Why I Support the Berkeley Student Divestment Resolution

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.

9 thoughts on “Why I Support the Berkeley Student Divestment Resolution

  1. Lynn Pollack

    Thank you Brant for bringing this issue to your readers and giving them an opportunity to speak out in favor of the growing non-violent tool of BDS. If Israel meets with violence non-violent protests by Palestinians, scorns truce offers, continues to build settlements and steal Palestinian land, what else can Palestinians do to end the occupation other than call on the world to support them with BDS? What will make Israel give up its foolhardy course and begin to negotiate in good faith? Surely not just finger wagging by the US. BDS may just be the only way forward to a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians.

  2. YBD

    This piece is simply more proof of my assertion that you have placed yourself outside the realm of public Jewish discourse.
    First of all, you claim that this BDS move is not “anti-Israel”. As you well know there is a move to delegitimze Israel around the world on all fronts. YOU YOURSELF say Israel was created immorally and illegally. So why should you and the others who oppose Israel simply stop with Israel’s conduct in the territories? This is the first step towards wider boycotts and delegitimization. Please don’t use Orwellian laundering of terms that are anti-Israel and then try to call them “pro-Israel”.
    Secondly, you claim this only is directed at means for “military support for the occupation”. Does that includes guns? Tractors? Jeeps? Food for the soldiers serving there (some of which is made in the US)? How do you draw the line.

    Third, you can jump and down all you want talking about the “illegality” of the settlements in Judea/Samaria. Again, since you oppose Zionism, how are these settlements more “illegal” than those built after the 1948 War which you claim involved “ethnic cleansing” (e.g. Tel Aviv University sitting on the land of the pre-1948 Arab village of Sheikh Munis?). Maybe those should be boycotted too? In any event, the Israeli government doesn’t recognzie them as being illegal and many international law scholars say the same, so the matter is in dispute, and NOT clearly as one-sided as you indicate.

    Fourth, as a congregational rabbi, you can’t simply say that these are your “private” opinions. Do you represent your congregation in these views? Do you speak for them? Do you speak for the Reconstructionist movement (which I had thought was pro-Zionist dating from the time of Mordechai Kaplan)? What do they think of one or more of their rabbis declaring war on Israel and much of world Jewry which vehemently oppose this move (for heaven’s sake, J-Street opposes this!)?

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      As I wrote to you earlier, it is not up to you to define what is in the “realm of public Jewish discourse.” I would also point out that you and I and many others are having this very conversation publicly, as Jews. In fact, the main reason I started this blog was to widen what we consider to be the realm of “public Jewish discourse.” I’m glad that you are part of this conversation.

      To answer your first issue: yes, there are indeed some who are seeking a wider BDS campaign – but even here I would disagree with you that “delegitimization” of Israel its ultimate goal. Those mobilizing the campaign would likely say that Israel is delegitimizing itself through its oppressive policies toward its non-Jewish population. The point of campaign, as I’ve already written, is to mobilize a non-violent action campaign to resist this very real oppression.

      At any rate, your reference to wider BDS campaigns is really just a red herring, since that is not at all what we are talking about here. The point of the Berkeley resolution recommends selective divestment from two specific companies that manufacture weapons that Israel uses against civilians, causing grievous injury and death on a massive scale.

      This is where the Berkeley students are drawing the line: against two companies that profit from weapons that have been used in war crimes, as has been documented by numerous human rights organizations. Not food, not jeeps, not guns, but immensely powerful high tech weaponry that certain Berkeley students have determined they do not want to subsidize with their school tuition. Any other campaign/s outside this is simply not germane to this debate.

      Yes, these are my personal views. Everything I write here reflects my own personal views and I make this very clear on my home page. My posts do not represent the corporate views of my congregation. There is a diversity of views at JRC – some members agree with me, some partly agree with me, some disagree with me, and there are many more who are frankly unsure where they stand on this issue.

      The same goes for the Reconstructionist movement – there are rabbis who share my views and there are those who do not. I will say, however, that they all respect my right to air my opinions whether they personally agree with me or not. I have always been proud that we have a wide and inclusive ideological tent in the Reconstructionist movement. And I know for a fact that we give voice to many Jews out there who feel marginalized because the “official” Jewish community too often takes it upon itself to define what is “acceptable public Jewish discourse.”

