Jewish students react to divisive Cal divestment vote

The divestment resolution passed by the U.C. Berkeley student senate last week was one thing.

The vitriolic sting many Jewish students felt during the 10-hour public meeting preceding the vote — and during a pre-meeting rally on Sproul Plaza — was quite another.

“The thing that was most hurtful to me, in addition to the divestment bill itself, was a lot of the hurtful comments that got made during the meeting,” said Ariel Fridman, a U.C. Berkeley sophomore who was among the 500 students, faculty and community members in attendance. “And the Jewish students and the Jewish voices got silenced a lot.”

The U.C. Berkleley student senate debated for 10 hours before voting in favor of divestment. photo/ilana grines

The meeting began April 17 and lasted until nearly 5:30 a.m. April 18, at which point the Associated Students of the University of California senators voted 11-9 to pass SB 160 — a lengthy, nonbinding resolution that calls for the ASUC and U.C. to divest from companies that provide support to Israel’s military in the Palestinian territories or contribute to the building, maintenance or economic development of Israeli settlements.

The language of the resolution calls the U.C. system a “complicit third party” in Israel’s “illegal occupation and ensuing human rights abuses,” and points to nearly $15 million in U.C. investments in three companies: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings.

“The Jewish community would be best advised to pay as little attention to [the bill] as possible,” said David Vogel, a professor of political science at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, a day after the vote. “It is a meaningless gesture by a handful of people.”

However, the Jewish community hasn’t been following that advice. In the days following the vote, Jewish leaders from the ASUC senate, J Street U, Berkeley Hillel, Tikvah: Students for Israel, StandWithUs and other groups huddled frequently about what do next. And the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and SWU/SF Voice for Israel sent out emails urging community action.

The goal was to convince ASUC president Connor Landgraf to veto what JCRC termed a “one-sided and harmful bill,” but Landgraf, even though  inundated by hundreds of emails and phone calls, issued a statement on April 23, one day before the deadline, saying he would not veto it.

At the same time, he noted that his decision should not be construed as an endorsement of the resolution.

“I firmly reject its one-sided narrative, and the bill’s complete and utter failure to create any constructive discussion or dialogue on a complex and multifaceted issue,” Landgraf wrote in his statement. “This bill has served to do nothing more than divide our campus, foster anger and encourage divisiveness.”

Issuing a veto, he noted, would prolong the conflict and inhibit the campus’ ability to heal.

“Obviously we’re really dismayed by the decision,” said Abby Porth, associate executive director of the JCRC.

In 2010, then–ASUC president Will Smelko vetoed a similar resolution after it was passed 16-4 by the student senate. Much debate ensued, and a vote was called in an attempt to overturn the veto, but it fell one vote shy of the necessary two-thirds majority. Smelko’s veto stood; the bill did not.

Shortly after last week’s vote, Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor of U.C. Berkeley, issued a press release that stated in part, “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.”

The resolution includes dozens of “whereas” clauses, including some that say the measure is not part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and one that seeks to warn media against “label[ing] this bill as divestment from Israel.”

More than 500 people packed U.C. Berkeley’s Anna Head Alumnae Hall for the April 17 meeting of the ASUC senate. photo/ilana grines

One clause states that ASUC does not support Omar Barghouti, a West Bank leader of the BDS movement, and his end goal of a one-state solution that would replace the State of Israel. But another clause includes statements from political scientist Norman Finkelstein, such as “East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory.”

“At the end of the day, this attempt was affiliated with this wave of BDS bills that are moving around the country,” said Simone Zimmerman, a U.C. Berkeley senior and national president of J Street U. “What the bill says or doesn’t say, [its proponents] are still affiliated with [the BDS movement]. I felt that part of their argument was more frustrating than anything.”

Also, nowhere does SB 160 endorse a two-state solution, whereas SB 158 — an alternate resolution crafted by an array of Jewish student leaders and co-sponsored by Jewish ASUC senator Rafi Lurie — does. Titled “In Support of Positive Steps Toward a Negotiated Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” SB 158 was tabled after the all-night debate on SB 160, titled “A Bill in Support of Human Rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

With the veto option on SB 160 no longer viable, the goal of many is now to “try to make SB 158 the healing process for Jewish students on this campus — to endorse a two-state solution and to say we want peace and move on from there,” said Mihir Deo, a non-Jewish ASUC student senator who was aghast at the rhetoric during the meeting.

“One senator said you can’t relate Palestinian suffering to Israeli suffering,” Deo said. “C’mon, comparing levels of suffering? And if you go to the Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine Twitter feed, there are some comments bordering on pretty bad language.”

Matthew White, a 2011 Cal grad and a founding member of Tikvah who attended the senate meeting, said it “was not as poisonous as [2010], but certainly the hatred was there.”

For example, he said, a Jewish Israeli spoke during the public comment session about an on-campus conversation with an SJP member about suicide bombings. “So it’s OK for my family in Israel to be killed?” the person asked the SJP member, who replied, “Yes.”

“People snapped [their fingers] loudly to agree,” said White, now the StandWithUs’ campus coordinator for Northern California, Washington and British Columbia. “The crowd really revealed themselves through their actions.”

Even though the rally held before the senate meeting featured a rash of anti-Israel chants, Lurie said at the meeting itself “there wasn’t any name-calling or that type of thing — nothing that made it feel like too much of a super-intense environment.”

Lurie and others attributed that to better organization by Jewish students and the community.

“While the outcome of the vote was very disappointing, the campus Jewish community’s response compared to three years ago is reason for hope and pride,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, the JCRC’s executive director. In 2010, “there was no organized faculty letter opposing divestment. This time 36 faculty members wrote a strong letter. Last time the Jewish student groups were divided. This time they were unified.”

Kahn also said it was a positive that the vote last week (11-9) was closer than in 2010 (16-4).

“At the debate I heard not one or two but dozens of Jewish students with diverse political perspectives stand up proudly and strongly and urge the senate not to marginalize them,” Kahn said.

In the end, however, many Jewish students did feel marginalized by the resolution’s supporters.

“While they want self-determination for the Palestinian people, they are unwilling to openly concede the rights of the Jewish people to the same thing,” Zimmerman said.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.