Berkeley Divestment

by zunguzungu

Photo poached from the Daily Cal

Yesterday morning, as the sun was coming up, the Berkeley ASUC Senate came very close to resolving to “ensure that its assets, and will advocate that  the UC assets, do not include holdings in General Electric and United Technologies because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” I have stopped lazily considering Berkeley student government to be a joke. The resolution failed by a margin of one vote; having originally passed 16-4, it was vetoed by the ASUC senate president six days later and a massive PR campaign from both sides resulted in a 13-7-1 vote, one short of the 14 votes necessary to overturn the veto.

It’s unclear if that resolution would have resulted in actual divestment, actually, and I’m not sure how much power the ASUC actually has. But the symbolic step is the pretty significant thing, since it draws exactly the kinds of analogies with divestment campaigns against Apartheid in the 1980’s that Pro-occupation people don’t want drawn. Which is why the Israeli Consulate General, Akiva Tor, was there for the ten hour epic that culminated in tabling the motion in the early hours of the morning. They’re taking this quite seriously, and they should– Cecilie Surasky reports having received an email from a SJP group at another campus asking for help introducing a similar bill at their campus, and the prospect of this becoming an ongoing form of symbolic protest would be a disaster for the “nothing to see here, move along people” agenda.

The resolution, it is worth noting, is quite narrowly focused. GE and UT are two American companies that, as they put it, are “materially and militarily supporting the Israeli government’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, including American companies General Electric and United Technologies”:

WHEREAS, General Electric holds engineering support and testing service contracts with the Israeli military and supplies the Israeli government with the propulsion system for its Apache Assault Helicopter fleet, which, as documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has been used in attacks on Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, including the January 4, 2009 killings of Palestinian medical aide workers11; and

WHEREAS, United Technologies supplies the Israeli government with Blackhawk helicopters and with F-15 and F-16 aircraft engines and holds an ongoing fleet management contract for these engines, and, Amnesty International has documented the Israeli government’s use of these aircraft in the bombing of the American School in Gaza, the killing of Palestinians civilians, and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes;12

You can read the whole resolution here, and you should if you want to have an opinion on it. And I say that because the manner in which the relevance of the actual facts has actually become a point of disagreement is striking. You can read the entire “Unifying Strategies for Our Jewish Community” pamphlet that was distributed on campus to those opposing divestment here or here, but here are what I consider to be some fairly damning excerpts:

The message: The bill is an attack on our Jewish community. It silences our voices.

**End your speech with “Don’t Silence Me” This will have a powerful, unifying impact.**

DO include in your speech

Make it personal, include personal experiences and emphasize feelings of personal attack.

The Bill is out of context and based on questionable sources (no need to go into detail). Thus, the bill is in fact an attack on the JEWISH COMMUNITY.

An unjustified attack on Israel is an attack on my Jewish identity. It is attacking ME.

DO NOT include in your speech

DON’T try to deconstruct the bill. DON’T focus on addressing the fallacies/specifics of the bill. Instead, focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community.

AVOID a debate on the Middle East. Supporters of the bill would like to argue on this platform.

Which is to say: don’t talk about what is actually happening; talk about how you feel. As Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the executive director of Berkeley Hillel, put it (as the Daily Cal paraphrases), overriding the veto would make UC Berkeley a more hostile environment for Jewish and Israeli students: “It will definitely cause a decrease in the number of Jewish students willing to attend Cal,” he said. As I paraphrase: the feelings of UC Berkeley students are more important than actual international law and human rights (not to mention that, as a variety of people have pointed out, the idea that campus is a hostile place for Jewish and Israeli students seems completely spurious to me, as is the implication that what Palestinian students go through (or Jews who aren’t in the Zionist camp) are somehow non-issues.

(The most egregious example of the anti-divestment campaign’s active hostility to the issue itself was AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director, Jonathan Kessler, who several weeks ago threatened to “beat back” divestment campaigns like Berkeley, by “taking over student government.” The youtube video of it is here, but this is the impoertant quote, which occurs at minute 3:58:

“How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley? We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”)

In any case, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, in an open letter to the ASUC:

To those who wrongly accuse you of unfairness or harm done to them by this call for divestment, I suggest, with humility, that the harm suffered from being confronted with opinions that challenge one’s own pales in comparison to the harm done by living a life under occupation and daily denial of basic rights and dignity. It is not with rancor that we criticize the Israeli government, but with hope, a hope that a better future can be made for both Israelis and Palestinians, a future in which both the violence of the occupier and the resulting violent resistance of the occupied come to an end, and where one people need not rule over another, engendering suffering, humiliation, and retaliation.[1]

But what the ASUC senator who abstained said to explain her decision was “her belief that she lacked sufficient qualifications to vote on the issue.” And I was interested to see that the first “whereas” in the resolution bill itself is this:

WHEREAS, the ASUC notes the complexity of international relations in all cases, including the Middle East, and recognizes the inability of a body such as the ASUC to adjudicate matters of international law and human rights law, or to take sides on final status issues on wars and occupations throughout the world.