    2. Dan Solomon

      Hi YBD:

      I am a member of Rabbi Rosen’s congregation and I am glad he is having this discussion. I find it quite informative. You claim he is “outside the realm of public Jewish discourse”. If this is true then it reflects poorly on the Jewish community because I believe he is expressing a legitimate and informed point of view that should be part of the discussion.

      Dan Solomon

  3. Pingback: Shomer Shalom Elders’ letters to UC student government supporting divestment « Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence

  4. Eric Selinger

    I’ve been trying to think of a good response to your comment, YBD, for a couple of days now. There’s really not much, though, that I can think of to say.

    You would like to declare certain ideas outside the realm of “public Jewish discourse”–which is to say, I suppose, that we can think such things in private, but we’d all better shut up and toe the party line in public.

    That strikes me as a cowardly, bullying request.

    So does your attempt to use professional pressure (“do you speak for the Reconstructionist movement…what do they think of one or more of their rabbis…”) to get Brant to shut up in public about his views. I know rabbis who have lost their jobs because of such pressure, and I’m sure Brant does as well; many have been cowed into silence for a very long time. If that silence is now breaking, that’s a very good thing, and like Dan, I’m very proud to have my congregation’s rabbi as part of that return of honesty to Jewish communal discussion.

    I’m sure you’re motivated by love of your country and fear for the lives of its citizens, both of which are worthy values. But to say that Brant’s support for this measure amounts to “declaring war on Israel and much of world Jewry”? I’m sorry, but that’s contemptible. And, let me add, unconvincing.

    I haven’t been a supporter of BDS in the past, but your post is turning me into one.

  5. Michael Sehr

    Making statements in support of political and economic actions, such as boycotts, should not be undertaken without serious consideration of their consequences in the real world. Such political and economic actions can serve questionable causes and do concrete harm to the interests of peace and justice. Support for the Berkeley student resolution is just such an action: the only way it can have any impact on the actual situation in Gaza is if it leads to a broad economic and social boycott of Israel in general and furthers the already extensive attempts to demonize the people of Israel. A broad international boycott of Israel will likely have another impact: it will reward and embolden Hamas, and tell the Palestinian people that their best political option is to reject peace and embrace terror.

    So why publicly support the Berkeley student resolution? Your blog and many of the comments suggest the reason: it allows you, the students, and other resolution supporters to feel righteous about your moral stand against Israeli actions you disagree with, particularly in Gaza. The situation of the people in Gaza will not change one iota because of your position, but you will feel better. The problem is that you seem to believe that you can have a little bit of boycott and a little bit of demonization (only the military, maybe, and only in Gaza) and then stop it when it gets applied to Israel in general and Jews wherever they live. You are deluding yourself: you are playing with matches in a dynamite factory.

    The Berkeley resolution is not limited in scope. The reason United Technologies and General Electric are singled out is that they make Blackhawk helicopters or their components. Of course, such helicopters are only one of the items of military equipment used by the Israeli forces in connection with their Gaza and other operations. They use tanks, artillery, ammunition, binoculars, jet airplanes, armored cars, etc. The list of companies making these products and their components would include hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses in every major industrial country in the world. And it is not only the Israeli military that is targeted. The Berkeley resolution also calls for divestment in companies involved with the construction of the separation wall and the “building, maintenance or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements”. (I am sure you realize, as should all of your readers, that “illegal settlements” in this context means any Israeli presence beyond the 1948 borders.) As you point out, an example of the broad range of companies which will eventually be targeted is Caterpillar, which makes the bulldozers used by the Israeli military.

    Under its specific terms, and in order for the Berkeley resolution to have any actual impact, it would have to cause a broad range of companies to actually refuse to sell products to Israel and to not invest in Israeli enterprises that don’t shun the military, the settlements or the wall. This could lead to hundreds of campaigns against Israel in dozens of countries, leading to real economic damage to the Israeli economy. Your claim that this resolution is not “anti-Israel” is simply not true.

    Of course, it really isn’t damage to Israel’s economy that is your goal, that’s just a method to get to the real point: you want to destroy Israel’s ability to engage in offensive military actions, or at least those of which you do not approve. Even if the Berkeley student resolution did manage to cripple the Israeli economy, do you really think that it would be able to deter Israel’s government from taking the military actions that it believes necessary to protect the people of Israel? If the boycott were able to actually cripple Israel’s military, would that be a proud moment for you? How would you differentiate that situation from “demonization”? By the way, are you sure that you can cripple the Israeli economy and military only as much as you think appropriate and then stop the process before it goes too far?

