Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Berkeley Faculty Miss Mark on Divestment

I admit that I haven’t been following this closely, but Berkeley’s student representatives are currently considering a bill to call on UC to divest from Israel in protest of that country’s colonial policy in the Middle East.  Today, a number of faculty co-signed a letter protesting the bill, asking ASUC Senators instead to consider a bill “In Support of Positive Steps Toward a Negotiated Israeli-Palestinian Peace”, the sole purpose of which appears to be the derailment of the drive for divestment.

The faculty who signed this letter decided to call the divestment bill the “attack bill” which, let it be noted when considering some of their later remarks, can’t help but be interpreted as an attempt to silence opponents by portraying divestment as a violent act.

There are several points in the letter which, from my perspective, don’t withstand scrutiny.

One reason cited for opposing divestment is the complexity and age of the conflict.  The letter states that “violence between these communities goes back more than a century, long before Israel was founded”.  This statement misses a critical point, which is that one of the parties in the current conflict, and in fact the party which would be the subject of divestment, is the Israeli state, which was not a community or a party involved in historic violence.  It is the nature of the current violence—between a colonial state and a colonised people—which makes the faculty’s formulation so troubling. 

Negotiations of the type they describe as ideal in their letter can only occur between two comparatively equal parties.  Good-faith negotiations cannot occur when one party has its boot on the throat, the lifeline, and the institutions of the other.  That’s just common sense.  When one party knows that it has the unconditional moral and material backing of the world’s superpower, negotiations cannot proceed seriously.

The example of the end of apartheid in South Africa—a variant of colonialism which is often, with good reason, compared to the type practised by Israel—might be illustrative.  On the one hand, it is certainly true that the end of apartheid necessitated negotiations.  It necessitated people who disagreed strongly, and who for many years of their lives had been committed to the destruction of the other party’s political structure, sitting down together and making deals in which neither party came away with everything that they wanted.

And yet, the Nationalist government—that is, the apartheid regime—would never have consented to take a seat at that table with the leaders of the African National Congress had not the armed wing of that Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe, made itself a thorn in the side of the South African Defence Force.  Those negotiations would never have occurred had not a combination of rolling strikes and international sanctions forced South African industry to the table with workers, a move which called the logic and tenability of apartheid into question and ultimately began the process of first reforming and then unravelling the grotesque system of colonial rule.

For theoretical negotiations to take place between a powerful state and a comparatively weak resistance movement, that powerful state and those invested in its ideology must believe they have more to gain—or less to lose—by negotiating than by embracing the status quo.  Influential elements in the Israeli government and security services have shown little willingness to come to the table of their own volition.  Divestment by the University of California would send a signal and could act as a catalyst for other organisations to embrace the rejection of colonialism—a relationship between peoples that is entirely unacceptable in the twenty-first century.

The faculty letter also suggested that divestment would “close down one such conversation, declare one side right and the other side wrong”.  It goes on: “And—more importantly for an open community such as Berkeley—it would silence and intimidate our students.  In the past, similarly targeted bills have led to physical altercations between students and an increase in racist incidents around campus...Rather than inform students about this conflict, the latter distorts the truth by omitting some facts and misrepresenting others”.

I don’t know the specifics to which it refers.  But the notion that on a campus committed to social justice, we must dodge all difficult issues lest anyone feel uncomfortable—no one to my knowledge talks of “silencing” anyone—is reprehensible, as is the idea that we should stifle disagreement on the off-chance that we could see “physical altercations” take place.  Being held hostage by the worst possible of outcomes is a paralytic approach to problem-solving.  Nor does divestment suggest that one party is right while the other is wrong.  What it does is to identify a powerful state party which is doing things that are wrong, and seek to influence that party’s behaviour. 

What divestment might close down—if widely embraced in the United States—is the morally offensive and logically indefensible proposition that our government—with the tacit support of its citizenry—can both grant Israel unconditional backing in each and every one of its actions and simultaneously call for good-faith negotiations.


  1. I read this article with great interest, because I had read an article about the students of University of California at Berkeley urging the university to divest from Israel and from companies that are involved in supporting the Israeli apartheid regime. I agree with what you have written here so eloquently. Thank you very much writing this article in support of the proposal to end Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. I hope students from other American universities will emulate the thoughtful and compassionate students of the UC at Berkeley.
    Yesh Prabhu, Bushkill, Pennsylvania

  2. It sounds like what you're saying is that a negotiated, peaceful end to hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians would be desirable, but that it can't happen right now because (A) Israel has little desire or incentive to negotiate right now, and (B) the power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians is too great. There are a couple more important reasons why negotiations haven't worked so far:

    1. The Palestinian leadership can't get its own act together to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. Abbas is barely powerful enough to hold down the fort with the help of Israel and the West. Meanwhile, Hamas explicitly rejects the concept of peaceful negotiations, especially if said negotiations will lead to Israel's continued existence. Palestinian leaders can hurt their own credibility and popularity on the Arab street by developing relationships with their Israeli counterparts.

    2. Palestinian leaders over the years have admitted that they can't reign in the terrorists. Arafat, for example, did this all the time. The #1 rule of effective negotiations is that there's no point in negotiating with someone who, by their own admission, is incapable of delivering what it is that you need (in Israel's case, it's very credible guarantees regarding threats to security). Yet Israel still tries to negotiate and engaged in very serious negotiations with Arafat and later with Abbas.