BDS at UC Berkeley: The Campaign, The Vote, and The Veto by Youmna Derby and Dina Omar*

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

In the early morning of March 18th 2010, the University of California Berkeley Student Senate (ASUC) passed a bill to divest from companies providing military support for the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The “Divestment From War Crimes” bill, SB118A, specifically targets two companies that enable and profit from conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), among other places. Debate on the bill began the night of March 17th at 9 pm. More than 150 students, educators and concerned community members attended the senate session, forcing the meeting’s relocation to a larger room. Never before had the ASUC’s chambers been so crowded, signifying the importance of and interest in Israel-Palestine on Berkeley’s campus. The late night session culminated in the overwhelming endorsement of the bill in a 16 to 4 vote, taken at 3am on March 18th. While Berkeley’s Associated Student Body President vetoed the bill approximately one week later, the legislation’s initial success is a milestone for divestment activists at Berkeley and beyond. The story of the bill’s passage, which was the result of nearly a decade of on-campus student activism, is the story of the divestment campaign at UC Berkeley.

The Birth of SJP and Divestment as a Tactic

It is no coincidence that Berkeley is one of the first large academic institutions to leverage its investments as a tool to end injustice in the OPT. The university has a long precedent of using such tactics to achieve social change. In the past, Berkeley has divested from apartheid South Africa, tobacco companies, and the Sudan, as a consequence of the conflict in Darfur. Furthermore, Berkeley is an institution with a vanguard of professors that continually challenge students to tackle issues of justice and inequality in the world. Among these are eminent scholars, such as Judith Butler, Laura Nader, and Beshara Doumani, as well as academics with seasoned activist backgrounds, like Hatem Bazian. Together they have promoted the praxis of knowledge: the practical use of knowledge learned in the classrooms towards solving real-world problems.

The injustices committed by the Israeli government in the OPT have been well documented by United Nations committees and international non-governmental organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Moved by these human rights violations, as well as the increase in violence and injustice in the Palestinian Territories that came with the start of the Second Intifada, Berkeley students began to consider the use of divestment as a means of intervention in late 2000. Only a few months later on February 6, 2001, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) officially launched its divestment campaign. Over the years, SJP Berkeley’s initiative would inspire a nationwide movement for justice on the Israel-Palestinian issue at over 40 university campuses across the nation.

Approximately one year later, on April 9, 2002, SJP’s demonstration commemorating the 1948 Deir Yassin Massacre grew into the second symbolic occupation of UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall–students had occupied the building for the first time in April 2001. The student protestors included divestment on their list of demands. Will Youmans, a leading Berkeley SJP organizer at the time, explained the objectives of divestment as a political tactic in an October 25, 2002 article for Counter Punch:

The goal for divestment is an objective, non-partisan American policy to replace its destructive, pro-Israeli bias that ultimately furthers the wasting of lives on both sides. Divestment advocates seek to disconnect Israel from America’s womb. This does what the United States has failed to do: treat Israel as another country in the world’s community of nations. It is time Israel face the responsibilities and expectations codified in international law and necessary for a peaceful resolution to its conflict with the land’s natives.

Between the 2001 launch of the campaign and the divestment bill’s introduction in March 2010, there were definite dips in SJP’s divestment efforts. In part, this was due to the student turnover inherent to on-campus organizations and the consequent gap it engendered in the institutional memory of groups such as the SJP. When coupled with SJP’s subsequent involvement in other political and social causes, such as the defense of the 79 students and community members who faced prosecution after the 2002 takeover of Wheeler Hall, as well as the group’s active opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, SJP’s silence on divestment is more explicable.

Informing Students about Palestine

Throughout the years, Berkeley SJP has continually participated in Israeli Apartheid Week. For three consecutive years, IAW has greatly influenced popular opinion on campus by educating students about the facts on the ground in Palestine, while at the same time encouraging them to connect the Palestinian issues with different struggles for justice around the globe. Through SJP’s involvement in other student coalitions and initiatives, the group has become one of the largest student organizations on Berkeley’s campus.

According to Yaman Salahi, an SJP member for four years, one of the organization’s accomplishments has been its ability to foster individual relationships and create bonds between people from different parts of campus, which has created visibility for SJP and the Palestinian issue at large. According to Salahi, “the most important aspect involved the actual interactions students had with one another on campus, rather than the flawed media coverage which failed to convey information about Palestine or SJP’s message. Student activities also improved the knowledge of people within SJP and prepared us for this phase of divestment.”

Indeed, SJP’s focus on internal education, as well as its diverse membership, has given the group a solid and deep roster of activists who can speak about the Israel-Palestine issue from multiple perspectives.

SJP encourages and engages in reflection about race and power, and the means by which these phenomena unfold throughout the world, on campus, and in the group’s own internal dynamics. The lessons learned on these issues are crucial to SJP’s ability to withstand the opposition it and its members regularly face on campus. Throughout SJP’s tenure, the group and its members have been under constant scrutiny and have been the targets of personal harassment and intimidation. In the past, SJP has been suspended by the University administration and has faced frequent institutional obstacles. Its members have been subjected to personal attacks and defamation, and have been threatened with and have even faced lawsuits. Last year, three SJP members were victims of a hate crime according to the University of California Police Department.

Although the group and its members continued to face these obstacles during the 2009-2010 academic year, SJP had also become more adept at countering these setbacks and moving forward with its divestment agenda. A visit from the spokesman for the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic, Omar Barghouti, helped SJP navigate its divestment strategy and was the final push needed to bring the divestment bill, which had been in the works for months, to the floor of the ASUC.

