UC Berkeley divestment vote–it isn’t over yet

Being a part of the tremendous coalition effort to pass a divestment bill at Berkeley was quite simply an ecstatic experience.

As my colleague Sydney Levy said, "The movement grew by an enormous leap today."

First, the vote itself: after the UC Berkeley Student Senate originally voted on March 18, by a margin of 16-4, to divest from companies that profit from the occupation, that vote was vetoed by the Senate president. The Senate needed 14 votes to overturn his veto, but early this morning, after an epic 10 plus hour meeting, senators found they had only 13 yes votes with one abstention. So the students tabled a vote to overturn the veto. This means the veto stands but can still be overturned later–there will be much continued lobbying and activism in the coming weeks. (Meanwhile, some weeks ago AIPAC openly threatened to take over the UC government to block the bill.)

But in many ways, the vote itself was not the star of this story. For anyone who was there last night and until 7:30 this morning when the forum ended, it was clear what the future looks like.

For one, the smart money is on the members of UC Berkeley’s Students for Justice with Palestine (SJP), the group leading this effort. They are a remarkable multi-ethnic group that seemingly includes every race, religion and ethnicity including Muslims and Jews, and Israelis and Palestinians. They are just brilliant thinkers and organizers and driven by a clear sense of justice and empathy. They spent a year researching and writing the divestment bill, and I can’t express how much I love and respect them and how much hope they make me feel. And there are students just like them on every other campus in the world.

Second, the feeling on campus and in the room was electric. We filled an enormous room that fits 900. Most stayed through the entire night. If you can imagine, the evening started with remarkable statements by divestment supporters Judith Butler, Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, Richard Falk, Hatem Bazian and George Bisharat. And then the extraordinary parade of students and community members who spoke on both sides of the issue until it was past sunrise.

And though the final vote still hangs in the balance, the fact remains that the vast majority of the Senate voted to divest. The bill garnered the support of some of the most famous moral voices in the world, a good chunk of the Israeli left (9 groups and counting), nearly 40 campus groups (almost all student of color groups and one queer organization) plus another 40 US off-campus groups.

In addition, the room was filled with Jewish divestment supporters of every age including grandmothers and aunts and uncles and students. Our staff, activist members, and Advisory Board members like Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and Noam Chomsky each played critical roles in the effort. And of course, all of you who generated over 5,000 letters of support.

So much has changed since Gaza. Just 2 years ago we secured only 4 pages of Jewish endorsement letters for a similar selective divestment effort. This time, we put together 29 pages of major Jewish endorsement statements (which you can download here), and the list continues to grow by the day. We also made 400 bright green stickers that said "Another (fill in the blank) for human rights. Divest from the Israeli occupation" and gave every single last one away.

As attorney Reem Salahi said to me, "When I was a student here in law school 2 years ago, no one spoke about divestment. Now everyone is talking about it."

For those of us there, it was clear–the room was with divestment. The senators were with divestment. And given the endorsements that kept pouring in up to the last second, from Nobel prize winners, from Israeli peace groups, from leading academics and activists–it seemed like the whole world was with divestment.

There were a number of Jewish students who expressed seemingly real discomfort if the divestment bill should pass. (As it turned out, they were repeating these talking points almost verbatim, with histrionics encouraged.) Many said they wouldn’t feel safe on campus, others said they would feel silenced, a few said young Jews would no longer want to come to UC Berkeley.

While feeling for their discomfort, it was difficult to watch how speaker after anti-divestment speaker seemed unable to distinguish between the discomfort of infrequent dirty looks, and rare nasty or bigoted name-calling, and the "discomfort" of having your home demolished or of having only toxic water to give to your family or of being shot or stuck at a checkpoint for hours in the sun.

They were unable to make the distinction between "feeling silenced" because the bill might pass against their wishes, and being silenced because you are jailed for your nonviolent activism or because you can’t get a visa to travel or because your story is virtually invisible in film, in history books, in the mainstream media, everywhere.

I of course wasn’t the only one who noticed this. Students of color, and one student senator in particular, beautifully articulated what it meant to come to campus "already marginalized." That is certainly a part of why so many student of color campus groups support the divestment effort, and why the links between being anti-racist in Israel/Palestine and anti-racist in the U.S. (and elsewhere) are particularly strong, clear, and important — and these students know it.

Which makes the statements of the anti-divestment Jews all the more striking in juxtaposition to the statements of the many Jewish students who supported divestment, each of whom said, "I feel safe on this campus." And the progressive Jewish UC-Berkeley senator who said, "this divest bill will actually make me feel safe" and "this [bill] is creating space for Jews to have a community here. I’ve never been prouder to be a Jew."

And that, if anything, suggests the most exciting part of what happened here.

