The Divestment Debate on Israel/Palestine at UC Berkeley

Debates continue to rage over the UC Berkeley Student Senate’s call for divestment from two companies that help Israel maintain the Occupation of the West Bank.

Student senators debate the divestment bill. Photo by Skyler Reid from April 23.

The argument isn’t over yet, because — after failing to override student president Will Smelko’s veto of the Senate of the Associated Students of UC Berkeley’s divestment bill on April 15 — the student senate passed a motion to reconsider the vote. The student senators met again for a closed session on April 21 but failed to come to consensus about whether to override the veto, so the issue remains open. [4/29/10 Update: In a meeting that started on April 28 and concluded at 4 a.m. on April 29, the student senate came one vote short of overriding the veto. The resolution was reportedly tabled, making it available again for reconsideration at a future time.]

Rather than charge in with my own position, I want to respect the intelligence of Tikkun‘s readers by offering a variety of conflicting viewpoints and inviting you all to decide what you think. We are planning a full roundtable discussion among voices on all sides of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions debate that we will tape, edit, and publish in either the July or September issue of Tikkun (if you still don’t subscribe, please do so now)!

Here are some key parts of the bill being debated:

… WHEREAS, prior and subsequent to the bombing the Israeli government has engaged in collective punishment of the whole of the Palestinian population, in the view of the human rights community, as exemplified by the ongoing 32 month blockade on Gaza …

5. WHEREAS, student research has revealed that, according to the most recent UC investment report6, within the UC Retirement Program fund and the General Endowment Program fund there exist direct investments in American companies materially and militarily supporting the Israeli government’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, including American companies General Electric and United Technologies; and

6. WHEREAS, General Electric holds engineering support and testing service contracts with the Israeli military and supplies the Israeli government with the propulsion system for its Apache Assault Helicopter fleet, which, as documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has been used in attacks on Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, including the January 4, 2009 killings of Palestinian medical aid workers; and

7. WHEREAS, United Technologies supplies the Israeli government with Blackhawk helicopters and with F-15 and F-16 aircraft engines and holds an ongoing fleet management contract for these engines, and, Amnesty International has documented the Israeli government’s use of these aircraft in the bombing of the American School in Gaza, the killing of Palestinians civilians, and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes;8 therefore, be it …

RESOLVED, that the ASUC will ensure that its assets, and will advocate that the UC assets, do not include holdings in General Electric and United Technologies because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories; be it further

RESOLVED, 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; be it further …

RESOLVED, that this Committee will recommend additional divestment policies to keep university investments out of companies aiding war crimes throughout the world, such as those taking place in Morocco, the Congo, and other places as determined by the resolutions of the United Nations and other leading international human rights organizations.

To read the full text of the resolution, you can download the official PDF.

As you will see, this is a debate that has strong opponents of the Occupation on BOTH SIDES of the issue.

Here’s an excerpt of a statement signed by J Street and the New Israel Fund (both important voices for peace and justice in Israel), and also signed by right-wing groups such as the David Project:

We are deeply troubled, however, to learn that the ASUC Student Senate has passed a dishonest bill, based on misleading and contested allegations, that unfairly targets the State of Israel while also marginalizing Jewish students on campus who support Israel.

While the bill states that it is “in support of ASUC divestment from war crimes,” it focuses solely on one country, Israel. Though it states that the “ASUC resolution should not be considered taking sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict,” the exclusive focus on Israel suggests otherwise. Furthermore, the bill’s call for the University Regents and the ASUC to divest exclusively from Israel contradicts the bill’s own claim by, in fact, explicitly taking sides.

We request that the administration at UC Berkeley strongly and unequivocally condemn the ASUC Student Senate resolution. Furthermore, we urge you to state firmly your intention not to divest university holdings from any company doing business with Israel. While the ASUC is a separate entity, its actions affect the atmosphere on campus for which the Chancellor’s office has primary responsibility. Your voice is needed now.

On the other side are Jewish Voice for Peace, Bishop Tutu, Naomi Klein, and others, whose views have typically been given less space in the media.

