Attack on Berkeley divestment bill dishonest and misleading

A coalition of nearly 20 Jewish groups, ranging from the right-wing David Project and the Jewish National Fund to the liberal J Street, is distributing a misleading statement condemning a Student Senate bill at the University of California, Berkeley (“Troubling UC Berkeley Student Senate Bill on Israel, 5 April 2010). The ground-breaking bill calls for divestment from companies that profit from the perpetuation of the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. They refer to the bill as “dishonest” and “misleading” and “based on contested allegations.”

Yet it is their letter that is both dishonest and misleading.

The bill is based on extensive, footnoted research (see A Bill in Support of UC Divestment from War Crimes).

Yet this coalition of Jewish groups does not contest any of the facts. Without offering any evidence, they dismiss findings by reputable organizations like the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Instead of condemning these human rights violations, they prefer to misinform the public by suggesting that it is somehow wrong to “take sides” against universally-recognized injustice. In so doing, they effectively defend illegal Israeli settlements and the Israeli military occupation that continues to disrupt everyday features of Palestinian life: education, health care, economic life and art and culture.

Further, 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.

These groups choose to deliberately misreport the language of the bill, which refers specifically and exclusively to companies that:

Provide military support for or weaponry to support the occupation of the Palestinian territories; or facilitate the building or maintenance of the illegal wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes; or facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territories.

By condemning the humane and ethical policy of what is essentially morally responsible investment, do these groups mean to encourage investing in companies that provide the weapons of occupation, build the settlements of colonization, and render thousands of innocent Palestinians homeless?

They claim that the bill “unfairly targets the State of Israel.” But Israel is the country building the settlements and administering the occupation. And it is one of the world’s best known human rights abusers that is not already sanctioned by the United States — which provides Israel with more than $3 billion annually. Who else should the bill address?

There is no reason not to name Israel when it violates human rights, but these groups suggest that students should instead pass a bill with no teeth, a bill that merely condemns human rights violations in general without referring specifically to Israel. But it is absurd to suggest that students do not already condemn those violations in the abstract, or have not already worked to apply similar standards to countries like Sudan and South Africa and will not apply them similarly to other countries in the future. The bill merely applies widely-held principles to a particular situation.

In effect they are calling on students not to apply the same principles applied elsewhere to Israel. These groups want us to ignore reality and to allow Israel to be the one and only human rights violator that escapes accountability and condemnation. Perversely, they themselves are guilty of singling out Israel in order to defend occupation and the unjustifiable oppression of the Palestinian people.

The statement acknowledges no wall, no home demolitions, no Israeli settlements, no Palestinian suffering. All of these, the letter calls “discrete incident[s] without consideration of the larger picture.” How many more decades of occupation and dispossession will it take for our nation’s major Jewish organizations to issue a statement calling these injustices what they are, an inhumane and morally indefensible system of occupation?

By reducing these coordinated events to isolated incidents, they diminish their significance, aid the settlement efforts, and obstruct Palestinian freedom and human rights.

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.

Ironically, these groups’ statement actually marginalizes both Jews and non-Jews who oppose the Israeli occupation. It especially harms American and Palestinian students who may be affected by such investments when studying, conducting research, or visiting relatives in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The misinformation campaign targeting UC Berkeley follows the same script that was used to defame similar efforts by the Presbyterian Church in 2008, which endeavored to ensure that it was “invested only in peaceful pursuits.”

Then, a similar coalition accused the Presbyterian Church of “one-sidedness” and in much more explicit terms, anti-Semitism. In other words, they recast the very idea that one should be “invested only in peaceful pursuits” in Israel-Palestine as biased or racist.

This year the Presbyterian Church is considering divestment from Caterpillar because of the company’s refusal to take responsibility for the destruction its bulldozers create in the West Bank and Gaza. The Simon Wiesenthal Center cast all logic aside and accused the church of engaging in “nothing short of a declaration of war on Israel.” This kind of hyperbolic language is untrue, harms civil discourse and only serves to hamper the efforts of those rightfully opposed to the demolition of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards.

Now in Berkeley, a constellation of Jewish organizations has regrettably mobilized its resources to stand in the way of yet another progressive victory. The letter’s deliberate distortions call into question whether the signers would support any method of monitoring, discouraging and preventing Israeli human rights violations.

Instead, the letter’s signers suggest that Americans should act with their hands tied behind their backs, without the full toolkit of nonviolent resistance tactics that have been an essential part of all successful human justice movements.

However, not engaging in morally responsible investment when faced with the clear findings of human rights organizations and the international community would be morally indefensible.

Choosing to do something about Israel’s human rights violations does not require turning a blind eye to other injustices in the world as these groups suggest; but refusing to take action because of other examples would indeed turn a blind eye to this one. Now is the time to support Palestinian freedom and human rights. Berkeley students have done the right thing. Others should follow suit and divest from the occupation, as part of their general commitment to ethical investment policies.

Sydney Levy is the Director of Campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace, a national grassroots organization dedicated to full equality between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yaman Salahi, a UC Berkeley alumnus and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, is currently a student at Yale Law School.