At Berkeley, moral victory despite divestment vote loss

3 May 2010

On 28 April, University of California, Berkeley’s Student Senate narrowly missed an historic opportunity to divest its funds from United Technologies and General Electric which manufacture F-16 jets and Apache helicopters — weapons sold to the Israeli military and used against civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

More than a month earlier, on 18 March 2010, the Student Senate approved a bill (SB118A) to divest from companies that provide military support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. UC Berkeley student body president Will Smelko vetoed SB118A a week later, and the bill was voted on again on 14 April and 28 April was the last debate considering the bill. However, the count was one vote short of the two-thirds majority (14 votes) needed to override the veto.

The battle at Berkeley — part of a global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions of apartheid Israel — was closely watched. Speakers for the bill on 28 April and on 14 April included UC Berkeley faculty members Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin, Hatem Bazian, law professor George Bisharat of UC Hastings and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights Richard Falk along with testimonies of Palestinian students living under Israeli occupation.

Notable personalities and dozens of activist groups on campus and around the world strongly supported the resolution. More than 40 student groups representing a variety of ethnic groups and political interests joined the call on the university to divest its funds from companies profiting from Israel’s war crimes.

More than 100 UC faculty members, 45 from UC Berkeley, signed a statement supporting overriding the presidential veto. Prominent thinkers such as Naomi Klein, Alice Walker and five Nobel Peace Prize Laureates — among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu — supported UC Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine in their efforts to uphold the divestment bill.

Nobel Women Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and Jody Williams issued a Statement of Support reading: “We stand united in our belief that divesting from companies that provide significant support for the Israeli military provides moral and strategic stewardship of tuition and taxpayer-funded public education money.”

However, the tremendous amount of support for SB118A was not enough to override the veto.

According to a report in the Jewish Daily Forward, the Berkeley chapter of Hillel organized closed meetings for the student senators with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council, J Street and Akiva Tor, the Israeli consul general of San Francisco (“How To Beat Back Israel Divestment Bill: Get Organized,” 21 April 2010).

Some senators received threatening e-mails and Senator Emily Carlton told the Forward: “ ‘There were undertones of intimidation’ ” during the meeting organized by Hillel. Three student senators reversed their votes over the course of multiple senate meetings and extensive lobbying efforts.

Waseem Salahi, a UC Berkeley student and senator-elect, questioned the influence of powers that be: “The senators knew what was right, but decided instead to cow to political pressure and intimidation.” After the bill missed passage by one vote, international students expressed their dismay about attending a university that continues to actively support the oppression of their family members and friends overseas.

In support of the bill UC Berkeley alum Basima Sisemore told the student senators a moving story about her two-year-old cousin who died at an Israeli checkpoint in the occupied West Bank because he was turned away while in need of medical attention.

The final speaker and visiting scholar from Palestine, Ibrahim Shikaki, drew a standing ovation from the audience by when he challenged the senators, saying: “the narrative that has captured you is the same that named Nelson Mandela and Malcom X terrorists. If that is the case, then I am a proud, indigenous, Palestinian freedom fighter, because that is what we are. Rethink your terminology, rethink your narrative, rethink injustice and rethink this veto.”

Once it was clear the veto was going to be upheld, despite the wishes of the 700 students, educators and community members supporting the bill, the supporters exited the room with their mouths covered in tape in a gesture meant to convey that their voices had been silenced by the veto.

Senator Rahul Patel, who supported the bill from the beginning, invited student supporters to raise their left fist in the air and to walk out. Patel said their fists raised symbolized “The seeds of truth and freedom that we have sowed tonight.”

Hundreds of students walked out of the meeting, and reconvened outside to share their feelings about the vote. UC Berkeley and SJP alum Sophia Ritchie said: “Something has shifted — in the discourse, in the sheer numbers of people who are concerned, in the solidarity work and coalition building amongst a broad and truly diverse range of student and community groups, in the energy around Palestine — that cannot be ignored. In this way, we are winning.”

Dina Omar is a UC Berkeley graduate in Middle Eastern Studies and Anthropology. The author is a member of SJP and a poet and currently works as the membership coordinator for the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.