Students at the University of California, Berkeley made history earlier this year by voting 16-4 to divest from two companies directly implicated in Israel's occupation.
The divestment campaign was supported by, among others, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk and various Jewish and Israeli peace groups. This vote was then vetoed by the president of the student body (ASUC). After a marathon twelve hour debate, the student senate again voted in favour of the bill, but fell just short of the two-thirds majority required to override the veto. The bill was "tabled", meaning it will come up for discussion again later in the semester.
Aside from expressing deep admiration and support for what they've achieved, I'll restrict myself to a few brief comments:
1 It would have been nice to have got the votes, but in a way that was something of a sideshow. As eyewitness accounts and the video above make clear, the real success of this campaign has been to build a diverse, passionate, articulate and committed movement in support of Palestinian rights. As Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace comments,
"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."
Gabriel similarly observes,
"The setback is temporary. The dramatic vote divided the Berkeley student community on predictable lines. On the one side, organized Jewish power, with its lines of support in the local Jewish community but even more so in Israel and Washington. On the other side, pretty much everyone else who is politically aware and active. What appears as a deep fissure in the student body is therefore in fact an overwhelming unity in support of Palestinian rights. This unity is more important than the actual vote, and the voting process, culminating in an all night session yesterday, helped its emergence and its self-conscious articulation."
2 One thing this campaign has brought into stark relief is the extent to which Israel's moral standing in the US has plummeted following the Gaza massacre and the Goldstone report. As Surasky writes,
"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."
Israel is no longer perceived as a victim state. Its record of abuses is finally catching up with it. Norman Finkelstein has observed that the Goldstone report into Israel's crimes in Gaza "signalled the implosion of that unstable alloy – some would say oxymoron – called liberal Zionism". The prominence of Jewish students and activists in the Berkeley divestment campaign attests to this - the ripples from the implosion are threatening to become a wave, and the islands of unambiguous support for the occupation that remain, increasingly isolated and desperate, know it. Conditions have never been so favourable for Palestinian solidarity activism, and the evidence from Berkeley suggests that a generation of college activists is taking up the challenge, and doing so intelligently, putting a focus on human rights and universalism at the core of their activism. As Finkelstein writes, "[t]he bonds of solidarity being forged between young Jews and Muslims opposing the occupation [on American campuses] ... give reason for hope that a just and lasting peace may yet be achieved."
3 A series of talking points addressed to opponents of divestment was leaked. Among other things, it encouraged students to pretend that they were being "silence[d]"; "BE EMOTIONAL"; and conflate an "attack on Israel" with "an attack on my Jewish identity". Tellingly, it warned students to avoid addressing the content of the bill itself, indeed advising them to "AVOID a debate on the Middle East" altogether, since "[s]upporters of the bill would like to argue on this platform." Instead, they should "focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community".
The evidence suggests that opponents of divestment stuck faithfully to this script, cynically conflating the State of Israel with Jews and then having the chutzpah to complain about feeling "unsafe" on campus (this latter complaint was rejected as baseless by, among others, many Jewish students who supported the bill).
4 Interestingly, the talking points advise against using the 'Israel is being singled out' argument, on the grounds that it is "weak" and "implies that Israel has committed war crimes". As anyone who's been active on this issue for any length of time will know, the "singling out" argument is a standard technique used by apologists for the occupation to deflect attention away from Israel's crimes and towards the, supposedly sinister, motives of the person trying to bring them to an end. It appears, however, that old habits die hard, and despite the talking points, "singling out" and "double standards" remained prominent arguments deployed against the bill.*
Those who used them would have done a lot better to stick to the script - while other arguments against the bill had at least some chance of muddying the factual record, or deflecting attention away from Palestinian suffering onto the far more severe crisis facing prosperous, thriving Jewish students at one of the world's preeminent universities, the "singling out" argument fails spectacularly in its own terms.
Yes, any time anyone chooses to take action against any wrong, they are "singling out" that wrong against a range of similar, and of similarly bad, wrongs. This is unavoidable, and leaves us with two options: to use it as an excuse to avoid taking action against wrongs entirely, or to accept that selectivity is unavoidable in the fight against injustice and proceed regardless, in the interests of advancing justice and reducing human suffering. The history of human rights and peace activism is composed entirely of those who chose the latter response.
Thus, no one (except presumably for apologists for those regimes) complained when UCB students "singled out" Sudan or when they "singled out" apartheid South Africa, both of which have been the subject of similar divestment bills. But the same people do complain when students "single out" the Israeli occupation. At the root of this affected outrage about "double standards", then, is a glaring double standard. Are we expected not to notice this?
5 Finally, reaction to the bill highlighted a clear division between those who genuinely oppose the occupation and take action to bring it to an end, and those who claim to oppose the occupation while in practice devoting most of their energy to attacking the former. Back to Gabriel:
"[I]t is worth noting that the resolution that targeted two US companies directly benefiting from the occupation, not Israel, not even Israeli companies, was not merely opposed by, but a mobilizing flash point for, the whole of mainstream organized Jewish bodies, including J-Street. Namely, when push come to shove, the occupation itself, not just Israel, has the full support of organized US Jews. The slightest attempt to confront the occupation is beyond the pale; mainstream Jewish organizations, whatever horse manure they may propose as "criticism" of the occupation, mobilize to defend the continuation of the policy of settlements and ethnic cleansing."
Now, I'm not denying that the likes of J Street have a useful function, in shifting the debate back towards the centre and in destigmatizing (some) criticism of Israeli policies. But let's not pretend that their mealy-mouthed opposition to the occupation and vicious attacks on Palestinian solidarity activists is remotely sufficient or "progressive".
Cross-posted at The Heathlander
* The 'singling out' argument was used, for example, by ASUC President Will Smelko to defend his veto. For a comprehensive response to Smelko's claims, see here. See also Bradley Burston, who can always be relied upon to piously situate himself between the two extremes of opposition and support for war crimes. (Is it just me, or does the preview at the end of his column strike a knowing tone?: "Next week: Part 2 - How to know when a 'Mideast Expert' is lying").