's the same in Israel. People protest what the government does, and what the government doesn't do. That's what binds the United States and Israel, a shared sense of values."

High-minded sentiments all around! But I have no such noble motives. Though I have lamented Pipes' evolution from an interesting scholar into a dependable public figure as one-dimensional and repetitive as Raymond J. Johnson Jr. or the guy who keeps losing loans to Ditech, I really couldn't give a damn about the two sides in this dull debate. I'm here to see the fur fly.

The technique is familiar enough. You cover some campus event related to Israel and Palestine, the war in Iraq, or the war on terrorism, then make a full report of any anti-American, anti-Semitic, or otherwise indecorous slogans or behavior you observe. Your report goes on the web. A nation of losers cites your report on their blogs, with outraged glosses. Fuming talk show hosts on radio and television pick up on the outrage and flesh it out with dollops of both indignation and high dudgeon. The original perpetrators of the outrage savor the exposure, and with any luck the process can be repeated again in a few weeks.

But Pipes is scheduled to go on at 7:30 p.m., and as the time approaches the crowd is alarmingly civil. Though the group features a strong contingent of women in hijabs, many or most of the Pipes opponents appear to be affiliated with A Jewish Voice for Peace, and their reasonable and good-natured behavior isn't going to make any news. I approach Lisa Stampnitzki to see if maybe the reports of extremist offenses at these kinds of gatherings are invented. "There tends to be an over-exaggeration in the way they describe these events," she allows.

No sooner have we spoken, however, than a gangly man in an Uncle Sam costume, so tall that with his top hat he appears for a moment to be on stilts, enters the crowd bearing a sign that reads "I Want You To Die For Israel." The "s" in Israel has been replaced with a clockwise swastika. "Now this is what I'm talking about," I egg on my new friend Lisa. "You've got this gentleman with the swastikas on his sign. This is what gets attention at these things."

"That's very unfortunate," she says in a tone worthy of a press conference. "At the very least it shows very poor judgment to put a swastika on a sign referring to Israel."

A moment later she confronts Uncle Sam directly. "I'd like to know why you have a swastika on that sign?" she asks.

"There's a swastika because Israel's a fascist country," Uncle Sam replies. "That's pretty obvious." He turns to the rest of us: "Anybody want to read what I have to say?" His flyer ("The Left is dominated by left-zionist Jews from Noam Chomsky on down.") is signed Joe Webb.

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