It’s so clear to me how the organizing itself, and the ways it brought all of us, but especially Jews and Muslims and Arabs of every age together, is the solution. When peace happens, it will radiate outward from these relationships, mirrored in the Israeli-Palestinian relationships in places like Bil’in and Sheikh Jarrah. This was so apparent when I saw, on one side of the room, Jewish and Palestinian and Muslim students literally leaning on each other and holding hands for support–and on the other side of the room, a relatively small (and by their own admonition, fearful) group of Jews that seemed to mostly have each other. It was very jarring and poignant and deeply sad.

The future is clear and it’s already here. It is a multicultural (and queer-integrated) universe bound together by a belief in full equality. Period.

Silence and apathy are the friends of the status quo. Sunlight, debate, facts, passion- these are what justice requires to grow. Open debates like the one UC Berkeley held last night simply must happen at campuses everywhere. The students of SJP have already won by making this debate happen. The whole campus is talking about Israel and Palestine. Last night’s forum and vote will forever impact the lives of every person who was in that room. And the new connections made have strengthened the movement in ways none of us imagined.

No wonder Israeli Consulate General Akiva Tor stayed for the entire vote. If I were he and it were my job to protect Israel’s occupation, I’d be worried. Very worried.

This morning, not hours after the meeting ended, I found an email in my inbox from an SJP group at another campus. "We want to introduce a divestment bill on campus and were wondering if you might assist us with speakers…"

Let this new stage begin.

Cecilie Surasky is the Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Posted in Israel/Palestine

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

  1. annie says:

    i love you Cecilie……

  2. UNIX says:

    Why was my post removed? I did not violate the comments policy.

    I repeat again, in berkeley they hold marches and hold signs that say “Smash the Jewish State”

    How can that be right, or moral?

    Why is it that so called humanist become so appallingly terrible when it comes to specifically the rights of Jews?

    • Nurse! The old gent is up on the roof again..Nuuuurse!

    • Citizen says:

      You attending Berkeley now UNIX? If there was such a sign, as you allege, it was very probably held by an AIPAC drone. And photographed
      or filmed by another AIPAC drone; and distributed by another AIPAC drone. And if so, I am sure we will see it in all the US MSM media today.

    • aparisian says:

      The rights of Jews? Are you drunk when you wrote this post? UNIX do you bug or something?

      Jewish/Israeli groups joined the call for the BDS.

      • Shingo says:

        “Jewish/Israeli groups joined the call for the BDS. ”

        UNIX says they are not really Jews. Im fact, according to UNIX’s idea of who a Jew is, Israel is no longer Jewish state because 60% of Israelis are in favor of dismantling the settlements, which means they’re not Jewish.

    • Shingo says:

      “I repeat again, in berkeley they hold marches and hold signs that say “Smash the Jewish State””"

      Did you think that repeating a lie would make it true?

      “Why is it that so called humanist become so appallingly terrible when it comes to specifically the rights of Jews? “‘

      Clearly, you would have been among the sorry lot on the fearful side of the roon.

  3. Citizen says:

    RE: “There were a number of Jewish students who expressed seemingly real discomfort if the divestment bill should pass. (As it turned out, they were repeating these talking points almost verbatim, with histrionics encouraged.) Many said they wouldn’t feel safe on campus, others said they would feel silenced, a few said young Jews would no longer want to come to UC Berkeley.

    While feeling for their discomfort, it was difficult to watch how speaker after anti-divestment speaker seemed unable to distinguish between the discomfort of infrequent dirty looks, and rare nasty or bigoted name-calling, and the “discomfort” of having your home demolished or of having only toxic water to give to your family or of being shot or stuck at a checkpoint for hours in the sun.

    They were unable to make the distinction between “feeling silenced” because the bill might pass against their wishes, and being silenced because you are jailed for your nonviolent activism or because you can’t get a visa to travel or because your story is virtually invisible in film, in history books, in the mainstream media, everywhere.”

    Uncanny, how the anti-divestment speakers channeled Richard Witty’s SOP here on this blog. Hopefully for the sake of the audience, they just
    orally stenographed the biased hasbara talking points without spewing out clouds of abstract humanitarian sentiment posing as The Reasonable Man.

  4. I think the dismissal of sensitivities is a liability for the movement, both at Berkeley and elsewhere.

    The prospective alienation of Jews, even if it is only Jews that sympathize with Israel (a large proportion of Jews), is plausible, and does amount to the request of an existential apology. (Apology for what one is.)

    If true in any respect, it is a tragedy to again hear, “your sensitivities are not worth our attention, there’s are, yours aren’t”, spoken in the name of justice and universal values, and particularly spoken to Jews who have been the literal victims of that over centuries (with this short respite for three or four decades in the US and most of Europe, but now appearing to prospectively be beginning to shift back).

