Berkeley Divestment Bill: A Step in the Right Direction

By Sumaiya Hashmi | Opinion | April 23, 2010

The UC Berkeley student senate voted 16-4 last month to pass Bill 118: A Bill in Support of ASUC Divestment from War Crimes. The vote followed intense campaigning and hours of deliberation which included testimonies from many on both sides of the issue. It underwent some back-and-forth, which included being vetoed by Senate President Will Smelko. Then an attempt to override the veto (requiring a two-thirds majority) fell short with a 12-7-1 vote. A motion to reconsider the vote was ultimately tabled.

The bill has garnered support from such notable figures as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, MIT professor Noam Chomsky, and activist author Naomi Klein. However, it has also come under fire for singling out Israel by supporting divestment from General Electric and United Technologies, companies that provide it with military aid and weaponry. It is true that the bill focuses on Israel, but the discrepancy here is simply in the overly broad wording of the title, not in the actual content of the bill.

The bill cites reports from Amnesty International (A.I.) and the U.N. that demonstrate how weapons supplied from the companies in question have been used by Israel in crimes such as the killing of medical aid workers and the bombing of a school. Included in the sources was an A.I. report about Israel’s illegal use of white phosphorous in civilian areas. It is an innately indiscriminate weapon which burns the skin through to bone and doesn’t stop as long as oxygen is present. Israel initially denied using the weapon, only to admit to it later. A U.N. report describes events such as the following: “The Israeli air force killed two Palestinian children and seriously injured two others when one of its aircraft fired a missile at a group of Palestinian children who were sitting in a street near Rafah. An Israeli military spokesman admitted responsibility for the attack and claimed that it was targeting members of Palestinian armed groups.”

It is difficult not to question the humanity of a nation that would commit such acts. What’s mind-blowing is that the United States and so many companies think it’s a good idea to reward such behavior with military aid. Now one might wonder: Doesn’t Hamas also use illegal and often devastating methods? Yes, but that’s why we call them a terrorist group, and we certainly don’t provide them with weapons like we have with Israel.

A primary criticism of the bill, and a major reason Smelko chose to veto it, is that it is one-sided in its singling-out of Israel. Opponents highlight cases of other countries or groups that commit war crimes that ought to spur divestment. However, the fact that other countries also engage in criminal behavior is no reason to excuse Israel’s actions. This is akin to the childish excuse that because everyone’s doing it, it must be acceptable. Yes, other violators should also be targeted—and they are. The UC Berkeley senate has indeed focused on other countries; for example, a past bill encouraged divestment from Sudan, and Bill 118 includes a call for divestment policies from companies that aid war crimes throughout the world, including specific locations such as the Congo. The excuse utilized by the bill’s opponents is convenient and timeless because there will always be numerous problems in the world, and those who use this rationale will say we should fix all the other problems first. However, such an argument is simply dishonest in this case; referencing the Sudan bill alone shows that others have been targeted and that Israel is not some poor scapegoat just because this is the most recent or most controversial bill.

Of course, A.I. and the U.N. are not held in high esteem by many in the pro-Zionism camp, and no criticism of Israel goes unquestioned (though, curiously, support often does). Many of the crimes cited in the bill are explained in detail in the Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (more commonly known as the Goldstone Report after Richard Goldstone, who headed the mission). As is routine for works critical of Israel, this report has come under fire for virulent anti-Semitism. (To be fair, Arabs are Semites too, but that’s a matter for another discussion.) This knee-jerk tendency to label any and all opposition to Israeli policies or actions with the stain of prejudice has been overused; the labels are thrown around so wantonly that we’re at a point where it’s difficult to take them seriously.

There is nothing in Goldstone’s history to suggest that he is a self-hating Jew (another popular catchphrase that has been applied to groups including New Profile, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Shministim). The man is a Jewish South African judge who has worked on tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and has “very deep ties to Israel” according to former Israeli Supreme Court president Aharon Barak (Haaretz). He has never shown any signs of anti-Semitism in his past, and there is no compelling reason to think he is starting now. Goldstone is only being ostracized because of what he dared to investigate and write about, and the campaign to detract from the credibility of his report is frightening in its implications for critical evaluation. Relating this case to the Berkeley vote, a Jewish student senator who voted for the bill reported being accused of having a “cultural pathology” and feeling unsafe due to threats made against her after its passage.

This fear of the smothering of criticism is what makes Bill 118 all the more notable, and the fact that it came so far speaks volumes. It made it to this point with the help of a wide network of support. It was not supported only by Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine members, Arabs, Muslims, or whatever stereotypical group one might assume to be critical of Zionist policies. Rather, it united students from a plethora of ethnic and religious backgrounds and various political leanings. An 80 percent majority on the initial senate vote is quite an impressive feat, and the fact that deliberations lasted upward of nine hours and featured speakers from both sides is a promising example of inclusive decision-making. The bill is good for discourse because it challenges us to think critically about policies we might otherwise accept without question. A departure from blind, unquestioning support in favor of honest and critical evaluation can only be a good thing. Opposing injustice and military brutality is vital, regardless of whether it comes from our enemies, our allies, or ourselves.

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