Showdown for Human Rights in Berkeley

A former IDF soldier is speaking out in opposition to the occupation of Palestine. An 85-year old Holocaust survivor testifies to the peril of waiting to make a decision rather than saving lives now by stopping war machines. A queer Jewish Latino speaks about his own journey from living in a settlement in East Jerusalem to coordinating a national organization opposing the occupation. A Palestinian student shares the story of his own family’s loss and highlights the lost logic in the room. The Israeli Consulate General admits to the existence of an "occupation" and states that Israel wants to end it! An orthodox man calls in a metaphor of candlelight illuminating goodness, each of us a candle. Facts are flung around like snowflakes that melt on impact spilling into the subjective world of painful stories that pull at heartstrings and paint barbed pictures. It all went down in Berkeley, California on Wednesday night, April 14, as the world watched (and tweeted).

The UC Berkeley student government became an impassioned theater of views on the occupation of Palestine. The UC student government (ASUC) Senate started a meeting to discuss the divestment bill at 10:30 pm that lasted until daybreak. While the ASUC has passed countless bills of political nature – supporting the Dream Act for immigration reform, for example – on the issue of divestment from the Israeli occupation, the Senate ran into blowback and took time to deliberate the issues. This pro-occupation lobby turned the bill about divesting from US companies involved in the illegal occupation into a fear-for-all — suddenly Jewish students were the only marginalized community, and the passage of the bill would somehow make them unsafe and endangered on campus. (Incidentally, marginalization of other minority groups on campus, and the daily dangers Palestinians face in the occupation were not mentioned by the pro-occupation speakers at the ASUC meeting.)

Let’s rewind for a little background on the Berkeley debate: On March 18, Berkeley’s Student Senate voted 16-to-4 to divest from two American companies, General Electric and United Technologies, because of their role in harming civilians as part of Israel’s illegal occupation and the attack on Gaza. A week later, the Senate president vetoed the bill. The bill’s opponents waged a fierce campaign of misinformation; student senators were flooded with letters from many persuasions. UC Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine mobilized over 35 campus groups, and dozens of national and international human rights and interfaith organizations, and many well-known voices for justice, including Naomi Klein, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, and Noam Chomsky signed on to support the bill.

Finally after weeks of debate, the student Senate had an opportunity to overturn the president’s veto. More information about the bill can be found here.

The democratic process of the CAL student Senate meeting to vote on overturning the president’s veto created an opening for dozens of testimonies on all sides of the issue on Wednesday night in a ballroom on campus where over 1,000 students gathered. 85 year old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein gave a moving opening statement in which she said, "[Student Senate] President Smelko does not speak for me, nor for over 20 Jewish and Israeli organizations who endorsed the bill, and whose members sent him more than 1,000 emails, nor for many more in the Jewish community, some of whom are in present in person here, or in spirit, in support of this bill." Epstein went on to cite Israel’s war crimes: "Throughout its 62 years of existence, Israel has been in flagrant violation of international law, even some of its own laws, the fourth Geneva Convention, more than 70 UN & Security Council resolutions, besides 32 US-vetoed Security Council Resolutions. Israel’s attack on Gaza amounted to war crimes were all confirmed by the UN’s Goldstone commission report. 62 years make not only Israel culpable, but all of us, who stand idly by, or who veto resolutions like the one before us. I have lived 85 years; I have not witnessed one other war crime theater allowed to exist for this long."

Professor Judith Butler gave a moving testimony as a Jew and an academic. Many students with Students for Justice with Palestine and many other campus groups spoke eloquently on the bill. Penny Rosenwasser, who teaches a course on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, stated, "For 20 years I have organized marches and rallies and nonviolent civil disobedience. I have lobbied senators, signed petitions, and toured the country giving educational slideshows. But none of this has worked, none of this has ended the occupation – in fact things have only gotten worse. More Israeli and Palestinian lives have been lost. I am asking you to vote for this bill for two reasons: 1. It supports a nonviolent strategy 2. It targets US – NOT Israeli – companies who are profiting from the occupation."

Matthew Taylor, a Jewish Bay Area resident, wrapped himself in the Israeli flag, and brought the occupation issues home to US history:

"When Americans took action against slavery, against segregation, and for women’s rights, were they anti-American? Of course not. They were patriots.

Imagine that the year is 1960 and you are being asked to divest from companies that sell busses to segregated US southern states. On one side of the room you’d see a large number of white Americans who would claim that the bill marginalizes white students, that you can’t possibly understand the complexity of the US South enough to cast a vote. And they would claim to speak for all white students. On the other side of the room you’d see a large number of white Americans saying, ‘Please vote for this bill for the benefit of the South, for the benefit of blacks and whites.’ They’d be a diverse multicultural group [like the group of students advocating for this bill last night]. I am a patriot of Israel, of the Jewish people. I beg you please vote yes.”

Those of us who spoke up as Jews implored the senators to not be fooled by the baseless claims of anti-Semitism from our Jewish brothers and sisters. After all, the majority of Jews, 55%, oppose Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land. We drew attention to the reality that holding Israel accountable to the same standards of international law that the rest of the global community must follow is not an attack on Jewish identity. I spoke about feeling safer as a young Jew in the Bay Area since ASUC passed the bill.

I also stated, as a representative of CODEPINK Women for Peace, which also signed onto the letter of support for the bill, “When I critique or protest the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, I am not anti-American or un-patriotic. Passing a bill to divest from US corporations who are profiteering from an illegal occupation is not anti-Israeli. It is in the best interest of Israel to end the occupation. This bill will take a bold step towards doing just that – ending the occupation. I yearn for a day in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security, with dignity and human rights for all. If you share that vision you will vote to again pass Senate Bill 118A.” I also yearn for the day when all war profiteers will be held accountable and when our nation will reinvest our resources in life-affirming pursuits.

On the final day of the women’s suffrage movement struggle, one state’s vote came down to one person. Those in the audience wore colored roses to show which way they would vote. On Wednesday night many of us wore neon green stickers, which said "Another (fill in the blank) for Human Rights. Divest from the Israeli Occupation!" People in the room wrote in "mother" "Jew" "Israeli" "person of color" "self loving queer Jew" and such. These stickers signified that we were not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine – we were on the side of justice. There was a time when our country asked if women had rights like men did. On Wednesday night the underlying debate was about whether Palestinians, and all who live under occupation, have rights like people who are free. What would the Berkeley Senate answer?

The student senators most likely did not bargain for an international political debate when they were sworn into office. But on Wednesday night, faced with history in the making, many senators rose to the occasion and made excellent points on occupation, justice, and moral responsibility. One student of color senator commented, "This bill did not marginalize me; I was marginalized when I stepped on this campus. To veto this bill is to marginalize the majority of the student senate."

Finally, in the wee morning hours, the bill came (yet again) to a vote. After countless testimonies, recesses, heated cheering and clapping (contrary to the asks of the Senators), and discussion within the Senate, the roll call began. The final vote was 12-7, which was not sufficient to repeal the president’s veto. But it was still the majority of the student senate. The majority of student senators in favor of the bill then took another tack and entered into more rounds of discussion, and ultimately the bill was tabled with the added suggestion for the writing of another bill focusing on war crimes and profiteers in several nation states. (Or at least that’s what I thought the outcome was, after 12 hours of listening and a sleepless night!)

While the veto was not overturned, the all-nighter meeting represented a huge step in building the global movement for justice in Palestine and Israel. The eloquent testimonies and words from the senators moved many who listened to tears and heightened awareness. As Cecilie Surasky, Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, stated, “If the enemy is the status quo, which feeds on silence and invisibility, then that enemy fell tonight. An incredible coalition of Jewish groups, student groups, human rights groups, prominent activists, authors, and Nobel Prize winners, came together to take a stand for justice. This is the future, right here in this room."

As the final speaker before the vote, a Palestinian student in favor of the bill said, “This bill asserts that I am human, that Palestinians are humans, that we are equal.” May the University of California, and all campuses and governments, speedily realize these words and divest from the corporations in violation of human rights and the basic principle that we are all one, we are all equal. And may the UC Berkeley campus continue to create safe spaces for dialogue between students of many perspectives and exposures.

The 12-hour meeting ended on Thursday morning, April 15, Tax Day, just hours before Tea Partyers would begin pouring into American streets to protest bloated federal budgets (among other issues). How fitting for the local debate on war funding to end on this day, when taxpayers will fork over the funds to give Israel another $3 billion in military aid (which last year was used to break international law in Gaza) and potentially another $33 billion to fund the occupation of Afghanistan. While many may not yet be ready to engage in war tax resistance, or feel that Congress is listening to the call to stop funding war, local divestment campaigns such as the courageous bill in Berkeley offer an avenue for putting our community’s money where our values are – for justice and peace, not endless war and occupation.

Rae Abileah is an American Jew of Israeli decent who lives in San Francisco, CA. She works with CODEPINK Women for Peace and can be reached at [email protected]

About Rae Abileah

Rae Abileah is a social change strategist and member of Jewish Voice for Peace who participated in the 21st Presbyterian General Assembly (http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/07/11/an-open-letter-to-presbyterian-clergy/). She is a Jewish-American of Israeli descent and lives in California. This month she traveled to Israel/Palestine to co-lead the 50th Interfaith Peace Builders delegation (http://ifpbd50.tumblr.com/). She can be reached at rae [at] raeabileah.com and @raeabileah.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 36 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. annie says:

    my heart skipped a beat and another tear welled up at one am when your name popped up on the jvp tweet dear rae. thanks for all you do.

