Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort, Hillel on Campus

Posted on September 30 2010 by Cecilie Surasky under BDS , Educational Institutions.

[Editor”s note: The Jewish Telegraphic Agency”s video report (above) on Israel-defense training for students made me think that now would be a good time to re-publish Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort. My colleague Sydney Levy and I wrote it this summer in response to the UC Berkeley divestment struggle and Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor”s rather strange response to the effort.

In watching the JTA video in which the national head of Hillel is trying to make a subtle point but revealingly ends up comparing Muslims to vampires, I”d add that it has never been so clear to me how older Jews have failed this younger generation. Students are smart enough to handle an open conversation about complexity and Israel. But many in the older generation in power don”t want that to happen. The fundamental irony, of course, is that when it comes to both delegitimizing and existentially threatening Israel, no critic can hold a candle to Israel itself and its ever-expanding settlement project (and human rights abuses etc…) There is no faster way for Israel to continue down the path of self-destruction than to continue the status quo, unhindered. In that very important sense, the BDS movement may be Israel”s last chance. Especially now that we know that Congress and the Obama administration is no more willing to hold Netanyahu accountable than previous administrations.]

Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort

By Cecilie Surasky and Sydney Levy, Jewish Voice for Peace

(June 1, 2010) Israel right-or-wrong apologists have reason to be worried after three lengthy UC Berkeley student senate hearings concluded each with a solid majority of votes (60% or more) in favor of divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. Though in the end, the vote fell 1 short of the needed supermajority required to overturn a veto, neither our opponents nor we forget that a clear majority consistently supported the bill.

Now, a few weeks after the hearings are over, it is a good time to examine how familiar tactics were deployed to stop the divestment effort and are now being used to prevent future similar ones. These tactics do not advance the cause of peace and have the unintended potential to cause harm to Jews in the US. Silencing debate, confusing the facts, taking over student senates, making indiscriminate charges of anti-Semitism, criminalizing anti-occupation activism, implicitly or explicitly condoning widespread hostility against Muslims, Palestinians, and anti-occupation Jews – these are the tactics with which we”ve unfortunately become too familiar. We”ll review them below.

1) Silencing debate

The first tactic, which predates UC Berkeley”s divestment initiative, is the effort to shut down debate within the Jewish community. The story is an old one, but given the growing level of desperation among the Israel right-or-wrong crowd, the measures being deployed are increasingly bold and destructive.

Just a few months ago, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation issued the most restrictive funding guidelines in the country. These guidelines aim to silence open discussion within the institutional Jewish community on Israeli policies and the merits of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. And they also have led to an old-fashioned blacklist of well-known human rights groups now banned from the Federation”s donor designated fund”s acceptable charities list.

The guidelines” impact has not gone unnoticed. An open letter in The Forward signed by Jewish professors, rabbis, and other notables from both the left and center describes the San Francisco Federation guidelines in these terms:

Despite the guidelines” repeatedly stated commitment to the values of free and open discussion and diversity, they will have a chilling effect on the entire spectrum of community institutions, including educational, service, social justice and arts organizations. They will also limit American Jewish exposure to the range of art, literature, scholarship, and political discourse that exists in Israel. The guidelines will encourage self-censorship. Organizations will fear losing their funding; individuals will fear losing their jobs.

Though the ad is written in future tense about the negative effects the guidelines will have, we know for certain that these effects have already taken hold. Fearing loss of jobs or funding, people are staying quiet.

More recently, the guidelines were directly linked by a Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston to Israel”s banning of political linguist Noam Chomsky and other indications of incipient “fascism.”

This effort to stifle debate inside our communities has ironically meant that the only way that Jews have been able to speak face-to-face with other Jews about divestment has been at the UC Berkeley hearings. And what the hearings revealed was striking: an authentic crisis in the Jewish community. By all appearances, the number of Jewish supporters of divestment on campus easily matched the number of opponents. The group that sponsored the divest initiative, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), includes many Israelis and Jews as well as Palestinians and Muslims and many others of various faiths and nationalities, and the co-author of the divest bill himself is an Israeli Jew. Many Jewish professors, including members of the Jewish studies program, came out in support of the divest bill.

The Federation guidelines not only prevent an open conversation on these critically important issues, but they also banish these Jewish studies professors and the Jewish and Israeli students from any public forum on Israel funded by the Federation. The guidelines banish some of our best and most knowledgeable minds from the conversations where we truly need them most. By silencing debate, the Israel right-or-wrong advocates get to act like they”re speaking for the majority of Jews. But we know that they are not. For now, they”ve shut down public debate inside the Jewish institutional world, and their McCarthyite methods cast a long shadow. But the divestment hearing shows that whether or not the Jewish institutional world is ready, these conversations will take place because people, including many Jews, want to have them.

