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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  1. Sarah
    Posted April 6, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I’m so glad to see Feministing covering this topic.
    The huge amount of tax payer dollars that go to Israel, coupled with the outsized influence of the Israeli lobby in American politics and mainstream media, make the Israeli occupation of Palestine a topic that Americans can not ignore.
    On a fundamental level, I will not support a country that is based on the idea of exclusivity and therefore exclusion (for reasons of race, religion or ideology).
    The fight to bring public awareness to the issue is long, slow, and very frustrating at times. I’ve found that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book “The Israel Lobby”,, and the group Jewish Voice for Peace, are good starting points to use when introducing Americans to the other side of the issue that is so often misunderstood in the US.

  2. Rose Jupiter
    Posted April 6, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Utterly gnarly. You obviously know your shit, and I politically agree with the student government’s decision. Good to see someone has the balls to call out Israel; god knows no one else, especially our government, seems to be. Keep at it!

  3. ecarden
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    Are you sure those are the links you meant for the ad vandalism links? They appear to show that a set of pro-israel ads were vandalized twice, unless I’m missing something?
    Also, is a link missing from this part:
    “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.”
    The linked article only says that he was arrested and asserted it was accidental. Was there a police finding that it was an accident, or do you have some further information that you haven’t included?
    I’m sorry but I stopped taking you seriously after finding that you seemed to either be incapable of linking correctly, or were deliberatly misrepresenting what was in the links, or are simply predisposed, as are we all, to see things from a certain perspective. However, from first impressions, which are often wrong, your perspective is such that I couldn’t trust you to be an unbiased observer on this topic.

  4. Keliz
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    All three of the links you mention appear in the first section, in which the author is commenting on the divisiveness of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The only one that appears to be mislabeled is the second sign which definitely could have been an accident rather than a deliberate misrepresentation. The first says exactly what you said it appeared to show – a vandalized pro-Israel ad.
    The linked article includes an acknowledgement by the complainant that upon bumping into her the SJP member claimed it was an accident. She states she felt his tone was sarcastic. The arrested student and a friend claim he couldn’t see and that the incident was genuinely accidental. While the police have not released a finding, there are competing claims about the nature of the incident and no conclusive proof in either direction. This incident supports the overall point of that paragraph that tensions have been particularly high during that week which was marked by activism on both sides of the issue. The author’s framing using “accidentally” decisively probably does betray bias, but that is not the point of the link.
    I might propose that your own possible bias on this issue could have caused you to misread the author’s claims.
    In the end, the author is honest that they have a particular view of this issue based on their time in Israel and their experience working for the defense industry. The article actually provides very little evidence in favor of either position however. It seems to be more focused on the campus conflict and the manner in which it is detracting away from focus on “issues of access and affordability”.
    Which doesn’t in any way support the conclusion that “issues of Palestine have a right to be heard in government spaces”, but also doesn’t seem to be deliberately misleading.
    The truth is that rarely does an informed individual on this topic have an “unbiased perspective”, so I think your accusation is unreasonable. The information is the sort which by nature inspires more extreme reactions, and which is rarely obtained without personal connection to the conflict. It would be interesting, had the author given us some of that background, to see how it compared with our own information and experience. Unfortunately, the article really doesn’t say much of anything, aside from “hey people are really getting heated at Berkeley over the Israel-Palestine conflict and the possibility of divestment, and I voted for the divestment”.

  5. Lydia
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “Unfortunately, the article really doesn’t say much of anything, aside from ‘hey people are really getting heated at Berkeley over the Israel-Palestine conflict and the possibility of divestment, and I voted for the divestment’”.
    I agree and that’s why this article depresses me more than anything else. I already knew that people get heated and unreasonable on college campuses over this conflict. I’ve got memories from my own days on a college campus when I mostly just wanted to tell everyone to STFU.
    I care a lot about this issue. I have read extensively about it, taken courses on it and I’ve been to Israel twice and have family there. I loathe the actions of Israel’s government and mourn the aggression and militarism that has taken hold there. It seems antithetical to all I consider to be truly Jewish. I’m against the occupation, against settlements, and support a two-state solution. Basically, I philosophically align with the left.
    Except I could never stand to be involved with leftist student groups because I couldn’t stand half the people in them. They tended to be no less shockingly ignorant than the people on the right and often no less hateful. I’m really frustrated when rightwingers cry anti-semitism every time somebody criticizes Israel but the issue is complicated by the fact that I have witnessed a lot of real anti-semitism on the left and that is just really damn disturbing to me. Even though I have definite positions myself, I tend to try to see things from both sides and understand the emotions, fears and moral complexities involved for people that actually live with this conflict on a daily basis. And that doesn’t seem to fly with a lot of people, whatever side they’re on. I’ve been accused, at various times, of being an Israel-hating, self-loathing Jew and a Palestinian-hating imperialist, depending on what kind of idealogue I happen to be talking to.
    Generally, I have found the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this country to be about as rational and civil as the Yankees-Red Sox conflict. It’s just about picking teams and getting off on making a lot of noise. For this reason, I’ve nearly stopped talking about this issue altogether, except with close friends and family. And I wonder how many other concerned, well-informed people have been similarly silenced by all the madness.