    • Taxi says:

      annie, darling, your sweetness and sorrow is breaking my heart. C’mon, chin up, shoulders straight, smile-smile-smile and keep pushing forth regardless of the hurdles and hiccups of this shortish life.

      • annie says:

        ok taxi i am somewhat refreshed and ready to forge onward towards our future success.

        bwwwahhhhhh.

        • Taxi says:

          annie, I was following several berkleytweets as well as your posts on Mondo till late last night here in California – very dramatic stuff indeed and I felt so bad for your distress. Gotta save those tears for a joyous occasion instead – it ain’t over till the fat lady sings and despite last night, she’s still nowhere to be seen.

          We haven’t lost the war yet, annie. And we won’t.

        • annie says:

          AHHHH! i swear to god if i’ve said that once i’ve said it a thousand times and by god i said it earlier today it ain’t over till the fat lady sings and baby i know damn well i don’t hear her i don’t see her and i don’t smell her scent. we are in this til the finish and we will prevail. we will win because the will for freedom and the willingness to forgive is more powerful in the hearts of humans than fear and greed.

          thank you taxi….onward in love and solidarity.

        • Taxi says:

          annie you are sooooo coooooool!

  2. Pingback: Showdown for Human Rights in Berkeley « yaman salahi

  3. Citizen says:

    I bet not one in 10 thousand Americans even know about this debate, the first
    attempt by any US university to my knowledge to put a few real teeth in the call
    to divest from support of the longest standing human atrocity since the German leaders were hanged at Nuremberg and the Imperial Japan leaders
    were too. Only two US corporations who profit off the illegal Israeli occupation of native land in Palestine were targeted. Much must be done–
    remember that the UN partition was won by US bribery of a handful of
    countries totally dependent on US economic aid in the aftermath of WW2.
    AIPAC is doing the same now. It has its strategy, tried and true for decades in the US: essentially bribe key votes to maintain Israel uber alles. Is that the best that can be gleaned from the death of all in the Shoah, not to mention the many more Allied forces who died in WW2?

    • eee says:

      What a racist remark, that AIPAC is employing bribery. You know its rights because its Jews and money right? You have any proof for your antisemitic canard?

      • Avi says:

        What a racist remark, that AIPAC is employing bribery. You know its rights because its Jews and money right? You have any proof for your antisemitic canard?

        Gifts, vacation packages and monetary donations in exchange for loyalty are not forms of bribery?

        • potsherd says:

          Maybe it’s those mailboxes outside every Congressional office – LOBBIES INSERT CASH HERE

        • eee says:

          Where is the proof that AIPAC is committing bribery?

          When was the last AIPAC official put in jail for bribery?

          Or do you call “bribery” what all lobbies do and is legal? But again, why not use a word with a bad connotation to incite against Israel supporters in the US when in fact they are doing exactly what other lobbyists are doing also?

        • Chaos4700 says:

          Silly boy! We already know AIPACers never go to jail! They are always granted that get out of jail free card, while the American patsy is always the one who takes the fall!

          link to en.wikipedia.org

      • Chaos4700 says:

        So now its antisemitic to oppose bribery by lobbyists?

        For the want of the horse-shoe…

        • Mooser says:

          Chaos, just watch out you don’t start with the blood libels! There’s an easy way to avoid those nasty blood libels, tho. Whenever you are about to suggest that a Zionist or Israeli is just like other people, stop yourself, you’re getting all blood libelous.
          It’s anti-Semitic to say that Jews are just like other people, you know.

      • “racist ”
        Yawn…
        “antisemitic”
        Yaaaaaawwwwn.

      • Cliff says:

        Antisemitism, everywhere!

        eee, the whiny coward of the IDF – stop straw manning everyone’s argument which you oppose.

      • Citizen says:

        Since when did all Jews support AIPAC? Quit reading from your AIPAC talking points, eee. Don’t conflate my comment. You attack me, the messenger, as an anti-semite, and ignore my message. You actually think
        the readers of this blog will buy your juvenile tactical racist remarks?
        I suggest you read M & W, The Israel Lobby, for starters.

      • Sumud says:

        “What a racist remark, that AIPAC is employing bribery. ”

        AIPAC is a race? Really this *is* news.

    • Taxi says:

      Citizen,

      You forgot to include that first the USA had to be bribed/buttered up before they could do the bribing/buttering-up themselves.

  4. jim says:

    A wonderful and civilised debate.

  5. RE: “Facts are flung around like snowflakes that melt on impact spilling into the subjective world of painful stories that pull at heartstrings and paint barbed pictures.” – Rae Abileah
    MY COMMENT: Absolutely stunning! What wonderful imagery!