2) Confusing the Facts

The second tactic we saw used, yet again, was a consistent campaign to mislead the public about the nature of specific divestment resolutions. Many in the Jewish world, including the director of Berkeley Hillel ignored the fact that the UC Berkeley divestment resolution addressed only the Israeli occupation and repeatedly suggested instead that it targeted Israel as a whole.

3) Take over student senates

The Forward reported that,

At an AIPAC conference in Washington in late March, AIPAC leadership development director Jonathan Kessler said that his organization would “make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote,” as recorded in a video taken at the conference by the JTA. “This is how AIPAC operates in our nation”s Capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation”s campuses,” he said.

You can watch the chilling but frank video with Mr. Kessler”s statement here, where Mr. Kessler explicitly refers to the Berkeley resolution. This of course did not stop an AIPAC spokesperson from declaring:

“We took no position on the Berkeley student election, since like in any other election, we don”t rate or endorse candidates. Of course we would always, publicly and consistently, encourage pro-Israel students to be active in civic and political life.”

This year alone, about 1,300 students from all 50 states were offered a travel junket to DC to attend an AIPAC conference and learn the finer points of Israeli Hasbara. About a quarter of those in attendance were student government presidents, the kinds of leaders that can veto a divestment bill, just like UC Berkeley student senate president Will Smelko did. What is striking, as documented in the AIPAC video, is that a number of these student leaders had not heard of AIPAC before the offer of the free trip.

4) Making indiscriminate charges of anti-Semitism

By far the most pernicious tactic was the accusation of anti-Semitism combined with something new, a heightened sense of almost theatrical victimization. We witnessed this at the Berkeley hearings themselves and most recently in a piece posted by the Israeli Consul General, Akiva Tor.

Let”s be clear. Anti-Semitism is wrong. We condemn it when we see or hear it, we condemn it as a concept, and we work with allies who take strong positions against anti-Semitism. As Jews whose families have experienced chronic statelessness and expulsion, pogroms, the ghettos and death camps, we refuse to be lectured on this topic.

And indeed the few and isolated instances of anti-Jewish name-calling that occurred in the audience at the Berkeley hearings were publicly condemned both by divestment advocates and by the student senate. The mysterious marking of swastikas on a Berkeley dorm days before the last Berkeley hearing deserved and got vociferous condemnation at the start of the hearing. Not one person at a microphone made a comment that could remotely be construed as anti-Semitic.

Further, many Jewish students said the divest bill had for the first time helped make them feel safe on campus as anti-occupation, progressive Jews who had been shut out by the institutional Jewish world. For most Palestinian students, lack of safety or visibility on the UC campus was not an exception, but a lifetime norm.

Many members of Students for Justice in Palestine are Jewish and Israeli, and it was absolutely striking to us over the weeks we worked with them to see the breadth and depth of authentic loving relationships between students of all races and religions, and especially between Jewish and Muslim students–students who clearly would stand by each other in a heartbeat if there was a true threat. Palestinian American SJP member Dina Omar wrote, “These Jews and Israelis, whose lives I care for as dearly as my own–they are “my people.”

But you would not know any of this from Mr. Tor”s account. Then again, Mr. Tor”s words need to be read with great skepticism. With a straight face, Mr. Tor compares the Berkeley hearings to the Moscow show trials, trials in which witnesses were detained, tortured, forced to confess to crimes they did not commit and then sentenced to death or to labor camps. He also refers to a large multi-faith group that included Christian pastors, Jews, Muslims and others as a menacing group of “100 Muslims”, thus revealing more than we could ever say about how he sees the “other side.”

It was also painful to read Tor”s condemnation of 84 year old pro-divestment advocate and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein for “manipulation of the Holocaust.”
Apparently Tor, and the Israeli government and its proxies, hold the monopoly on the lessons from the Holocaust.

Talking points issued by the rightwing Jewish student group Tikvah explicitly encouraged anti-divestment students to avoid addressing the occupation and to appear distraught when they testified at the hearings. At the hearings it was difficult to know what fear was real and what was fabricated. There were some real instances reported of reprehensible anti-Jewish comments, and those were vehemently denounced as we said before. But most of what we witnessed was authentic discomfort, which led many anti-divestment students to call the bill “divisive” (again, per the talking points).