    An alternative approach is the approach of Rabbi Rosen, a signer of the letter in support of divestment, describing the need FOR sensitivity for Jewish concerns in the moment and after, to create a win-win specific proposal and long-term.

    You may be confident that you don’t mean denial of Israel’s existence, or the absence of revival of the permission for Jew hatred, but many of us are not that confident in the movement itself. And, we are not confident that the liberal, warm, principled Jewish supporting cadre, will be able to keep the movement limited and sensitive, or even remain committed sufficiently to fight inferences that are fascistic and directed at Jews.

    So, in that sense, the limited BDS proposal is understood as a foot in the door for more maximialist ideological driven measures and treatment.

    The dismissal of sensitivity is a part of what is communicated. I hope you understand that.

    Its the “victory” of a car. Yes, it moves forward, and hopefully with a skillful and considerate driver it doesn’t run over raccoons.

    • Julian says:

      Truth is very hard for the BDS losers. Actually the final vote was 12 for, 7 against and 1 abstention.
      Aipac is taking over the student senate? What a laugh.
      The more people see those old tired left-wing losers the better. “Rabbi” Lynn Gottlieb, Richard Falk, Naomi Klein, Chomsky. My favorite is Hedy Epstein the “Holocaust Surviver”. She spent the Holocaust in England. She’s a surviver in the sense she was alive during the Holocaust. What a bunch of self promoting phonies.

      • Shingo says:

        “12 for, 7 against and 1 abstention.”

        Fancy that. Just like in Israel , it’s moority rule.

        “Aipac is taking over the student senate? What a laugh.”

        Yeah silly AIPAC for making that statement hey Julian?

        “She spent the Holocaust in England. She’s a surviver in the sense she was alive during the Holocaust. What a bunch of self promoting phonies.”

        Julian is now a Holocaust denier. Who would have guessed it?

      • Shingo says:

        “Aipac is taking over the student senate? What a laugh.”

        Hey Julian check out these morons. Their desperation is making them careless.

        AIPAC Official Mistakenly Admits How It Operates
        link to huffingtonpost.com

    • Shingo says:

      “I think the dismissal of sensitivities is a liability for the movement, both at Berkeley and elsewhere.”

      It’s called democracy Witty. I know how you despise the concept, but it’s the best system we have.

      “The prospective alienation of Jews, even if it is only Jews that sympathize with Israel (a large proportion of Jews), is plausible, and does amount to the request of an existential apology. (Apology for what one is.)”

      If only those Jews who sympathize with Israel are being alienated, then it’s not because they are Jews.

      “If true in any respect, it is a tragedy to again hear, “your sensitivities are not worth our attention, there’s are, yours aren’t”

      Not a tragedy when it’ applies to Palestinians of course. As Cecile described, there weer Jews and Muslims holding hands. How that image must offend your racist and supremacist sensibilities!

      “… particularly spoken to Jews who have been the literal victims of that over …”’

      Isn’t it funny how Witty only thinks the Jews who opposed divestment are worthy of being regarded as victims here.
      “An alternative approach is the approach of Rabbi Rosen, a signer of the letter in support of divestment, describing the need FOR sensitivity for Jewish concerns in the moment and after, to create a win-win specific proposal and long-term.”

      Again, according to Witty, only the sensitivity of the Jew opposed to divestment should be considered, while the sensitivities of those in favour don’t count.

      “You may be confident that you don’t mean denial of Israel’s existence, or the absence of revival of the permission for Jew hatred, but many of us are not that confident in the movement itself.”

      Actually it’s not many of you. As you can see, you are the minority, and your numbers are shrinking.

      “And, we are not confident that the liberal, warm, principled Jewish supporting cadre, will be able to keep the movement limited and sensitive, or even remain committed sufficiently to fight inferences that are fascistic and directed at Jews.”

      You never will be, because you don’t want to entertain the possibility that it could succeed. Peace is not your goal, Jewish exceptionalism is, and there can be no Jewish exceptionalism (in your mind) with multi-culturalism.

      “The dismissal of sensitivity is a part of what is communicated.”
      While you dismiss the sensitivities of those that disagree with you.

      • An example of the dismissal of sensitivity.

        I don’t say that because of the democracy in Israel, where 70% might vote to annex East Jerusalem in some form, that that is wise, lawful, kind.

        The movement of a movement. (It runs over only 49% of the people.)

        • Shingo says:

          “An example of the dismissal of sensitivity.”

          No, it’s an example of how democracy works and how sensitivities that are based on fiction should be discarded, not indulged.

          “I don’t say that because of the democracy in Israel…”

          You wouldn’t want to.

          You really don’t ave aclue what to say do you Witty? You thnk that simply posting jibberish means you are still involved in the debat.

