Berkeley’s BDS epic continues; Dispatches

Posted by Helena Cobban
April 15, 2010 10:51 AM EST

The debate at U.C. Berkeley’s student Senate (ASUC) continued throughout last night, on whether to over-ride the veto the Senate president had cast against the recent divestment bill.

The divestment bill, if passed, would mandate that the ASUC divest from companies that actively support Israel’s occupation of the OPTs and the Apartheid Wall– and that it call on the far richer U.C. system as a whole to follow suit.

One informant tells me that the over-ride vote almost failed: it looked set to garner only 12 of the 14 votes needed for the over-ride, from the 22 voting Senators. But then the matter was “tabled”, and the over-ride motion will come up for a second vote next week. That friend said that if the over-ride vote had passed, it would have been a “Pyrrhic victory for the anti-BDS crowd” that could push fence-sitters over into the pro-BDS camp.

To see how seriously AIPAC took the vote, watch this very clear and short video in which AIPAC’s Director of Leadership Development tells his followers that they have to “take over” the Berkeley student government– “just like we did in Washington.” (HT: MJR)

J Street also seemed, quite shamefully, to throw its weight behind the anti-divestment forces at Berkeley.

Here are some wonderfully rich despatches sent from the Berkeley frontlines throughout the past 15 hours, by Liz Jackson, a Berkeley Law student who’s one of the organizers in the Berkeley group ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ (SJP).

5:36 am, Berkeley time:

Override vote is going down because the swing vote is abstaining. But senators in favor of divestment are continuing debate, refusing to allow a vote bc “justice doesn’t sleep”. They are pounding the one abstainer and repeating that to remain neutral is to sustain the status quo which is to sustain our investment in war crimes.

* * *

2:45 am, Berkeley time

I’m bleary and weary at 2:45 am with public comment still ongoing. The crowd is finally starting to thin. At peak there was probably 2000 people here. Despite the cries of divisiveness, there is a beautiful large and diverse coalition here of students of color, Jews, Arabs, Palestinians- the voices we never hear in the mainstream- voices that finally get to be vocal and visible. Whatever the results of the vote (it’s coming down to one sophmore senator who is still undecided) this is no doubt a huge opening for the bds movement. It’s amazing to watch Jewish voices for accountability take off their muzzles and speak! Amazing to watch so many students of color bust out and have such a loud unified voice.

* * *

5:54 pm, yesterday, Berkeley time

The campus is fliered, emails have been blasted, legal analysis, liberation seders, letter-writing, and lobbying are all done. As the campaign for this teeny divestment bill gained momentum over the past few weeks, as it gained international attention from the most respected scholars (Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and Archbishop Tutu), and forces on both sides proclaimed the historic significance of the Bill, I have had less and less time to reflect on the meaning of what we are doing.

But today, on the eve of the historic vote, I finally had a chance to reflect. I stood in silence, with my arms behind my back, my head down, in the middle of the main campus, for 2 hours, in a black T-shirt that says “DIVEST 04-14-10”, with a few hundred other supporters of Students for Justice in Palestine. The direct action was planned as one final effort to educate and outreach to other students before the vote tonight. The purpose was not to leave space for the organizers to meditate – but, brilliantly, it gave us that chance.

I listened to my breathe and the crazy bustle around us. I opened my eyes and noticed I was lucky enough to be standing in the exceedingly meaningful spot right next to the memorial plaque for the “Mario Savio Steps”, with a 4th Century BC quote saying “Free Speech is the Most Beautiful Thing On Earth.” I heard songs in my head: Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu, and the Shema Yisreal. Those songs always give me shivers and a heart surge. I sort of felt like davaning.

I decided to be present at the ASUC meeting tonight without displaying fear and anger. I saw the picture of myself that appeared in the Daily Cal newspaper after the first divestment vote last month – my arms were crossed, and my face was hostile. I want to be different tonight: I want to dispel fear. As angry as I feel that some Jewish forces call me a marginalized dissenter, as angry as I feel at the most brutalizing violence that is perpetrated in our name – I also feel pain for my Jewish classmates who feel they are personally targeted by the bill to divest from US companies selling weapons to Israel.

I feel sadness for their fear – do they really feel unwelcome on campus? Do they think that they are responsible for the actions of the Israeli military? I thought about the Holocaust movies that revisit my nightmares. I reminded myself that these classmates of mine have a deep love for Israel – a deep love for democracy, for culture, for survival and resistance. And they are afraid. I hope I can do something small to make them feel less afraid.

I want the world to know that the group of students who organized this divestment campaign – Students for Justice in Palestine are a group of young people who work lovingly to defeat injustice of all kinds. They are pan-Arab, they are Palestinian, they are Israeli, Jewish-American, Jewish-Arab, African-American, Irish, Italian – they are everything. Some of them have suffered real and horrible personal loss under the occupation of Palestine. Some of them, like me, witnessed suffering. Some of them heard about it. All of them are acting out of empathy for this suffering. They are aware that they are participating in an international campaign to hold Israel accountable to standards of international human rights law. The text of the bill takes NO position on the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel. The intention of the bill is not to take a position on the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

I thought I was going to end this little essay with something wise, but it’s six o’clock and time to go to the Senate meeting.

I’m closing with the highlights of the Judith Butler comment in the Nation:

If someone says that “Jews” have one voice on this matter, you might consider whether there is something wrong with imagining Jews as a single force, with one view, undivided. It is not true.

It does not de-legitimate Israel to ask for its compliance with international law. Indeed, compliance with international law is the best way to gain legitimacy, respect and an enduring place among the peoples of the world.

Part of me wants to joke–where would international human rights be without the Jews! We helped to make those rights, at Nuremberg and again in Jerusalem, so what does it mean that there are those who tell you that it is insensitive to Jewishness to come out in favor of international law and human rights? It is a lie–and what a monstrous view of what it means to be Jewish. It disgraces the profound traditions of social justice that have emerged from the struggle against fascism and the struggles against racism; it effaces the tradition of ta-ayush, living together, the ethical relation to the non-Jew which is the substance of Jewish ethics, and it effaces the value that is given to life no matter the religion or race of those who live.

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