    The choices Israel faces in terms of the Palestinians, Gaza, Hamas, terror and security are difficult and present many moral and practical challenges. Many of us disagree with some but not other of the choices that the current government has made on a range of issues including Gaza, settlements, Jerusalem and the wall. We may not like the current government or parts of the governing coalition. We should publicly discuss our concerns and criticisms. But to call for a boycott of companies who supply Israel with military and construction equipment (and many other things as well) is to indulge your own sense of moral righteousness and self-esteem, so you can feel better about yourself. It won’t help the Palestinians or the Israelis, but it will give support, whether intended or not, to movements which, in fact, seek the demonization and, ultimately, the destruction of the State of Israel.

  6. Cecilie Surasky

    Michael,You say the only way the bill can have an impact is to lead to a broad boycott of Israel. In other words, your premise is that the bill which focuses quite clearly on companies that profit from the occupation- 2 U.S.-based companies in fact- has to be something entirely different to succeed. Therefore, supporting the bill really means you are supporting something entirely different, like robbing Israel’s ability to defend itself, or demonization of the Jewish people. That’s quite a leap of logic. On this premise, I can’t differ with you more strenuously.

    Efforts like these are part of building a broad-based movement to push for accountability. They raise consciousness, connect allies, build influence for the cause of justice. A significant sector of students at UC Berkeley has been transformed by the bill and the process; an equally large number of professors, including many Jewish professors, has taken an enormous leap by “coming out” about their opposition to Israel’s occupation.

    This is no small thing in a Jewish community in which the Jewish Federation recently banned the discussion not just of divestment, but of anything considered “delegitimizing” to Israel, among grantees. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/30649075/Forward-Ad-Prominent-Bay-Area-Jews-Warn-About-SF-Jewish-Federation-Guidelines-4-10 )

    I should also say on a personal level that this bill at Berkeley was co-written by an Israeli Jew, and that the connections of trust built by the many Israelis, Jews, Muslim, Palestinians and others behind the UC bill is in itself a remarkable example of creating exactly the world we know can exist outside of Occupation and repression.

    But if your fundamental framework is that Israel is in basically good shape, with some bad eggs like Lieberman and a few bad decisions, then of course there isn’t much else to say.

    But there are different frameworks to consider: Israel has not been held accountable for a variety of violations of international law- not for ongoing settlement expansion, not for disproportionate force in Gaza, not for the outright theft of land and water resources and so forth.

    If international bodies have failed, as they repeatedly have, to protect the basic rights of Palestinians, then how on earth would you ask Palestinians to resist? Let us put ourselves in their shoes. You wake up one day and a bulldozer (or perhaps a settler with an axe) is destroying the orchard behind your house which has been your family’s livelihood for generations. No warning. No compensation. No apology.

    How do you fight back? What would you do?

    For years, the international community has rightly condemned violent resistance that has killed innocent civilians. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement represents a revival of a very old tradition of Palestinian nonviolent resistance. I personally find it morally reprehensible to suggest this form of sophisticated and for many people, uplifting Palestinian resistance is illegitimate in the way that the killing of civilians clearly is.

    In the hands of many, the facile charge of demonization has become a cheap and easy iteration of the “it’s anti-semitic” charge which is regularly deployed to shut up just about any criticism. It’s one of the main reasons the charge of anti-semitism has become so cheapened, and that upsets me to no end.

    It is my earnest belief and the belief of the 9 Israeli peace groups (Gush Shalom, Yesh Gvul, Colaition of Women for Peace etc..) who also supported the UC Berkeley divestment bill that the damage caused to Israel by its ongoing need to take and take more land and expel or encircle more Palestinians is causing Isrel itself far greater damage than any divestment bill ever could.

    (If groups like AIPAC and the ADL really wanted to stop Israel’s increasing isolation, they’d go to the source, not the symptom: they’d pressure Israel to stop demolishing homes or shooting nonviolent protestors in Bil’in, not the human rights groups that document such actions.)

    In the end, when a two-state solution is finally declared dead because settlements and bypass roads make any future contiguous Palestinian state impossible, Israel will have no one to blame but itself.

    That’s why my many peace-oriented Israelis beg us to support these kinds of measures. For them, it is the last hope to pressure Israel to stop destroying not just Palestinian, but also Israeli culture.


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