Opinions | Extremists seek to hijack Berkeley welfare commission

On Oct. 21, the Berkeley Human Welfare and Community Action Commission will debate divestment from companies doing business with Israel. This is occurring despite the Berkeley city attorney’s opinion that the proposal is outside the scope of the commission, which exists to help the Berkeley City Council tackle poverty locally. But what is even more troubling is how extremists from the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement are pressuring the city of  Berkeley to abandon its progressive values and the vital mission of the commission to pursue a narrow, anti-Israel political agenda.

BDS supporters frame themselves as activists for social justice and view their campaign as a way to address Berkeley’s “complicity in the Israeli occupation.” But a cursory look reveals that divestment is not ultimately about occupation or specific Israeli government policies, and that justice is not the true goal.

The leaders of the Berkeley campaign include the local Arab Resource and Organizing Center along with the national American Muslims for Palestine. During a panel about BDS in Berkeley last year, the executive director of AROC said that “bringing down Israel really will benefit everyone in the world, and everyone in society.”

The national AMP is even more disturbing, as one of its leading board members has publicly praised the racist terrorist organization Hamas and decried President Barack Obama for inviting “Muslim homosexuals” to a White House reception. Its national campus coordinator, who is deeply involved in divestment campaigns across California, has said that “Israelis have to be bombed … it is wrong to maintain the State of Israel. It is an illegitimate creation.”

The ultimate goal of the BDS movement is the elimination of Israel and the violation of Jewish rights to self-determination. Indeed, the draft resolution submitted to Berkeley’s welfare commission invokes the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees to Israel, which Obama has said, “would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state, and that’s not an option.”

So why is thinly veiled bigotry being given the time of day? Primarily because the commission has heard almost exclusively from divestment supporters, and because BDS uses a racist tactic known as “tokenization.” The campaign in Berkeley includes Jewish groups that represent a very small minority of the community but create a veneer of Jewish support for divestment.

According to recent surveys, only 4 percent of American Jews strongly support BDS efforts, and the vast majority believe denying Israel’s right to exist is a form of anti-Semitism. A tiny minority of Jews is essentially being used to undermine the rights and voices of the vast majority.

Even if the city of Berkeley chooses to ignore these facts, it should still oppose divestment because it would undermine efforts to achieve a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Divestment supporters themselves acknowledge that their campaign is mostly about sending a message. Israelis will hear that the world doesn’t recognize their rights, understand their situation or care about their well-being. Palestinian Authority leaders will hear that they can repress dissent, collect billions in international aid, reject peace offers and still score political victories. And Hamas will hear that its internal oppression, attacks on civilians and genocidal rhetoric against Jews will be ignored as the world blames Israel.

It is true that some well-meaning people support divestment as a way to protest Israeli policies they disagree with. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always translate to good results. Scapegoating Israel while shielding Palestinian leaders from accountability may be gratifying to some, but it won’t help Palestinians or Israelis build a more just and peaceful future.

The city of Berkeley has a choice. It can allow its politics to be hijacked by extremists, or it can live up its progressive values and reject divestment. The welfare commission could then return to its critically important mission of advising the City Council on the social welfare needs of the community.

Max Samarov is a senior researcher at StandWithUs and a graduate of U.C. Santa Barbara. Johanna Wilder is Northern California associate director at StandWithUs and a graduate of U.C. Santa Cruz.