  6. ecarden
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Apologies, I thought I was clear, but re-reading it’s not. The way the opening read to me was as a ‘misbehavior on both sides, no one really right, both sides causing trouble’ when, at least in the links provided, all that was discussed was misbehavior on the pro-Palestinian side. There are, I assume, incidents that support her parallelism, but when someone says both sides are breaking the rules/law/whatever and then provides evidence of only one side doing so, it sets off alarm bells, at least for me.
    You’re correct that whether the incident with a shopping cart is an accident or not is irrelevant to her main point, but as you acknowledge it is demonstrative of her bias, which is my main focus (for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment).
    On the topic of my own bias, absolutely it effects my perception of both the bias I allege for her and my view of the general situation. I’m somewhere in the middle of the pro-Israel camp, which means I tend to see extreme bias in light bias and unconscious bias in pieces that are probably neutral and a distinct lack of bias in things that are probably biased in favor of Israel (after all they’re just telling the truth *sarcasm*). Which is why I generally try to not start conversations on this topic, because I have a hard time being fair.
    Your discussion of what the article says is precisely why her bias is relevant to the discussion. She’s not discussing facts, or anything (aside, as far as I can tell, from the above) that is falsifiable, or in any way provable. All we’re getting is her impressions. By far the most interesting bit was her discussion of the letters. If it turns out that it’s accurate, that says something interesting about the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups on campus and perhaps nationally, but because of her (to my mind, at least) clear bias, I can’t accept the part of her piece that (again, to me) is most interesting, as read to be accurate.

  7. ecarden
    Posted April 7, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t been silenced, but I have learned not to start conversations on the topic and, as you can probably see, I’ve become much more fixed, not necessarily in position, but in rhetoric, because I’ve seen what was internal criticism taken again and again as cover for antisemitism. ‘Look even the Jews recognize that Israel is evil!’ (not a direct quote).
    And, in the reverse, I’ve seen more than a few pieces described as anti-semitic, where I can’t even see what the hell the writers are talking about.
    And, to reverse myself yet again, I’ve seen any criticism of an anti-Israel (or pro-Palestinian, as they aren’t the same) piece countered, or even pre-empted with a ‘they’re going to play the anti-semitism card to try to silence me’ (also, not a direct quote) and then any criticism can safely be ignored as it’s clearly an attempt to ‘silence’ the author.

  8. Posted April 7, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to point out that Muzzlewatch has an update on AIPAC’s promise to “…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.”
    Article here:

  9. Lydia
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Yep, I’ve seen all that too, which often just makes me feel afraid to say anything. I haven’t been completely silenced. I will talk about this with people who seem genuinely thoughtful about the whole thing but these people are usually not student activists. Hate to say it, but it’s true.
    Sometimes I feel that views and feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are kind of like religion. The people who are reasonable are the ones you don’t hear from. And the unreasonable, ignorant people are the loudmouths. Honestly, most of the people I know who are open-minded, well-informed and principled without being dogmatic about this issue are the ones who are most reluctant to talk about it. They’ve also incurred plenty of war wounds from idealogues. It’s pretty sad.

  10. Keliz
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t sure which piece to reply to, so consider this a reply to the entire conversation thus far :)
    ecarden and Lydia: it’s too bad we couldn’t all sit down and have a conversation, because I have a feeling it would be both thoughtful and intellectually engaging. I laughed when I saw your comparison to religion Lydia, because that is just what I was thinking.
    The painful thing, for anyone who studies these issues in-depth, is that the tone of the general conversation (in America, at least) is so uneducated and primarily based on unproductive rhetoric. Everyone seems to have some sort of opinion. I can’t let myself read the comments section on articles about the Pal-Is conflict, because I just sit there shouting at my screen about all of the bits that are simply factually wrong or otherwise barren of facts.
    So I end up, if you didn’t notice, spending a lot more time on the logic used to support the arguments in pieces than on the nature of the conflict itself. Because I do think that we have to fix that before we will ever be able to make any progress toward peace.
    My background is that I’m a Global Studies major with a concentration in the Middle East. I’ve lived and studied in both Lebanon and Jordan, and have also spent time in Israel and the West Bank. Ideologically I fall more among pro-Palestinian thinkers, but I do not consider myself anti-Israel. Although it is less popular with both sides, I only see the conflict ending in a one-state solution (probably not anytime soon though).
    “Honestly, most of the people I know who are open-minded, well-informed and principled without being dogmatic about this issue are the ones who are most reluctant to talk about it.”
    This. Although we all follow it with interest, there is no topic fellow students in my specific field are less excited to discuss with others. I think part is the ideologues you encounter, and how pointless it is to try to discuss something with someone who has already locked in their exact judgment of all facets of the issue and thrown away the key. The other half, especially for me, is how emotionally draining it is to engage with the problems of the Pal-Is conflict. Last semester I made sure to stake out research topics early for my America and the Arabs course, because I simply couldn’t write another essay on that particular conflict. It wears you out.
    Which is a shame, because it is exactly that sort of genuine engagement which is most desperately needed. The conversation has largely been hijacked by propaganda from extremists.

  11. ecarden
    Posted April 9, 2010 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    An interesting response to this vote over at Haaratz:

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