U.C. Berkeley student senate passes resolution calling for divestment


The debate over divesting from Israel slammed back into the U.C. Berkeley campus this week, as a new resolution urging divestment from certain companies was passed 11-9 by the Associated Students of the University of California senate on April 18.

The Daily Californian called the debate “heated” and reported that it “carried on for 10 hours,” with the final vote occuring just before 5:30 a.m. on Thursday. “It was met with cheering, stomping and cries of joy by supporters of the bill,” the newspaper wrote of the resolution, which was titled “A Bill In Support of Human Rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

The nonbinding resolution, authored by ASUC senator George Kadifa, calls for the divestment of reportedly more than $14 million in ASUC and U.C. funds from three companies that provide support to Israel’s military in the Palestinian territories or contribute to the building, maintenance or economic development of Israeli settlements in the territories.

The language of the resolution calls the U.C. system a “complicit third party” in Israel’s “illegal occupation and ensuing human rights abuses.” The newspaper reported the resolution names the three companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings.

Some 12 hours after the vote, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council sent out an email with the subject line “Take action now to overturn Berkeley divestment bill.” It noted that the ASUC president, Connor Landgraf, has until April 24 “to veto this one-sided and harmful bill,” and urged people to send an email to Landgraf. It also offered a “sample email for you to paste into the body of the letter.”

In 2010, then-ASUC president Will Smelko vetoed a similar resolution after it was passed by the ASUC senate, by a 16-4 margin. Much debate ensued, and a vote was called in an attempt to overturn Smelko’s veto, but it fell one vote shy of the necessary two-thirds majority.

The JCRC email also noted, “We are proud of the dozens of pro-Israel students, Jewish faculty members and Hillel for their tremendous efforts that fell just short.”

Earlier on April 18, Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor of U.C. Berkeley, issued a press release addressed to members of the U.C. Berkeley community.

It stated, in part, “As you all know, the ASUC is an independent student organization, and its vote in this matter will not change investment policy established by the Regents of the University of California. In addition, it is my personal opinion that targeting a single nation or state in this highly complex world is not appropriate and does little to advance the cause of peace and coexistence. Ultimately, we believe that engaging in dialogue on these difficult issues is the best hope that we have for achieving peace. It is the path that we hope world leaders will follow and our students will emulate.” (For a full copy of the release, click here.)

Opponents of the divestment resolution, SB 160, tried to throw a counterpunch with the introduction of their own resolution, SB 158, which also was on the April 17 senate agenda. It supports a two-state solution and calls for the ASUC to instruct managers of its funds to “seek investment opportunities that strengthen Israeli-Palestinian cooperation” rather than divesting funds. However, that vote was tabled following the long discussion of the other resolution, the Daily Cal reported.

In any regard, according to Matthew White, a regional campus coordinator for the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, the opposing resolution, when it went through a committee hearing on April 15,  “was cut to pieces and effectively neutered in committee by the pro-BDS senators who removed piece by piece much of the crucial anti-BDS language and clauses.” The original version of the resolution was introduced by senator and ASUC presidential candidate Rafi Lurie.

A sizeable contingent of pro-Israel, anti-BDS forces attended the April 17-turned-April 18 senate meeting, which began at 7 p.m. in Anna Head Alumnae Hall. In all, hundreds of U.C. Berkeley students, faculty and community members attended. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker attended the meeting and voiced her support for the resolution, the Daily Cal reported.

The JCRC, Berkeley Hillel, StandWithUs/S.F. Voice for Israel and several nearby congregations had sent out email “action alerts” earlier this week. And in the days before the meeting, Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the executive director of Berkeley Hillel, had asked people to sign one of two documents — a letter from Cal alumni or a petition for others — that were to be delivered to the senators on April 17. A Facebook page, Students Against UC Berkeley Divestment From Israel, was set up.

The Daily Cal quoted independent ASUC senator and resolution co-sponsor Sadia Saifuddin as saying, “Tonight is not about corporations. It’s about asking ourselves before we go to sleep whether our money is going toward the destruction of homes, toward the erection of a wall. I am a working student. And I don’t want one cent of my money to go towared fueling the occupation of my brothers and sisters.”

The paper also quoted senator Jason Bell, an opponent of the divestment measure, as saying, “If we walk away with anything tonight, it’s that this conflict is nuanced. But divestment and the language set for in SB 160 frames Israel as the sole aggressor. This is more than just divesting from three companies. Divestment is undoubtedly taking a side in the conflict.”

Several divest-from-Israel bills have been in the news in California recently. The student council at U.C. San Diego voted last month in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for boycotting firms with business ties to Israel. U.C. Irvine passed a similar resolution in 2012.

U.C. Riverside’s student government passed a BDS resolution last month, only to overturn it on April 3 after opponents argued they were not given enough time to prepare for the vote. BDS measures also were voted down in the last two months at U.C. Santa Barbara and Stanford University.