It seemed as though the sudden exposure to such widespread support for the Palestinian narrative, perhaps for the first time in their lives, made these students uncomfortable. At the same time, many Palestinian students who reported living with daily exposure to racism said that for the first time in their lives, they suddenly felt visible, safer and supported.

Should the intensity of emotions and pain of looking at tough truths triggered by any difficult political debate be dismissed as massive anti-Semitism? Clearly not, yet that is exactly what Tor predictably seeks to do.

Not lost on most at the UC hearings, Jewish or otherwise, was the fact that Jews are members of one of the most successful immigrant/ethnic groups in American history. There is no longer any institutionalized or systematic discrimination against Jews in this country – as Jews, our marriages are not illegal in most states, we are not kicked out of the military if our identity is discovered; though we were immigrants, we don”t fear being rounded up by the INS or queried about papers proving our identity; we are no longer limited by quotas or gentleman”s agreements, we are not paid 77 cents on the dollar, we are not stopped by police for driving-while-Jewish, and most of us do not have to contend with grotesquely high interest housing loans or generational poverty.

If anything, especially the majority of Ashkenazi Jews are beneficiaries of massive white and class and even specifically Jewish privilege: Jews on all sides of the conflict are frequently given the space to talk about the issue while Palestinians and others are consistently marginalized.

The language of Jewish victimization, as though every moment were 1938 and every non-Jew a latent anti-Semite, is simply alien to the experience of this generation of Jews. And yet, it is precisely that kind of fear which is deliberately cultivated by Israel”s advocates in younger generations, not as a way to fight bigotry, but cynically, as a way to protect Israel from accountability. As former AIPAC and Israel Policy Forum staffer and analyst MJ Rosenberg wrote about the hearings:

AIPAC and Hillel, the Jewish student group allied with AIPAC, came up with the strategy of having Jewish students tell the university senate that seeing signs calling for divestment frightened them. Some broke down in tears when describing the pain of seeing pro-divestment placards in the student union.

It was hilarious because it was so utterly bogus. I know that I come from a different era. Back in the day when I was a pro-Israel activist on campus, we traded insults and threw chairs when confronted by our adversaries (some were scary Maoists!) but I don”t recall weeping. We liked confrontation. We were college kids.

But this is the new style of pro-Israel advocacy built on victimhood. No wonder so few American kids buy into this. (As for Israeli kids, they would fall over laughing).

Our guess is that at least some of those students did feel various levels of fear–and we feel terrible that those feelings are real– but the fear is stoked, cultivated and serves to isolate them and push them further into denial about Israel, not to connect them or weave together a broad-based coalition opposed to all forms of bigotry, including anti-Jewish hatred.

How exactly are these fears stoked? What are the students being told? We have a few ideas.

In one behind-closed-doors meeting with students senators organized by Berkeley Hillel and in the presence of Mr. Tor himself, according to a few witnesses who took copious notes, the students in attendance were told that Jews who supported the bill were afflicted by a “cultural pathology.” The student senators were given a bizarre interpretation of what constitutes anti-Semitism.

They were reportedly told that comparing Israel with Apartheid South Africa was anti-Semitic, plain and simple.

Worse yet, they were told that it was anti-Semitic to make the mere suggestion that Israel did not distinguish between civilians and combatants during the attack on Gaza and that as a result many children died. And not just any kind of anti-Semitism, mind you. Making this assertion was compared to medieval blood libels against Jews. The fact that Israel fired deliberately or indiscriminately into civilian areas in Gaza resulting in the deaths of adults and children has been verified by theGoldstone Report and by many reputable human rights organizations. On the other hand, the anti-Semitic blood libels falsely charged Jews with the killing of gentile children for ritual purposes and generally ended in deadly attacks against defenseless Jewish communities. Where is the comparison between the two?

These false charges of anti-Semitism cause great damage to our credibility as Jews whenever we face real attacks against us.

5) Criminalizing BDS and anti-occupation activism on campuses

Coincidentally, around the time of the first Berkeley divestment hearing, a number of Jewish organizations (as part of a campaign led by the far right Zionist Organization of America) sent a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, asking the department”s Office for Civil Rights to adopt a policy that would protect Jewish students from anti-Semitic harassment on college campuses by barring federal funding from academic institutions deemed anti-Semitic. This is a laudatory move in and of itself, were it not for the fact that Mr. Tor and others use false charges of anti-Semitism to protect Israel from criticism. Such a change could easily lead to federal investigations of campus activism and teaching.

