In 2010, at UC Berkeley, our student senate considered a bill calling on the UC to remove its investments in companies aiding Israel’s human rights abuses. It passed 16 to four. The president vetoed the bill, and the veto was never overturned.
This last Saturday, the UC Student Association, a pan-UC student government with representatives from all the UC campuses, passed another bill. This one condemns recent state legislation that attempts to falsely equate divestment efforts like the one at Berkeley in 2010 with anti-Semitism. The bill expresses the UCSA’s opposition to all forms of racism. The bill also urges the UC to stop profiting from Israel’s human rights violations. This bill was carefully considered and then passed with no opposing votes. The UCSA president, who voted for the bill, is not expected to veto. What was different about Saturday versus 2010, when the bill didn’t stick? This time, the democratic UCSA process was not distorted by intimidation, distractions and improper outside influence.
In 2010, Berkeley senators considered comments from public debates, their own research and the sources on human rights, citing Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and United Nations reports. Just like the UCSA representatives did on Saturday, in 2010 senators discussed, slightly amended and then passed the bill based on the substance of the issues. But in 2010, something happened between the time the bill was passed and the last senate meeting when, ultimately, three senators who had voted for the bill chose not to overturn the veto. In the months following these events, I began to understand what that was.
First, it leaked that many or all of the senators who had voted for the 2010 bill were flooded with emails threatening: “Wait till you see your names and pictures in Google … and your voting record too. Let’s see how your vote will help you find jobs or get admitted to U.S. medical schools, law schools, etc. You are all adults now. You sleep in the bed you make.”
Second, we learned that AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, applied heavy pressure. AIPAC is the second-most powerful lobbyist group in Washington based on a poll of members of Congress done by Fortune Magazine. At the 2010 AIPAC policy conference, which took place days after the initial Berkeley divestment vote, but before the veto, AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler said, “How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley? We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.” This is how a powerful lobbying organization would try to insert itself into the democratic decision-making of a student body.
Third, the “public debate” was distorted by organizations who desired to silence discussion of human rights. An anti-divestment group told students to change the conversation to avoid discussion of Israeli human rights violations and instead to focus on individual feelings. Talking points sheets found laying on chairs after the meeting directed public commentators to focus on the personal emotions the bill was causing, and instructed them to say the bill made them feel “unsafe” and ”discounted” on campus. The talking points specifically directed students not to speak of the substance of the issue at hand.
With all of this, it’s not surprising that in 2010, three senators backed down. Last Saturday, the UCSA bill was publicized on the UCSA agenda, viewable to dozens of elected student leaders for a week before the actual vote. But national lobbying forces were not made aware of the bill in time too, as they would put it, “take over the student governments.” It was then up to the 14 present UCSA representatives, elected to speak on behalf of their student bodies, to use their own knowledge and judgment when reaching a conclusion on this free speech and human rights issue. After careful consideration, there were amendments made in order to keep the bill as reflective of the student opinions at all campuses as possible, but no senator spoke in favor of HR 35 attempts to chill free speech. The UCSA made its decisions according to their own judgment, reflecting the opinions of their constituents, just as their members’ job descriptions entail.
Without threats, intimidation and emotional diversions, UCSA representatives chose to take a stand for free speech and the right to criticize any state political actor with no special exceptions. They strongly supported the bill because its merits are, simply put, very difficult not to embrace. The UCSA understands that speech critical of Israel is legitimate and valid. If you understand that speaking out against Iran’s treatment of its people is not Islamophobic, or that voicing disagreement with China over Tibet is not anti-Chinese racism, then you know HR 35 is absurd, exceptionalist and actually quite dangerous.
If you believe in universal human rights, then you believe that such a commitment requires that any state violations of human rights be condemned, Israel included. The UCSA should be applauded for expressing opposition to all racism, whether it be the racism of anti-Semitism or the racism of Israel’s human rights violations, neither of which our campuses should tolerate, support or profit from.
This article first appeared in UC Berkeley’s Daily Californian.