UC Berkeley set to vote on historic divestment bill

On Wednesday 28 April, the UC Berkeley Student Senate will make a final attempt to pass a bill calling for divestment of university funds from companies that profit from Israel’s war crimes and occupation of Palestine.

The senate had previously approved the bill in a 16-4 vote on 18 March. The student president subsequently vetoed. A two-thirds majority vote is needed to override the veto. That’s 14 of 20 votes.

If the bill passes, UC Berkeley will be the most prominent US university to call for divestment, after Hampshire College, the University of Michigan Dearborn and the University of Wisconsin.

The resolution by the student government is not binding on the UC regents, yet if adopted by student government bodies in other UC campuses will surely require regent attention. The bill meanwhile has attracted attention from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. In a widely circulating video on YouTube, AIPAC director Jonathan Kessler is shown at a convention expressing intentions to “take over” over UC Berkeley student elections in response.

Since 18 March, debate over the bill has electrified the Berkeley campus and drawn international attention. Ofra Ben Artzi, nephew of Benjamin Netanyahu, joined 33 Israeli citizens signing a letter supporting the bill. Nobel Peace laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Rigoberta Menchu Tum, authors Naomi Klein and Alice Walker, and Professors Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk, issued public statements condemning the veto. “I heartily endorse your divestment vote and encourage you to stand firm on the side of what is right,” wrote Tutu.

The senate last met 14 April in a nine hour showdown that failed to either overturn the veto or end the discussion. Voting to overturn were 13 senators, one vote short. The record attendance of more than 600 people required the 7pm meeting to be moved twice, eventually commencing at 10:30pm in a ballroom hall, and concluding after 7am.

The tense crowd listened to some high-profile testimonies. Supporting the bill were Hedy Epstein of Missouri, a Holocaust survivor, and video testimony from Amer Kassab, family member of Gaza war crime victims. Opposing the bill were Akiva Tor, Israeli Consul General to the Pacific Northwest, and Adam Naftalin-Kelman, director general of Hillel.

The bill was authored by members of the group Students for Justice in Palestine. More than 40 campus groups and 60 International, Palestinian and Israeli nongovernmental organizations signed a public letter to the senate in support of overturning the veto. These groups included the Council for the National Interests, Tree of Life Foundation, Gush Shalom, Bat Shalom and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition.

Speakers for the bill also included UC Berkeley faculty members Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin, and Hatem Bazian, law professor George Bisharat of UC Hastings, visiting graduate student Ibrahim from Palestine, director of Jewish Voice for Peace, Sydney Levy, attorney Matt Ross from the National Lawyers Guild, two Christian ministers and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights Richard Falk.