UC Berkeley divestment vote–it isn’t over yet

Israel/Palestine
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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.

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