    • RE: “Facts are flung around like snowflakes that melt on impact ” – Abileah
      FROM WIKIPEDIA: Hard Times (by Charles Dickens)
      …Dickens was appalled by what was, in his interpretation, a selfish philosophy [utilitarianism], which was combined with materialist laissez-faire capitalism in the education of some children at the time, as well as in industrial practices. In Dickens’ interpretation, the prevalence of utilitarian values in educational institutions promoted contempt between mill owners and workers, creating young adults whose imaginations had been neglected, due to an over-emphasis on facts at the expense of more imaginative pursuits.
      …Mr. Gradgrind, whose voice is “dictatorial”, opens the novel by stating “Now, what I want is facts” at his school in Coketown. He is a man of “facts and calculations.” He interrogates one of his pupils, Sissy, whose father is involved with the circus, the members of which are “Fancy” in comparison to Gradgrind’s espousal of “Fact.” Since her father rides and tends to horses, Gradgrind offers Sissy the definition of “veterinary surgeon.” She is rebuffed for not being able to define a horse factually…She does not learn easily, and is censured for suggesting that she would carpet a floor with pictures of flowers “So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you? Why would you?” She is taught to disregard Fancy altogether. It is Fancy Vs Fact….
      …Dickens was also campaigning for the importance of imagination in life, and not for people’s life to be reduced to a collection of material facts and statistical analyses. Dickens’ favourable portrayal of the Circus, which he describes as caring so “little for Plain Fact“, is an example of this…
      SOURCE – link to en.wikipedia.org

    • annie says:

      of course this quote jumped off the page at me as well spinning around my head diving into my open mouth and making a crash landing deep into my throat.

      i’m reminded how miracles (art) happen.

    • Citizen says:

      Yes, yes, yes, Dickerson, most stunning.

  6. eGuard says:

    Must I understand it is a Jews-only thing? Why must every person and group be introduced with a yes/no Jew adjective? Is it “we, liberal Jews, will solve this — now go home you gentile”?

    • Chaos4700 says:

      Well. I wouldn’t characterize it as a “Jews-only” thing. Code Pink is certainly not Jews-only by any means.

      I kind of think it matters because… well, to put it bluntly… their “Jewishness” shields them from being labeled anti-Semitic. So it kind of does matter.

      • Mooser says:

        If I’m not mistaken, nobody else determined who was a Jew and made them write on their name tags. The appelations (Jew, Queer Jew, Jewish Moose, whatever) on the name tags were how people chose to identify themselves, in this situation. No one is excluding anybody.

      • RoHa says:

        Doesn’t seem to all that much of a shield now. Some of the self-haters get called anti-semites as well.

        On a related note,
        “Report: Goldstone banned from grandson’s bar-mitzvah”
        link to ynetnews.com

  7. this is an exquisite account of the thrilling evening. thank you so much for this.

  8. VR says:

    “I also yearn for the day when all war profiteers will be held accountable and when our nation will reinvest our resources in life-affirming pursuits.”

    Yes, this is definitely the context, it is out of control. Nothing demonstrates this better than than those who would support the occupation, they want to throw your money into the coffers of death and destruction –

    WAR PROFITEERS

    Which is closely related to this –

    CAPITALIST SUICIDE

    Free market trade will destroy itself,
    The way that we live will cease to exist.
    All that we know will come crashing down
    As Wall Street’s bottom drops out.

    Monopolies, technology, creates then it’s all the same.

    Day after day, as time goes by,
    The closer we get, the nearer the end.
    The impending doom of our country.
    The corporate corrupt,
    They’ve sealed our fate now.

    Woah, total destruction,
    Woah, total collapse,
    Woah, total destruction,
    Woah, it’s only a matter of time.
    (it’s really just a matter of…)”
    (written in 2005)

  9. Taxi says:

    Cool energy songs, thanks VR.

    Can I introduce you to this ‘slower’ song by Steve Earle ‘Rich Man’s War’:
    link to youtube.com

    and this one too has a great melody: John Walker Blues

    • VR says:

      How about this one Taxi -

      BLUES

      • VR says:

        Yes, those were both excellent songs Taxi, it reminds me of two other ones of similar content –

        BYOB (in reference to fighting a rich mans war)

        Than as an example of what our resolve should be to stop this brutal colonial occupation, even if we find ourselves alone in the battle of justice for the poor and oppressed. Put this song right in the context of our struggle. No matter how loudly fascist colonial settlers shout about antisemitism wearing their costumes pretending to be Jewish –

        TAKE MY HAND

        • Taxi says:

          Thanks VR for yet another cool musical interlude, I loved all three songs and very much enjoyed the video of the ‘Lonliest Day’.