Sydney Levy, the director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace, and Yaman Salahi, a UC Berkeley alumnus and current law student at Yale, published an article rebutting the letter signed by J Street, arguing that the letter “is both dishonest and misleading”:

They claim that the Berkeley bill calls on the University “to divest exclusively from Israel.” They imply that the bill calls for divestment “from any company doing business with Israel.” But this is simply not true.

The Berkeley bill focuses specifically on the Israeli occupation, not on Israel. While a vibrant and necessary debate on the merits of a total boycott and divestment from Israel continues around the world, it is not at issue here.

In reality, the bill divests only from two American companies that make money by equipping the occupation, General Electric and United Technologies — but no Israeli companies. It also announces an intention to divest from any company — whatever the nationality, and only after further research — that similarly profit from the occupation …

Most perniciously, they refer to the bill as “marginalizing Jewish students on campus who support Israel.” The fact that they mention only Jewish students and not other students who might hold similar political positions reveals the true meaning of this statement: This is an intellectually dishonest and misleading accusation of anti-Semitism that cannot be taken lightly. The bill does not target any students: it only targets corporations that facilitate occupation.

In fact, the Berkeley bill was co-authored by an Israeli Jewish student on campus and is supported by many Jews who have testified in favor of the bill and have written thousands of letters of support to the student senators.

Different divestment campaigns can vary hugely in terms of the target of their divestment. The UC Berkeley campaign is very narrowly targeted, but some divestment proponents are calling for more sweeping measures. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the director of The Shalom Center, has criticized the particular way in which some proponents are defining the “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions” movement but is not rejecting the tactic altogether. He recently published an article about BDS after his debate on Democracy Now with Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian-American professor:

Mr. Barghouti defined BDS as a boycott of all Israeli life, including universities, music, businesses, etc., aimed at ending not only the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, but also ending discriminationwithin Israel against its citizens of Palestinian origin, andenforcing the “right of return” for all Palestinian refugees into Israel..

It seems to me that Mr. Barghouti’s version of the means and goals of BDS might depend on and would be likely to result in first demonizing and then dissolving Israel. (See below for why I think so.) I think that is an unethical goal, and therefore unachievable – and if that were to become the goal and a totalistic version of BDS were to become the practice of those who seek a decent peace in the Middle East, it would prevent the achievement of what would be both ethical and possible – a regional peace treaty encompassing Israel, a new Palestinian state, and all the Arab states.

I therefore support a very different strategy – also a grass-roots American movement, but this one aimed to bring the US government to insist on ending the occupation, ending the state of war most Arab states still hold against Israel, and bringing about a just peace between Israel, Palestine, and all the other Arab states. (I can imagine a laser-beam tactic of boycotting specific enterprises most related to the occupation that would fit into this approach – but that is not the totalistic strategy proposed by the BDS “”movement” and Mr. Barghouti … )

Naomi Klein has spoken up in favor of the student senate’s divestment bill. Here’s an excerpt:

Dear members of the ASUC Senate, I am writing to urge you to reaffirm Senate Bill 118A, despite the recent presidential veto…. Your recent divestment bill opposing Israeli war crimes stands to have … global impact, helping to build a grassroots, non-violent movement to end Israel’s violations of international law. And this is precisely what your opponents — by spreading deliberate lies about your actions — are desperately trying to prevent. They are even going so far as to claim that, in the future, there should be no divestment campaigns that target a specific country, a move that would rob activists of one of the most effective tools in the non-violent arsenal. Please don’t give into this pressure; too much is on the line.

As the world has just witnessed with the Netanyahu government’s refusal to stop its illegal settlement expansion, political pressure is simply not enough to wrench Israel off its current disastrous path. And when our governments fail to apply sanctions for defiant illegality, other forms of pressure must come into play, including targeting those corporations that are profiting directly from human rights abuses.

Yaman Salahi also wrote an article, “Singling out Israel is the right thing to do,” rebutting the student body president’s justification for vetoing the bill (i.e., its “focus on a specific country”), arguing that critics claim

that “singling out” Israel for divestment is unfair, because divestment does not target every other country that also violates human rights. This argument is disingenuous. On its face, it appears to advocate for greater action on more human rights issues. In practice, however, it is deployed in order to silence those who would call for greater action in the face of Israeli war crimes and other violations of Palestinian rights under international law. Indeed, many of those who argue that divestment “singles out” Israel have no similar reservations when applying economic and political pressure to other countries and conflicts, such as Darfur.

As Naomi Klein has written, divestment is not a dogma: it’s a tactic. Up against powerful state and corporate actors, civil society must focus its energies for collective actions such as boycott or divestment to succeed. Such was the case when companies that enabled the South African apartheid regime were targeted for divestment. A similar campaign succeeded regarding Darfur, and today another campaign is underway against Sri Lanka for its continuing oppression of the Tamil people. In all three cases those nations were or are singled out for divestment while at the same time other injustices loomed in the world. To do so made tactical sense while re-inforcing the principle that companies are legitimate targets for boycott and divestment wherever they are integral actors in a system of oppression. When all other measures fail, consumers and investors have one last recourse: to chose to spend and invest their money elsewhere. For many around the world, this is the best way to intervene against Israel’s systematized racism and oppression of the Palestinian people.

Those who believe that confronting Israel is unfair are themselves relying on an unacceptable double standard, “singling out” Israel, so to speak, as the one country expressly permitted to wantonly attack and persecute its minority citizens and subjects while the rest of the world passively watches.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town wrote a letter in support of the UC Berkeley effort to divest from specific companies that enable the violation of Palestinian human rights, drawing a parallel between South African Apartheid and the current situation in the Palestinian territories:

I am writing to tell you that, despite what detractors may allege, you are doing the right thing. You are doing the moral thing. You are doing that which is incumbent on you as humans who believe that all people have dignity and rights, and that all those being denied their dignity and rights deserve the solidarity of their fellow human beings.

I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.

In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime.

Hard-line divestment opponents, meanwhile, are arguing that any sort of divestment campaign is an expression of anti-Semitism. This view is encapsulated in Reut Cohen’s article “Israel Divestment Assaults Democracy,” which argues:

The purpose of boycott and divestment campaigns is not only to hurt Israel’s economy but to cast her as a pariah state. These campaigns are sponsored by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups in the United States and around the world.

The Arab boycott of Jewish interests began in 1921, more than 27 years prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948. The boycott remains in effect today under the sponsorship of the Arab League and its Central Boycott Office in Damascus, Syria. Divestment and boycott efforts not only include products produced in Israel, but also companies that do business in or with Israel. Ships that have docked in Israeli ports regardless of the cargo’s point of origin or ultimate destination have also been blacklisted.

Congress passed a law creating the Office of Antiboycott Compliance within the Department of Commerce in 1977. This law disallows U.S. firms from partaking in actions in support of unsanctioned foreign boycotts against a country that is an ally to the United States. Because Israel is an ally of the United States and the government does not sanction the Arab boycott of Israel, the law prohibits actions that further or support the Arab League boycott of Israel. US legislation forbids participation in such boycotts in order to prevent private citizens from potentially generating a de-facto foreign policy.

These divestment campaigns have gained momentum since 2000, mostly on college campuses where movements have become more like street theater, but also in cities and towns, churches, businesses and non-profit organizations. These campaigns, moreover, were initially inspired by the Palestinian Authority, which is part of the official Arab League boycott of Israel.

Students at schools other than UC Berkeley are also organizing divestment efforts. Georgetown students, who led their university to divest from corporations tied to South Africa’s military and government in 1986, and from companies that supported the Sudanese government in carrying out human rights abuses in 2008, have launched a campaign to urge Georgetown to “divest from companies in Israel and the Occupied Territories that violate human rights and support apartheid.” Meanwhile, a group called Brown Students for Justice in Palestine is leading a divestment campaign at Brown University. And protesters in Vancouver have been calling for “a boycott against Israeli Apartheid.”

What do you think about the divestment campaign at Berkeley particularly and the other BDS campaigns in general? Join the online discussion in the comment thread below, and keep an eye out for more discussions in the magazine. Tikkun has decided that we do more of a service to the diversity of views on this topic in the peace community to play the role of presenting that diversity rather than seeking to convince you of any one perspective. So, as I mentioned earlier, in either the July or September issue of the print magazine, we will present a roundtable discussion among people who have been involved in supporting peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine and who represent different perspectives on BDS and how and what ways it might be useful or not for achieving a lasting peace with justice.


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