        • Some of the exagerated reactions are likely based on fiction, as are some of the exagerated proponents.

          Insensitivity is insensitive to fictions and to reason.

          Don’t expedite the transition of radical progessivism to fascism by advocating for insensitivity with the wig of “democracy”.

        • Chaos4700 says:

          This is stupid. The resolution fails by executive veto and that’s the only reason, and you’re throwing around words like “fascism” to describe majority vote?

          Witty, fascism is when a government uses its military to acquire resources and then collaborates with favored corporate interests to distribute those resources to a chosen few.

          Fascism is what BDS is about overturning. Fascism is Israel. You can try to warp and distort the definition if you think that will suit your agenda, but really, it only makes you out to be intellectually dishonest and corrupt.

        • Rule of the mob is also fascism.

        • Taxi says:

          Great discription of the hebron settlers.

  5. eGuard says:

    [S]igns that say “Smash the Jewish State”[.] How can that be right, or moral [sic]?

    It is not right, it should read “Smash Israel”. You know, we saw this mistake over and over again since Ben-Gurion back in 1948 coined it. BTW, I did not know Ben-Gurion was a “so called humanist”. Could you source that? And yes, it can “be moral” for sure, why this irrelevant question? Can it “be quality”? Can it “be temperature”?

    The other day, on my 4-step-Israel-Apologists refreshment course, who should I meet there but Mooser incidentally, we read a paper about what Israel could do to fight anti-Semitism. Keep reading, near the end you are rewarded with this pearl: “… using the verbal equivalent of tear gas, perhaps Elie Wiesel”. (Crocodylidae histrionics bring me nicely back on topic, innit). Guess what, I got the certificate, but with some restrictions related to practicing.

  6. stevelaudig says:

    “No wonder Israeli Consulate General Akiva Tor stayed for the entire vote.” It could be argued that this presence which was intended to influence the outcome of a purely American internal political forum is interference in the internal political affairs of another country. We know that the Israeli government interferes already by lobbying in the U.S. Israel out of Palestine and Israel out of U.S. politics.

  7. Citizen says:

    Who does the occupation benefit, and how?
    Here’s a very useful analysis, and notice of an online audio discussion on this subject coming up next sunday:

    A Bailout for Arms dealers: US Aid and the Israeli Budget:
    The economic and political elites of both the US and Israel have vested interests in continuing Israel’s militarization, occupation and choice of warfare. Personally, we believe that it’s left to us as citizens of both these countries to make maintaining those policies too costly for both regimes.
    link to theonlydemocracy.org

    The US Congress has shamefully abdicated its oversight role in US foreign policy and has become an apologist for the worst policies of the Israeli Government, all the while sending Israel billions of dollars in aid. Fortunately activists are not waiting for the US Congress to act. They are staging their own investigation, a first of its kind event.
    The Chicago Hearing is modeled after a Congressional hearing and will be webcast live from a link on the home page. The Chicago Hearing will bring together witnesses to tell seldom-heard stories from Israel-Palestine that raise critical questions about the effects of U.S. policies in the region. Does Israel’s explanation of security legitimize its violations of international law? Does the U.S. government condone Israeli policies and practices that would not be tolerated if replicated in America by the U.S. government?
    Live 30 minute webcast, April 18, 2010, from 1:15 PM to 5:30PM:
    link to chicagohearing.org

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  9. Citizen says:

    How the NYT misleades its readers as to US aid to Israel–make sure you read the comments to the misleading article:
    link to community.nytimes.com

  10. Chu says:

    Thanks Cecilie for the hopeful perspective.

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  12. Yams says:

    As I read about the UC Berkely divestment hearing, I am reminded of the tears shed in South Carolina when we moved the flag off the dome of the state capitol (to the front of the capitol). Many of the flag’s supporter cried very sincere tears about “heritage”, but the majority of the state, even here, wanted the flag to come down.
    Supremacists of any stripe always cry when they are no longer allowed to elevate themselves by standing on top of someone else. Its very sincere crying, but doesn’t change the fact that they are mistaken in their belief of supremacy.
    I support equal rights here at home and in Israel. If a society/nation/govt, whether its the slaveholding/jim crow/segregationist south or apartheid/segregationist Israel can’t survive without depending on racism (in whatever form), it shouldn’t. If you look at the American south and South Africa, you will see that its unsustainable in addition to unspeakable. Israel needs to face the music and support equal rights for ALL, not just for some.

  13. David says:

    Wow, Cecilie. This is great. Thanks for sharing.

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  16. robin says:

    The future is clear and it’s already here. It is a multicultural (and queer-integrated) universe bound together by a belief in full equality. Period.

    A beautiful approach to apply to issues everywhere.

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