Controversy erupts over UC Berkeley’s decision to divest from arm sales

Text reads 'We salute the UC Berkeley student senate for its 16-4 vote endorsing divestment from companies profiting from Israel's violation of Palestinian rights including Hewlett Packard!!'On March 17, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) Senate, composed of 20 elected students from UC Berkeley, voted on two resolutions that urged divestment from General Electric and United Technologies, both of which are American companies. As one of these 20 student senators, I have received more than 5,000 emails in support and opposition to this bill (Bill text available here).
Authors and supporters of the bill include students from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, movement. The bill does three things: It urges UC divestment from General Electric and United Technologies, it condemns war crimes committed by Israel that were detailed in the UN’s Goldstone Report and details how the University of California invested in them, and, most importantly, it creates a task force to examine the University of California and Student Government budgets to determine whether either body invests in any war crimes or human rights abuses worldwide. It was passed in a vote of 16-4, and vetoed by our Student Body President.
During my stay at UC Berkeley, the issue contested most violently on campus between students* has been that of the state of Israel and its relationship with the Palestinian people. My first year at Cal, a graduate student instructor for a course on Peace and Conflict Studies told our class how his mother miscarried his younger brother at a border checkpoint along the “Separation Wall,” because they wouldn’t call medical services for her. Then in January, I traveled to Israel with the “Birthright” program for young Jews. When an ad promoting Israeli tourism was placed at a UC Berkeley bus stop, it was vandalized. When an ad mocking the Israeli tourism industry and highlighting the eviction of Palestinians from Israel was placed at a neighboring bus stop, it too drew controversy. Two of UC Berkeley’s most opposed groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Tikvah Students for Israel, even cross-scheduled their recent weeks of action. “Israeli Peace and Diversity Week,” hosted by Tikvah, and “Israeli Apartheid Week,” Students for Justice in Palestine, included such actions as a reenactment of an Israeli border-crossing inspection at Berkeley’s historic Sather Gate, both the waving and defacing of Israeli flags, folk-dancing, and workshops. Later in the week, a student from Tikvah was accidentally jostled by a shopping cart pushed by a Students for Justice in Palestine member on his way to put away some of the materials for Israeli Apartheid Week. After he was arrested on charges of battery, and his fellow students had to pay his bail.

For most Berkeley students, it’s baffling that on the only campus to offer the blatantly neoliberal Peace and Conflict Studies major, such an international conflict could manifest violently between students. Why waste our time on international issues when budget cuts are so much more prescient? For a long while, I was of the mind that I didn’t want to touch the issue: despite the fact that I am a Political Economy major, the last time my curriculum included Israeli and Palestinian history was in 7th grade. What right did I have, with no family in either territory, to have an opinion? There are few times where I can step back and say, “There is a right and wrong side of history to this issue.” But after both traveling to Israel and interning alongside the defense industry, I’ll be sleeping soundly with my vote for this bill, which divests from all war crimes and human rights abuses.
We have received letters of opposition from Berkeley professors, notably, the former head of the Peace And Conflict Studies major, and from academics, conspiracy theorists, rapture-ready Christians, and Jewish fraternity brothers worldwide. My email teems with more than 5,000 messages in support and opposition to this bill. Most are sent out by auto-mailing systems: In fact, UC Berkeley now enjoys its own little Israel lobby. In response to an ad placed at the bus stop in front of the Student Government building last week, someone spent a lot of money placing facebook ads on the facebook pages of Cal Students that redirect to a support website that mass-emails the student government. Letters addressed to the whole senate tend to carry the tone of “You all are ignorant 20-year-olds who have no idea what devastation you will wreak by your feeble votes on this issue which is over your head.” Letters directly addressed to me tend to take the tone, “You claim to represent queer students. Israel’s a paragon of virtue in the field of queer rights! How dare you oppress LGBT individuals worldwide with your vote?”
But letters of support have been downright inspiring. Israeli and American Jews have written countless letters and statements in support, and in fact, even Naomi Klein wrote us an open letter of solidarity.
Being an LGBT leader on campus who has both traveled to Israel and worked in the national defense industry, I have never felt so uniquely qualified to speak to this issue. And perhaps my required reading of Machiavelli’s advice to readers of The Prince in class two weeks ago may have inspired parts of my vote; seeing the parallels between his strategy of building colonies to avoid military over-stretching and violent responses from locals and Israel’s similar strategy in their struggle to build a nation is uncanny. I voted for the bill, and will do so again when we vote to override the Presidential veto on April 14, so I can start replying to emails that matter, and so UC Berkeley can move on and focus again on issues of access and affordability of education.
I like to reflect on a quote from a campus publication at UC Berkeley called Hardboiled, an Asian/Pacific Islander issues magazine:

“Pick fights. Those are my two words of advice to future generations of hardboiled.
(1) Pick (2) Fights.
Gather hate mail. Frame it and show it off to your friends. Save it: If in the future
you wonder why you are doing what you are doing, a painfully ignorant letter addressed to you is a great reminder. If someone doesn’t disagree, what’s the point of writing it? If it doesn’t create some sort of result, what’s the point of publishing it?”

So yes, issues of Palestine have a right to be heard in Student Government spaces, just as do issues of queer marriage, choice, undocumented students, and affirmative action.
*The issue contested most violently overall at UC Berkeley has been budget cuts, in the many instances of police brutality against supporters of higher education. I’m referring to student-vs.-student interactions.

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