How To Beat Back Israel Divestment Bill: Get Organized

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published April 21, 2010, issue of April 30, 2010.
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When a bill calling for divestment from some companies doing business with Israel surfaced at a mid-March student government committee hearing at the University of California, Berkeley, local Jewish communal watchdogs were taken by surprise. When the divestment measure was overwhelmingly approved at a student senate debate days later, some students affiliated with Hillel left the meeting in tears.

On different Sides: Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel (top) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both wrote letters about the divestment bill.
On different Sides: Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel (top) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both wrote letters about the divestment bill.

Even when the student senate president vetoed the measure, those against divestment hardly saw it as a victory; they knew that the veto could be easily undone, since the bill was passed with more votes than would be needed to overturn the veto.

And so a campaign was launched. The debate on the veto was scheduled for the night of April 14. In the two weeks prior, Berkeley Hillel coordinated a comprehensive national lobbying campaign consisting of a teach-in, face-to-face meetings with student senators and an intervention by a Nobel laureate, all aimed at robbing the divestment supporters of three senate votes.

Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the Hillel’s newly installed executive director, said that the strategy for countering divestment efforts was devised at a roundtable meeting convened by Hillel and attended by representatives of local branches of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council, J Street, Israel’s consul general in San Francisco and local rabbis.

Outmaneuvering the pro-divestment supporters, this organizing coup appears to have worked: After a marathon debate that lasted well into the next morning, two senators changed their minds and one abstained, and the veto was upheld.

“Three votes changed,” Akiva Tor, the consul general, told the Forward. “So something happened.”

The controversial resolution called on the university to divest from General Electric Co. and United Technologies “because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” It also created a committee to suggest additional companies for future divestment.

The Hillel-organized teach-in, open exclusively to members of the student senate, featured talks by the consul general, an Israeli visiting professor, a professor of international law and others. Seven senators attended. One, a co-sponsor of the bill who did not change her vote, said that the presenters were respectful but she felt uncomfortable.

“There were undertones of intimidation to me,” Emily Carlton said. “For one thing, they were all a lot older, they were all a lot more distinguished.”

One anti-divestment student group handed out suggested talking points for those speaking against the bill at the student government meeting. The existence of the talking points, which were posted on the blog Mondoweiss, was confirmed by Naftalin-Kelman, who said that they were not distributed by the Hillel.

“DON’T try to deconstruct the bill,” the talking points read. “Instead, focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community.”

In addition, the Jewish groups solicited open letters to the student senators. Letters were sent by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, J Street, and Amos Oz, among others.

Supporters of the divestment bill also lobbied key senators, but their effort was less directed than that of the pro-Israel groups, according to one of the bill’s drafters, Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, who is not a member of the student senate.

“It was pretty ad hoc,” he said of efforts to wrangle enough votes to overturn the presidential veto. “I suggested to the some senators people I knew that knew a lot about the topic…. They chose if they wanted to meet with them or not.”

Still, supporters of the bill were able to muster a Nobel laureate of their own. Emily Carlton said divestment proponents solicited a letter in support of their position from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded a Nobel peace prize for his work in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. Carlton also said that a letter sent in support of the pro-divestment position by left-wing journalist Naomi Klein surprised her and others.

A group of prominent Jewish members of the U.C. Berkeley community, including professor Daniel Boyarin, took out a two-page advertisement in The Daily Californian, a student-run newspaper, in support of the bill. Boyarin said that the advertisement was organized through an e-mail listserv that had been convened for an earlier campaign, and that it was not coordinated by the student groups promoting the bill.

According to Carlton, tremendous pressure was brought to bear on Minji Kim, the senator seen as the key swing vote.

“Both sides had people talk to her before,” Carlton said. “Both sides campaigned very hard, and she was under an incredible amount of pressure.”

Kim could not be reached for comment. NhuNhu Nguyen, a senator who switched to opposing the divestment proposal from supporting it, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Naftalin-Kelman and Tor were among the hundreds to attend the marathon debate that ran through the night April 14. The venue was changed multiple times to accommodate overflow crowds.

Finally, at 5:30 a.m. on April 15, 12 senators voted to overturn the veto, seven voted to let it stand and one senator abstained. One of the senators who voted to let the veto stand was actually a supporter of the bill, and after the vote, she made a motion to reopen discussion. Debate continued until 7:30 a.m., when the measure was tabled.

A student senator said that the measure may be taken up again before the end of the semester, but if so it would probably happen in a closed session.

Whether or not the resolution eventually passes, the intense lobbying campaign may have already had a lasting effect on the Berkeley student government.

In the weeks between the first vote and the attempt to overturn the veto, discussions about how to challenge Berkeley student senate support for the bill were held as faraway as Washington, D.C. At an AIPAC conference in Washington in late March, AIPAC leadership development director Jonathan Kessler said that his organization would “make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote,” as recorded in a video taken at the conference by the JTA. “This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s Capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses,” he said.

In Berkeley student government election results announced April 13, one of the senators who had vocally opposed the divestment resolution was elected president of the student government. His party, considered the more moderate of the two Berkeley student parties, won a majority in the senate.

Naftalin-Kelman said that the divestment vote might have played a role in the results but if so, it was one of many factors. “I think it did pull out more Jewish votes than in the past,” he said. “There’s other things on campus, as well…I think it may have had a contributing factor. I don’t think it was as big as some people think.”

In response to an inquiry from the Forward, an AIPAC spokesman wrote in an e-mail: “We took no position on the Berkeley student election, since like in any other election, we don’t rate or endorse candidates. Of course we would always, publicly and consistently, encourage pro-Israel students to be active in civic and political life.” The spokesman declined to make Kessler available for an interview.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com






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