The Divestment Bill and Beyond

SB118A calls for divestment of ASUC investments from General Electric and United Technologies, two companies that have directly aided the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The bill also recommends that the UC Regents, a body that controls investments for the entire University of California system, follow suit.

Amongst the 70 audience member-speakers at the ASUC meeting, there was deliberation and self-expression of every sort. Those who spoke both for and against the bill came from a variety of different backgrounds. Speakers included freshmen students, faculty members and members of prominent community organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace, Progressive Democrats of the East Bay, and the Berkeley Hillel. At one point or another, men and women from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Israel, Egypt, Mexico and Pakistan held the microphone to advocate for or against the bill’s passage.

Amongst the bill’s supporters were individuals from a diversity of religious and ethnic backgrounds, expressing a variety of reasons in favor of the bill’s adoption. Those supporters from amongst the Jewish community insisted that the Israeli occupation did not represent the position of the Jewish community in its totality. By endorsing the bill, these members of the Jewish community, committed to the attainment of peace and justice in the OPT, hoped to convey to the Israeli government the message that its policies were “not in their name”. Palestinian students, some of whom were visiting from the OPT and others whose parents had emigrated to the U.S. decades ago, shared their narratives of dispossession under Occupation, and spoke of the bill as one of the few effective, non-violent means of resisting the conditions that continued to exist in the OPT. Other supporters connected the Palestinian issue to other struggles for civil and human rights around the globe. Students of Armenian, African-American and Hispanic origin spoke of how their respective histories of discrimination and suffering gave them a more intimate understanding and empathy for the Palestinian struggle.

Amongst those who opposed the bill, most came from within the Berkeley student community, with a large majority identifying as either Jewish or Israeli. Their concerns with the bill fit into several themes. Paramount amongst these was a concern that the bill singled out Israel, “the only democracy in the Middle East”, for reprimand and criticism, while other “non-democratic” countries escaped rebuke. They painted the bill as “taking sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Divestment, they argued, was not the best way to address the conflict, could further aggravate the situation by alienating or marginalizing moderate voices within Israeli society, and would lend support to those Israeli politicians espousing right wing policies. Some opponents spoke about Israel’s right to self-defense against Palestinian aggression, cautioned the student senators against treading into overly complex political territory about which they were ill-informed, and advised against meddling in Israeli affairs. Others suggested that the bill would alienate a sector of the Berkeley student population who disagreed with its claims and who might feel targeted as a result of its endorsement by the ASUC.

These arguments spurred strong responses from the bill’s supporters. They referred to past ASUC divestment bills, in 1986 against companies investing in apartheid South Africa and in 2005 against companies involved in the Sudan, to counter claims that Israel was being singled out for rebuke and to demonstrate the ASUC’s historical commitment to divesting from countries with a demonstrated record of violating human rights and international law. Supporters reminded the audience that consciously choosing to address political issues had always, and proudly, been a prerogative of UC Berkeley students.

Bearing witness to the ASUC senate meeting that night was bearing witness to democratic practice at work: its arduousness and cumbersome reliance on persuasion, deliberation and compromise.

The Veto

After a week of criticism and praise of the bill by the media, other campuses and local and international organizations, the President of the Associated Student Body at Berkeley, Will Smelko, exercised his right to veto the legislation. Smelko’s reasons for issuing the veto were similar to the arguments raised by the bill’s opponents on March 17-18th. In essence, Smelko suggested that the bill made a decision about a historically complicated issue in haste, ran the risk of alienating part of the student body, and unfairly singled out Israel for reprimand and punishment. In response, SJP published a rebuttal to Smelko’s veto, pointing out perceptible holes in his argument, recounting the positive ways in which the bill addressed a troubling situation, emphasizing the broad and diverse campus support the bill enjoyed and highlighting its connection with Berkeley’s long tradition of taking explicit stands against injustice.

On April 14th, the ASUC met to decide whether the presidential veto should be upheld. With 700 attendants, the turnout overwhelmingly superseded the intial March 18th vote. The attendance level was undoubtedly the result of the marked publicity that the bill’s passage and subsequent veto had received, including public statements made by notable figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Judith Butler, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.

At the meeting, both proponents and opponents of the bill presented a series of well-known speakers in an attempt to sway the vote to their respective sides. Holocaust survivor Hedi Esptein and Prof. Judith Butler spoke on the bill’s behalf, while Akiva Tor, Israeli Consul General for the Pacific Northwest, spoke against it. After 7.5 hours of deliberation, the ASUC voted on a motion to table the bill and to reconvene for additional deliberation on April 28th. After an intense week of lobbying, which included a unique alliance between AIPAC, Hillel, and J Street amongst others to uphold the veto, the April 28th vote fell one vote short of the 14 votes necessary for override, with 5 votes in favor of the veto and 13 against. Divestment opponents had managed to convince three senators, who had originally supported SB118A, to switch sides.

Despite this setback, the divestment bill had already achieved much of its purpose. It had spurred dialogue and debate about Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories on campuses and in communities nation-wide. It had educated Berkeley students who knew little about the issue, by bringing it to the forefront of campus news. It had broadened and consolidated SJP’s connections to the ever-widening network of organizations and individuals working for justice in Palestine. As in the case of most campaigns for justice, equality and freedom, movements don’t die, they multiply. In the academic semesters and years to come, we remain confident that there will be a watershed of new university-based divestment campaigns aimed at bringing justice to the Palestinian Territories.

*Youmna Derby is a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

Dina Omar is a graduate of UC Berkeley, with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Anthropology, and is currently the membership coordinator at the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

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