UC Berkeley student senate votes in favor of divestment

19 March 2010

Early yesterday morning, the University of California Berkeley Student Senate (ASUC) passed a bill to divest from companies that provide military support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Debate began the night before at 9:00pm and ended and six hours later when the vote was held at 3:00am. The session was attended by more than 150 students, educators and concerned community supporters, forcing the meeting to be relocated to a larger room. Never before has the senate chambers been so overcrowded, signifying the importance and interest in the issue of Israel-Palestine on the Berkeley campus. Ultimately, the bill passed with 16 senators in favor and 4 against.

During the debate, Rahul Patel, a Student Senator and supporter of the bill from the beginning, said that “In the 1980s the Berkeley Student Government was a central actor in demanding that the university divest from South African apartheid. Twenty-five years later, it is a key figure in shaping a nationwide movement against occupation and war crimes around the world.” He added that “Student Government can be a space to mobilize and make decisions that have a significant impact on the international community. We must utilize these spaces to engage each other about issues of justice worldwide.”

Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, a Ph.D. student in economics, co-author of the bill and a member of Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), went to Gaza last July. He explained that the bill was informed by the devastation he witnessed as a result of Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter, where civilian infrastructure was systematically targeted including schools, mosques, the education and justice ministries, Gaza’s main university, hundreds of factories, livestock, prisons, courts and police stations. Israel’s invasion resulted in the deaths of 1,440 Palestinians, including more than 400 children, and injuring another 5,380 Palestinians in Gaza.

The bill specifies two companies in particular, United Technologies and General Electric. It draws a direct connection between Berkeley’s investments in these companies and their products, used to indiscriminately attack civilians and infrastructure. Shoaib Kamil, a Ph.D. student in Computer Science explained that “We are not pushing for divestment from Israel. This bill is directed at US companies that enable attacks described as ‘war crimes’ in the Goldstone report.”

The Goldstone commission and report, led by respected South African judge Richard Goldstone, was authorized by the United Nations to investigate accusations of war crimes during Israel’s invasion of Gaza. The final report, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council last September, found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and called for both to conduct investigations. However, the Goldstone report was particularly critical of Israel’s actions, especially the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure by the Israeli military.

The ASUC has control over their $1.7 million budget and the bill calls for a committee to investigate the investments by the ASUC and the University of California Regents to ensure that no monies are invested in companies that are complicit in war crimes. Divestment will likely be implemented first by the ASUC. However, getting the Regents to recognize and implement the students’ call will be a more difficult task because students have little representation in the Regents’ decisions.

Ibrahim Shikaki, a Visiting Scholar from Palestine, spoke in favor of the bill although he did not feel that it was written from the Palestinian perspective. Shikaki explained that “If this were a Palestinian bill it would have mentioned my grandfather’s land that was stolen from him, or my friend who was shot ten feet in front of me … or my aunt who for weeks was denied travel to Egypt for cancer treatment.”

Mahaliyah Ayla O, a gender and women’s studies major and Jewish member of SJP, voiced her surprise after the bill was passed. Ayla O said “It is not that complicated, we should not support corporations that manufacture weapons to oppress people.”

Last year, the ASUC passed a bill establishing a sisterhood relationship between UC Berkeley and the three universities in Gaza: Al-Aqsa University, Al-Azhar University and the Islamic University of Gaza. With the passage of this divestment bill, Berkeley students are taking a stand against Israel’s human rights violations and war crimes and continue Berkeley’s commitment to being on the vanguard of student activism. In 1986, UC Berkeley was one of the first universities to call for a comprehensive divestment from companies that traded with or had operations in apartheid South Africa.

Dina Omar is a UC Berkeley alumni and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. She currently works as the Membership Coordinator for the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.