Berkeley council kills divestment plank amid loud protest, subdued satisfaction

A controversial Israeli divestment resolution described as "outrageous, biased, oversimplified and historically idiotic" by the head of the East Bay federation was first declawed and later put to sleep by the Berkeley City Council Tuesday night while more than 100 demonstrators shouting outside nearly drowned out the proceedings.

The council moved to eliminate all mention of divestment from the Peace and Justice Commission-sponsored resolution, and then voted down the diluted decree. A slate calling for international peacekeepers, support for peace movements and a halt of U.S. weapons sales to nations that use them against civilians failed to garner a majority, attracting four yes votes, three no votes and two abstentions.

Members of the Jewish community expressed subdued satisfaction at the resolution's defeat, with a number frustrated that the issue had come to a vote at all.

"This is particularly poorly timed in an environment where, particularly in Berkeley, there's a tremendous amount of hate and anger around this issue. A number of Jewish institutions in Berkeley and the East Bay have been victims of hate crimes in the last days and weeks," said Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

"For the city government to add fuel to this potentially explosive situation, we find totally negligent. It's the wrong issue, the wrong time, the wrong place."

Rabbi Ferenc Raj echoed Nahshon's comments, stating that Berkeley should work on peace and justice within its own borders before it tackles the Mideast conflict.

"I really strongly believe that resolutions like these have the unintended consequence of fanning the fires of anti-Semitism," said the spiritual leader of Berkeley's Reform Congregation Beth El.

Raj said his congregation now receives an average of three hate calls a week, most recently from a caller who stated "all Jews deserve to be annihilated, deserve to be 'Holocausted' totally."

"Violent attacks, vandalism, bomb threats and hate messages are not signs of peace and justice. First work on peace and justice here," he said.

The scene Tuesday night at Berkeley's Old City Hall played into the outside world's image of the activist community: Opposing groups of demonstrators in front of the building chanted pro-Palestinian slogans or sang "Oseh Shalom." Inside, those in the packed gallery waved Israeli or Palestinian flags while cheering or jeering speakers and council members.

The resolution, delivered to the city's Peace and Justice Commission by 68 members of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, was anchored by a measure calling for the boycott of Israeli and Palestinian goods or companies doing business in Israel or the Palestinian areas.

The resolution was accompanied by a 15-page list of 383 companies doing business in Israel printed directly from www.boycottisraeligoods.org.

In repeatedly using the terms "Israel and Palestine," Council member Kriss Worthington said the resolution presented a "facade of neutrality."

"The only business in Berkeley that has anything to do with Palestine is the Middle East Children's Alliance. I certainly don't think [the resolution's authors] intend for Berkeley to outlaw MECHA from doing things in Palestine, so I don't think they understood what they're saying," he said. "That's sort of funny. It's not what they intended, I expect."

Yitzhak Santis, the Middle East affairs director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, referred to the resolution's evenhandedness as "a sham."

"Judging by the people who came to support it, they saw it for exactly what it was," said Santis. "It was an anti-Israel resolution. That's why they supported it so emotionally."

In one of the most heated exchanges of the night, council member Betty Olds simultaneously drew shocked gasps, applause and loud boos when she angrily decried the resolution as anti-Semitic.

"It's anti-Semitic; let's call it what it is," said Olds, who was clearly furious about the disruptive nature of the loud demonstrations outside.

She referred to the Peace and Justice Commission as the "Disruption and Chaos Commission."

"Anybody who was for peace would not put forth what they put forth," she said. "If you're so concerned with peace, why don't you write up…all the harassment of students at Cal or threats of bombs to our synagogues?"

Peace and Justice Committee member Steve Freedkin replied, "As a Jew, I do take issue with being called anti-Semitic," before being tersely cut off by Olds, who said, "I didn't ask for a report from you." Freedkin said he was attempting to be evenhanded with the resolution, and noted, "there's nothing in here that says anything about Jews, I wouldn't stand for such a thing." Eight randomly chosen members of the public — including Santis and Nahshon, who were yielded time by others in the Jewish community — weighed in on the resolution, with six urging a no vote.

Santis asked why there were no resolutions aimed against Arab nations that massacred their own civilians, while Nahshon stressed the economic impact of Israeli divestment. The federation leader asked the council members if they were ready to "give back their personal computers with their Intel chips…give up their Motorola cell phones and turn off the drip irrigation in the park."

Worthington earlier told the Bulletin that he sends his e-mail on Microsoft Outlook and prints his documents on a Hewlett-Packard printer — both of which are on the boycottisraeligoods.org blacklist.

Jonathan Medved, a visiting former Berkeley resident now living in Jerusalem, said he ached for the day that "Palestinians will have rights and get rights. But two peoples have rights to Israel. Jews have been persecuted for thousands of years; we've come home and no power on Earth will move us from Israel."

However, Dena Al-Adeeb, of the Women of Color Resource Center, claimed Israel has "reoccupied Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza. We need them to follow some U.N. resolutions; we need them to withdraw. I don't want to talk about the humanitarian aspect of Palestinians being killed. I want to talk about a highly trained military going in and killing children, women. For us to sit here and debate this as if it's a two-sided story is appalling."

The resolution was defeated because it failed to attract votes from council member Polly Armstrong, who abstained, stating she opposed the council's forays into international affairs; Worthington, who felt the council's time would be better served by sending the resolution back to the Peace and Justice Committee; or Olds and Margaret Breland, who flat-out opposed it.

Council members Mim Hawley, Dona Spring, Maudelle Shirek and Linda Maio voted in favor of the resolution, while Mayor Shirley Dean abstained.

Palestinian supporters in attendance loudly booed and cried out, "Shame! Shame on you!" when the vote was tallied.

While this particular resolution is moot, the Peace and Justice Committee — or most anyone else — is free to introduce future Israeli-Palestinian divestment measures before the council.

Freedkin doesn't plan to.

"I could come back here next month and introduce it again if I wanted to get more abuse," he said with a wry smile. "As far as I'm concerned, this one is dead."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.