I’m sure many of you have been following the huge communal dust up that has been swirling around a resolution recently passed by the Associated Students of UC Berkeley. Known as SB118, it calls for the ASUC to divest its holdings in General Electric and United Technologies because of “their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
The bill further resolves:
(That) the ASUC will further examine its assets and UC assets for funds being invested in companies that a) provide military support for or weaponry to support the occupation of the Palestinian territories or b) facilitate the building or maintenance of the illegal wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes, or c) facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territories (and)
(That) if it is found that ASUC and/or the UC funds are being invested in any of the abovementioned ways, the ASUC will divest, and will advocate that the UC divests, all stocks, securities, or other obligations from such sources with the goal of maintaining the divestment, in the case of said companies, until they cease such practices. Moreover, the ASUC will not make further investments, and will advocate that the UC not make futher investments, in any companies materially supporting or profiting from Israel’s occupation in the above mentioned ways.
On March 18, after eight hours of dialogue and deliberation, the resolution passed by a vote of 16-4. After a barrage of criticism from Jewish community and Israel advocacy groups, the resolution was vetoed by the President of the ASUC on March 24. As things currently stand, the veto can be overridden by 14 votes. The final decision will be made on Wednesday April 14 at 7:00 pm (PST).
The most prominent Jewish statement of condemnation against the resolution came in the form of a letter co-signed by a wide consortium of Jewish organizations (including J Street, the ADL and The David Project) that called the bill “anti-Israel,” “dishonest” and “misleading.” Supporters of the resolution have mobilized as well: Jewish Voice for Peace recently responded to the consortium’s letter with a strong public statement and other prominent public figures, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Naomi Klein have voiced their support of the Berkeley resolution.
As I’ve written in the past, I do believe that the longer Israel’s intolerable occupation continues, the more we will inevitably hear an increase in calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). I’m certainly mindful of what these kinds of calls mean to us in the Jewish community – and I know all too well how the issue of boycott pushes our deepest Jewish fear-buttons in so many ways. Despite these fears, however, I personally support the ASUC resolution.
While I understand the painful resonance that boycotts historically have had for the Jewish community, I truly believe this bill was composed and presented in good faith – and I am troubled that so many Jewish community organizations have responded in knee-jerk fashion, without even attempting to address to the actual content of the resolution.
It is also unfair and untrue to say that this resolution is “anti-Israel.” The bill makes it clear that it is condemning a crushing and illegal occupation – and not Israel as a nation. The wording of the resolution leaves no doubt that its purpose is to divest from specific companies that aid and abet the occupation – and not to “demonize” Israel itself. If a group of students oppose the occupation as unjust, then why should we be threatened if they ask their own organization to divest funds that directly support it? This is not demonization – this is simply ethically responsible investment policy.
Why, many critics ask, are the Berkeley students singling out Israel when there are so many other worse human rights abusers around the world? To answer this, I think we need to look at the origins of the BDS movement itself. This campaign was not hatched by the Berkeley students, or even by international human rights activists. It was founded in 2005 by a wide coalition of groups from Palestinian civil society who sought to resist the occupation through nonviolent direct action.
In other words, BDS is a liberation campaign waged by the Palestinian people themselves – one for which they are seeking international support. By submitting this divestment resolution, the Berkeley students were not seeking to single out Israel as the world’s worst human rights offender – they are responding to a call from Palestinians to support their struggle against very real oppression.
The JVP statement (see above) makes this point very powerfully:
Choosing to do something about Israel’s human rights violations does not require turning a blind eye to other injustices in the world as these groups suggest; but refusing to take action because of other examples would indeed turn a blind eye to this one. Now is the time to support Palestinian freedom and human rights. Berkeley students have done the right thing. Others should follow suit and divest from the occupation, as part of their general commitment to ethical investment policies.
I believe that the actions of these Berkeley students represent an important challenge to those of us who believe that Israel’s occupation equals oppression. Quite simply, we cannot stay silent forever. Sooner or later we will have to ask ourselves: when will we be willing to name this for what it really and truly is? When will we find the wherewithal to say out loud that this policy of home demolitions, checkpoints, evictions, increased Jewish settlements, and land expropriations is inhumane and indefensible? At the very least, will we be ready to put our money where our moral conscience is?
I know that this debate is enormously painful. And I respect that there are members of the Jewish community who disagree with this campaign. But I must say I am truly dismayed when I witness the organized Jewish community responding to initiatives such as these by simply crying “anti-Semitism.” For better or worse, we are going to have to find a better way to have these conversations. Because whatever happens with the ASUC resolution tomorrow, we haven’t heard the end of this movement by a longshot.
This summer, in fact, the Presbyterian Church General Assembly will be taking up a number of resolutions related to Israel/Palestine, including one that recommends divestment from Caterpillar because the company knowingly supplies Israel with bulldozers that are used for illegal (and deadly) home demolitions in the West Bank and Gaza. I’m sad to see that the organized Jewish community is already gearing up for another major confrontation…
If you would like to write a letter to the UC President and UC Berkeley Chancellor before the April 14 vote, click here.
Addendum (April 14): UC Berkeley Professor Judith Butler has written an incredibly eloquent defense of the resolution that she will reportedly read today to the ASUC Student Senate before their override vote. Click here to read it in full.