As the Forward reported:

The Jewish groups” letter argues that “anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment” can cross “the line into anti-Semitism,” and that “conduct that threatens, harasses or intimidates particular Jewish students to the point that their ability to participate in and benefit from their college experience is impaired should not be deemed unactionable simply because that conduct is couched as “anti-Israel” or “anti-Zionist.”” The letter, however, also acknowledges that “much vehemently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speech can – and should – be protected First Amendment activity” and that “there is a high bar before any speech or conduct can amount to legally actionable harassment.”

Like clockwork, just days after the last hearing, the far right wing Israel advocacy group StandWithUs reported in an email to supporters:

[May 20-San Francisco] “Pay attention to the growing anti-Semitism on UC campuses…Condemn anti-Semitism as clearly and vigorously as you would condemn other forms of racism,” Dr. Mike Harris of the Bay area chapter of StandWithUs, S.F. Voice for Israel, urged the University of California Regents during their meeting on Wednesday, May 19.

Harris urged the regents to set up a committee to implement the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism that recognizes that anti-Zionism is a new form of anti-Semitism and condemn it on UC campuses.

And thus, a more coherent campus-based strategy reveals itself. Overly-dramatizing Jewish suffering and calling divestment efforts divisive (as though the status quo of silence and complicity were unifying for anyone other than students who unconditionally support Israel) is a way to involve federal and campus administrations in shutting down anti-occupation activism.

Such strategies are well under way. David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi wrote about them at length in Tikkun in The Trial of Israel”s Campus Critics.

6) Remaining silent and/or actively fueling atmosphere of hate against Muslims, Palestinians and progressive anti-occupation Jews

What makes Tor”s and others” strategy of indiscriminate charges of anti-Semitism particularly galling is the myriad ways the Israel right-or-wrong crowd has deliberately trafficked in anti-Muslim imagery and demonizing language against dissenting Jews. Despite his habit of making outrageous comments like comparing Jewish South Africa jurist Richard Goldstone to infamous the Nazi Dr. Menegeleand repeatedly saying that Palestinians played a significant role in the Holocaust, Alan Dershowitz was rewarded by the Israeli government, Mr. Tor”s employers, with an offer (which Mr. Dershowitz refused) to be the Israel ambassador to the UN.

Tor”s own boss, Israeli foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a well known virulent anti-Arab racist who has been compared to Jorg Haider of Austria and Jean-Marie le Pen of France. The Israeli Knesset discusses and passes laws that are by American standards openly and even proudly racist against non-Jews.

Further up the command chain, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sends as his special emissary to American campuses none other than Effie Eitam, an Israeli politician notorious for his proposal to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from the West Bank.

“We”ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from [the] political system.”

His campus tour was sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and by Hillel, and protests against this racist Islamophobe who called Palestinian citizens of Israel “a cancer” were met with the absurd counter-charge of medieval blood libels. Sounds familiar?

In late 2008, when student members of the most vociferously pro-Israel group on campus physically assaulted Palestinian students who were silently and nonviolently standing with a Palestinian flag, they yelled terrible things at the Palestinian students like “I will kick your Arab ass,” and “Arab pigs”. Where was the condemnation from the Consul General?

The combination of silence in the face of real attacks and discriminatory, deliberate misrepresentation of Palestinians and anti-occupation Jews fuels a dangerous environment. Rabbi Michael Lerner”s house was just vandalized, and, like him, we at Jewish Voice for Peace have come to see the steady stream of hate speech and at times death threats as part of daily life.

A number of student senators told us that during the weeks of the divestment debate, they received countless emails calling them terrible names, some even threatening them over future employment. The San Francisco Jewish Community Relations council acknowledged this dangerous underbelly of Jewish hatred when they started adding additional warnings on their action alerts about the UC hearings. The last ones said:

“¢ Please send POLITE and RESPECTFUL messages to the students (remember, they are 18-22 years old)
“¢ Messages that attack the students or use profanity are NOT helpful and may harm efforts to sustain the veto

When such pointers must be offered for emails being sent to student senators at the most prestigious public university in the country, there is no question that a blatant atmosphere of hatred and hostility has been fomented.

If you have any doubt, ask the Muslim and Arab students at UC Berkeley, or simply take a moment to read the hateful comments following a recent article at the Daily Californian.

Akiva Tor finishes his essay with an unanswered question: “how in the name of heaven will we ever make peace?” We answer him with our own question: “for how long will you continue this farce that you are a peacemaker when you consistently demonize, silence and endanger the other side – not just here, but in Israel and Palestine?”

-Cecilie Surasky, Jewish Voice for Peace, www.jvp.org

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