Berkeley students vote on divestment

Plans infuriate pro-Israel advocates, who say the bill demonizes Israel.

By E.B. SOLOMONT, JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT
April 15, 2010 03:26
4 minute read.
Berkeley students vote on divestment

university of london 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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NEW YORK – With passions running high, student leaders at the University of California, Berkeley, are set to vote on a divestment measure that pro-Israel advocates are calling immoral, bigoted and illegal.

The 20-member student senate was set to vote on Wednesday night on whether to override a veto of the divestment bill, which was first passed last month. A week later, the senate president vetoed the measure.

But with the campus embroiled in a bitter debate, the student senate was prepared to vote again on whether to overturn the veto and restore the divestment bill.

Passed for the first time on March 17, the bill calls for divestment of Associated Students of the University of California assets from two companies, General Electric and United Technologies, “because of their military support of the occupation of Palestinian territories.”

The bill claims not to take sides, but stands as a “principled expression for universal human rights and equality.”

But the measure infuriated pro-Israel advocates, who sharply disagreed and said the bill singles out Israel with language that accuses Israel of “collective punishment” of Palestinians.

“They have chosen to deal only with Israel and to demonize it,” Akiva Tor, consul-general at the Consulate of Israel in the Pacific Northwest, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “I don’t believe they believe Israel has a right to exist, period.”

Following the original passage of the divestment bill, student senate president Will Smelko vetoed the bill on March 24. In a statement at the time, Smelko called the bill “selective” and “one-sided” and attacked the mechanism by which the ASUC achieves its goal of building peace.

“The perception of the bill as a symbolic attack on a specific community of our fellow students and/or fears of the bill being used as a tool to delegitimize Israel cannot be understated,” he wrote.

Tor, who held a “teach-in” for student senators on Monday, said he would speak on behalf of Israel at the meeting on Wednesday night, emphasizing Israel’s pursuit of peace and support for a two-state solution.

“Their positions are morally reckless,” he said, of those behind the bill.

But both sides have galvanized passionate campaigns garnering international support.

In a letter to students, Emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu wrote, “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 nonviolent means such as boycotts and divestment encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”

Activist Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation, urged Berkeley senators to “be brave” and override the bill’s veto.


The student newspaper reported that student leaders had received thousands of letters from stakeholders.

On the pro-Israel side, a wide swath of Jewish organizations spanning the political spectrum – including J Street, Hillel, the American Jewish Committee, local rabbis and figures including Elie Wiesel, A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz – wrote letters opposing divestment.

In an April 5 letter to the university chancellor and provost, a coalition of groups, including Hillel and the American Jewish Committee, argued that the bill “unfairly targets” Israel and marginalizes Jewish students.

Wiesel, in a note to student leaders, dismissed the comparison of Israel to South African apartheid.

“Israel is not pre-Mandela South Africa,” he wrote. “One may disagree with certain decisions of its government, but they don’t constitute a policy of Apartheid… In the case of Israel, divestment would be inappropriate and totally unjust.”

In recent years, other universities have seen divestment efforts on their own college campuses.

Last year, Hampshire College trustees approved a divestment measure, which the school’s president later backed down from. In 2002, a group of academics at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology signed a petition calling on the schools to divest from Israel.

“It failed,” said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said, of the petition.

The The Case for Israel author, who has fought divestment efforts at several schools, said the strategy was conceived at the World Racism Conference in Durban.

“It has not succeeded at a single university,” he noted, predicting that the measure would not succeed in Berkeley.

Calling divestment from Israel “immoral, bigoted and if done by a state university, illegal,” Dershowitz said Tutu is “one of the most prominent bigots in the world when it comes to singling out Israel.”

Early on Wednesday, it seemed the vote go either way. The student newspaper, The Daily Californian, ran competing ads seeking to sway the senate vote.

“Anything can happen tonight,” said one close observer of the debate.

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