It’s amazing to me how “it’s too complicated” becomes cover for doing nothing. Because the entire thrust of the bill and discussion is that doing nothing is a certain kind of complicity, against which the argument is not that the thing we legitimize by our dollars is something we’ve all signed on for, but that if it makes us feel better to put our heads in the sand, we should do just that. To which — because I have papers to grade — I turn you over to Judith Butler, whose speech you can read in full here, but who, I think, quite nicely clarifies what is and isn’t at stake here (this article in the 2003 LRB is also worth reading):

The first thing I want to say is that there is hardly a Jewish dinner table left in this country–or indeed in Europe and much of Israel–in which there is not enormous disagreement about the status of the occupation, Israeli military aggression and the future of Zionism, binationalism and citizenship in the lands called Israel and Palestine. There is no one Jewish voice, and in recent years, there are increasing differences among us, as is evident by the multiplication of Jewish groups that oppose the occupation and which actively criticize and oppose Israeli military policy and aggression.…if someone says that it offends “the Jews” to oppose the occupation, then you have to consider how many Jews are already against the occupation, and whether you want to be with them or against them. If someone says that “Jews” have one voice on this matter, you might consider whether there is something wrong with imagining Jews as a single force, with one view, undivided. It is not true. The sponsors of Monday evening’s round table at Hillel made sure not to include voices with which they disagree. And even now, as demonstrations in Israel increase in number and volume against the illegal seizure of Palestinian lands, we see a burgeoning coalition of those who seek to oppose unjust military rule, the illegal confiscation of lands, and who hold to the norms of international law even when nations refuse to honor those norms.

What I learned as a Jewish kid in my synagogue–which was no bastion of radicalism–was that it was imperative to speak out against social injustice. I was told to have the courage to speak out, and to speak strongly, even when people accuse you of breaking with the common understanding, even when they threaten to censor you or punish you. The worst injustice, I learned, was to remain silent in the face of criminal injustice. And this tradition of Jewish social ethics was crucial to the fights against Nazism, fascism and every form of discrimination, and it became especially important in the fight to establish the rights of refugees after the Second World War. Of course, there are no strict analogies between the Second World War and the contemporary situation, and there are no strict analogies between South Africa and Israel, but there are general frameworks for thinking about co-habitation, the right to live free of external military aggression, the rights of refugees, and these form the basis of many international laws that Jews and non-Jews have sought to embrace in order to live in a more just world, one that is more just not just for one nation or for another, but for all populations, regardless of nationality and citizenship. If some of us hope that Israel will comply with international law, it is precisely so that one people can live among other peoples in peace and in freedom. It does not de-legitimate Israel to ask for its compliance with international law. Indeed, compliance with international law is the best way to gain legitimacy, respect and an enduring place among the peoples of the world.

Of course, we could argue on what political forms Israel and Palestine must take in order for international law to be honored. But that is not the question that is before you this evening. We have lots of time to consider that question, and I invite you to join me to do that in a clear-minded way in the future. But consider this closely: the bill you have before you does not ask that you take a view on Israel. I know that it certainly seems like it does, since the discussion has been all about that. But it actually makes two points that are crucial to consider. The first is simply this: there are two companies that not only are invested in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and peoples, but who profit from that occupation, and which are sustained in part by funds invested by the University of California. They are General Electric and United Technologies. They produce aircraft designed to bomb and kill, and they have bombed and killed civilians, as has been amply demonstrated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. You are being asked to divest funds from these two companies. You are NOT being asked to divest funds from every company that does business with Israel. And you are not being asked to resolve to divest funds from Israeli business or citizens on the basis of their citizenship or national belonging. You are being asked only to call for a divestment from specific companies that make military weapons that kill civilians. That is the bottom line.

If the newspapers or others seek to make inflammatory remarks and to say that this is an attack on Israel, or an attack on Jews, or an upsurge of anti-Semitism, or an act that displays insensitivity toward the feelings of some of our students, then there is really only one answer that you can provide, as I see it. Do we let ourselves be intimidated into not standing up for what is right? It is simply unethical for UC to invest in such companies when they profit from the killing of civilians under conditions of a sustained military occupation that is manifestly illegal according to international law. The killing of civilians is a war crime. By voting yes, you say that you do not want the funds of this university to be invested in war crimes, and that you hold to this principle regardless of who commits the war crime or against whom it is committed.


[1] That letter is worth reading, but here are the juicy bits:

I have been to the Ocupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime. Students played a leading role in that struggle, and I write this letter with a special indebtedness to your school, Berkeley, for its pioneering role in advocating equality in South Africa and promoting corporate ethical and social responsibility to end complicity in Apartheid. I visited your campus in the 1980’s and was touched to find students sitting out in the baking sunshine to demonstrate for the University’s disvestment in companies supporting the South African regime.The same issue of equality is what motivates the divestment movement of today, which tries to end Israel’s 43 year long occupation and the unequal treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them. The abuses they face are real, and no person should be offended by principled, morally consistent, non-violent acts to oppose them. It is no more wrong to call out Israel in particular for its abuses than it was to call out the Apartheid regime in particular for its abuses.