At Berkeley, Divestment Vote Divides Students, Draws Veto

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published March 25, 2010.
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A last-minute veto by the president of the student government at the University of California, Berkeley appears to have foiled a rare campus victory for proponents of divestment efforts targeting Israel. A week earlier, the student senate had approved a resolution calling on the school to divest from corporations deemed to support the Israeli military, the West Bank separation barrier and settlement building.

The resolution, which passed by a vote of 16-4 in the early morning hours of March 18, specifically called for divestment from General Electric and United Technologies, “because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” It also created a committee to suggest additional companies as targets of future divestment.

While the Berkeley campus has a lingering reputation as an activist hotbed, a legacy from the 1960s, and has seen some high-profile, pro-Palestinian protests over the past decade, the lopsided student senate vote makes clear that the divestment resolution’s proponents succeeded in reaching beyond campus radicals to more politically mainstream students. Two Jewish senators from the student government who opposed the resolution said that its supporters sold it as a measure not against Israel, but against the funding of war crimes in general.

“The language of the bill changed the argument from one’s stance on Israel to one’s stance on war crimes,” said Noah Stern, a Jewish member of the student senate who voted against the bill.

The Berkeley resolution came at a time of growing consternation within the pro-Israel community over the global movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, or BDS. The BDS movement has attempted to paint Israel as a human rights violator akin to apartheid South Africa. An earlier draft of the bill used the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli actions, but that language was stripped from the version that the senate ultimately approved.

The president of the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, William Smelko, announced his veto on March 24 and released along with it a lengthy preamble that criticized the ASUC senate for being too hasty in its deliberations.

“Given that some ASUC Senators and others have compared the Israel/Palestine conflict with that of South African apartheid in the 1980s, it should be noted that … the analogy itself is highly contested,” Smelko wrote.

The president’s veto can still be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the 20-member student senate.

The Berkeley student senate’s vote was condemned by pro-Israel group, which see it as an unwelcome development.

“It’s something to be concerned about,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “You don’t let footholds get started.”

The University of California would not have been bound by the resolution, but it would have applied to the student government’s own funds. One of the bill’s sponsors said he did not know whether the student government actually has investments in ei-ther of the cited companies.

Supporters of the bill stressed that it was not a call for divestment from all companies that do business with Israel.

“I supported the bill because I wanted the U.C. to divest from war crimes,” said Jonathan Gaurano, a member of the student senate and one of the bill’s sponsors. “It’s not like we were planning, oh, you know, let’s just attack Israel. Nothing of that nature.”

Senators who voted for the bill cited what they called a tradition within the student government of supporting divestment from countries accused of human rights violations. One student senator compared the bill to the ASUC’s decision to divest from South Africa in the 1980s.

“If you look at the bill on its own, it does focus on Israel and Palestine, but I view it as standing together with all the bills we’ve passed formerly on these issues,” said Emily Carlton, a student senator and a bill sponsor. “I saw it not as Israel versus Pales-tine, but a few specific acts that the Israeli government committed that are internationally recognized war crimes.”

The bill, titled “A Bill In Support of UC Divestment From War Crimes,” cited Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the construction of settlements in the West Bank and a specific alleged incident during Israel’s 2009 invasion of Gaza. It would have created a committee to find additional companies from which to divest because of their actions in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. The panel also would have been charged with identifying “companies aiding war crimes throughout the world, such as those taking place in Mo-rocco, the Congo, and other places.”

“They threw in two random countries… without any citations or factual support,” said Stern, who is currently running for ASUC president. “That in my mind clarified the fact that this was about Israel, this wasn’t about war crimes.”

“I think they were just trying to write an anti-Israel bill when they were trying to make it seem about war crimes,” said Sandra Cohen, another Jewish senator who opposed the bill. “It wasn’t about war crimes.”

A third Jewish senator, who voted for the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill was revised and gained supporters over the course of the six-hour debate. An early version, published in the minutes of the previous week’s senate meeting, included language, some of which was ultimately removed, that was broadly critical of Israel’s actions in the West Bank and treatment of Palestinians living inside Israel. While the early version of the bill made extensive reference to the Goldstone Report, the final version did not mention the controversial United Nations-sponsored report on the Gaza military campaign. Instead, it cited publications by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and others.

In the end, members of Student Action, the more politically moderate of the two parties that dominate the ASUC, split over the bill.

“I think that some of the senators really believe that it was anti-war crime. And so who wouldn’t be against war crimes?” Cohen said.

So many students and other observers attended the marathon debate that ended in the passage of the bill that the meeting’s venue had to be changed to accommodate the crowd. Some 80 individuals reportedly spoke during the meeting, which finally concluded with a vote at 4 a.m.

“Many of the students, when it was over, they had a real sense of defeat and a real sadness,” said Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of the Berkeley Hillel. “Some of them were devastated. Some of them left the room crying, even though they were pre-pared that it potentially would pass.”

U.C. Berkeley is not the first campus where a student legislative body has passed an Israel-related divestment resolution, but it is the highest-profile campus where such an action has taken place. In February, the student government at the University of Michi-gan’s campus in Dearborn — a major Arab-American population center — passed a non-biding resolution calling on the University of Michigan to divest from companies involved in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“The BDS campaign has never been successful in having a school or university divest from Israel, or cease doing business in Israel, and we as a committee will continue to insure that that never happens,” said Stephen Kuperberg, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a Hillel-sponsored alliance of pro-Israel groups. Still, Kuperberg allowed that the Berkeley resolution was “cause for concern.”

The Berkeley vote came two weeks after the student government at the University of California, Irvine passed a resolution voicing its opposition to academic sanctions against students who disrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech on that campus in February. Jewish students angered by the vote later addressed the student legislative council, each in turn concluding their speeches with the question: “When will this student government stand up for me?”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com


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