U.C. divestment petition troubles pro-Israel activists

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In anticipating Professor Lior Pachter's political leanings, pro-Israel activists badly miscalculated.

The U.C. Berkeley assistant professor of mathematics, who was born in Israel and raised in South Africa, received a barrage of e-mails decrying a Students for Justice in Palestine-generated petition to divest from Israel. But instead of joining a crusade against the petition, Pachter signed it.

"I very rarely sign petitions, but, in this case, I feel very strongly about it. The further this goes, the more companies that actually divest, the more legitimate the plight of the Palestinian people becomes. There will be more pressure on the Israeli government to make peace with the Palestinian people," said Pachter, 29, one of 157 University of California professors, including 73 from U.C. Berkeley, to sign the petition, which was launched with a press conference last week.

"The petition being circulated is being signed by people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are obviously not crazy. After all, the faculty at Berkeley are reasonably well-balanced people who are reasonably intelligent. That it is being singled out that so many faculty members signed this petition lends a lot of credibility to this cause."

Not so, says one local rabbi.

"There are many more Ph.D professors who did not sign the petition. And the professors who are against [divestment] are not against the Palestinian state. We all believe the Palestinians should have a state — but, at the same time, we would like to see a democratic state, a state that will accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state," said Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley's Reform Congregation Beth El.

"Why punish Israel? This is a very bad and hurtful petition."

Similar petitions have been launched at Harvard, MIT, Tufts and Princeton. An anti-divestment petition at Harvard and MIT has garnered 10 times more signatures than the divestment petition.

Jonathan Bernstein, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the campaign's financial goals are a red herring. "Rather, it is a propaganda effort to use the university to demonize Israel through the propagation of a false and odious comparison to apartheid-era South Africa."

While many Jewish students and campus leaders have accused the SJP of helping to foster an anti-Semitic environment, the pro-Palestinian group has always vehemently denied that accusation.

Yet at a recent SJP rally, Hatem Bazian, a graduate student in the Near Eastern studies department, told a large crowd "to take a look at the type of names on the building around campus — Haas, Zellerbach — and decide who controls this university," according to printed accounts and independent verification from four eyewitnesses.

Such statements trouble Pachter, but he does not feel his signature to be an additional bullet in an anti-Semitic armory.

In signing the petition, "I don't feel that I'm endorsing arbitrary statements by arbitrary members of the group. I don't go to rallies. And I think there are very militant and even racist people on both sides of the issue," he said.

Both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students holding rallies on campus are "wasting precious time yelling about such issues rather than doing their homework. I don't want to be associated with random yahoos on either side."

According to Randy Barnes, the former head of the campus Israel Action Committee, the SJP isn't divesting even itself from Israel, let alone the rest of the campus.

During the SJP's April 9 takeover of Wheeler Hall, Barnes claims to have overseen SJP members distributing bags of Frito-Lay snacks to protesters waiting to be arrested. Frito-Lay — which owns 50 percent of Elite Foods' salty snack unit — does business in Israel.

"I thought it's ironic that they want to divest millions in Israeli investments, but when the SJP students' tummies get hungry, their values go out the window," he said.

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.