By Allie Bidwell
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
International attention will descend on the ASUC Senate meeting tonight as senators consider upholding the passage of a controversial bill urging the student government and the University of California to divest from two companies that have provided war supplies to the Israeli military.
The bill names two companies-United Technologies and General Electric-as supplying Israel with the technology necessary to attack civilian populations in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The bill originally passed the senate March 17 by a 16-4 vote following about six hours of discussion. A two-thirds majority, or 14 votes, is needed in order to override the veto.
Senators have received more than 13,000 e-mails, roughly split between both sides of the controversy.
Prominent figures including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, activist Naomi Klein and leftist MIT professor Noam Chomsky have spoken in support of overriding ASUC President Will Smelko’s March 24 veto of the bill. Local and national pro-Israel groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-an influential Washington, D.C. lobby organization-Berkeley Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League have each stated the bill is divisive and unfairly targets Israel.
Supporters of the bill say divesting from the two companies would make a powerful statement against Israeli actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which supporters have compared to apartheid-era South Africa.
In a recent letter to the UC Berkeley community, Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts opposing apartheid in South Africa-said he endorsed the bill and urged senators to uphold the original vote, which he compared to similar efforts at UC Berkeley to divest from South Africa in the 1980s.
He said in an e-mail Tuesday that he had a message for ASUC senators.
“I salute you for wanting to take a moral stand,” he said in the e-mail. “(Your predecessors) changed the moral climate in the U.S. and the consequence was the Anti-Apartheid legislation, which helped to dismantle apartheid non-violently. Today is your turn. Will you look back on this day with pride or with shame?”
Wayne Firestone, national president of Hillel-a Jewish campus organization-released a statement last month condemning the bill. The statement stated that the bill is “one-sided, divisive and undermines the pursuit of peace” and ignores human rights violations of other countries.
“The ASUC bill will not contribute a whit to the advancement of peace in the Middle East and will only serve to divide the Berkeley community,” Firestone said in the statement.
Pro-Israel activist organization J Street U, joined 18 other organizations-including Berkeley Hillel, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, the Jewish National Fund and StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel-in crafting an April 5 letter to UC Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer stating that they felt the bill was dishonest and misleading.
Among concerns listed in the letter was that the bill “unfairly targets” Israel while marginalizing Jewish students on campus who support Israel.
“Though it states that the ‘ASUC resolution should not be considered taking sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict,’ the exclusive focus on Israel suggests otherwise,” the letter states.
Critics of the bill have said senators cannot make a proper judgement of an issue as complicated as the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Student Action Senator Parth Bhatt, who voted against the bill, said he felt the ASUC should not take a stance on such an issue because it marginalizes one community on campus.
“I don’t think the ASUC should put any student in that position,” Bhatt said. “The conflict is very complex and something I don’t think our senators know enough about to vote on.”
But CalSERVE Senator Ariel Boone said she supported the bill because she felt compelled to defend human rights.
“I went to Israel and had a really interesting time with Berkeley Hillel in January, and I have Holocaust survivors among my family,” Boone said in an e-mail. “I have never felt so uniquely qualified to speak on an issue.”
AIPAC has recently stated the need for a strategy to combat anti-Israel sentiments on U.S. university campuses.
“How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley?” said Jonathan Kessler, leadership development director for AIPAC, at a recent conference of the lobbying group. “We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”
But according to spokesperson Josh Block, the group did not take a position in the recent ASUC election.
“We don’t rate or endorse candidates,” Block said in an e-mail. “Of course we would always, publicly and consistently encourage pro-Israel students to be active in civic and political life.”
Read statements in opposition and in support of the divestment bill: