Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Divestment and Petty Politics at UC Berkeley

As some readers might know, last week UC Berkeley’s student Senate passed “A Bill in Support of Human Rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip”, widely known as the Divestment Bill.
  The bill generated an incredible amount of controversy on campus after a similar bill failed three years ago after the non-existent Israel lobby waged an extraordinary campaign (but that’s for another post).  Faculty were drafted in to oppose the bill on spurious grounds, and after its passage the Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, voiced his disapproval on some equally blinkered lines.  The bill passed narrowly, and its supporters have spent the succeeding week waiting to see whether the ASUC President, Connor Landgraf, would exercise his veto power. 

Instead, in an almost amusingly churlish and petulant statement, Landgraf voiced his decision to let the bill stand (to keep from “further lengthen[ing] this conflict and further tear at the seams of this campus”) in spite of his misgivings, which he proceeded to bitterly enumerate.

Like many others, Landgraf cited the “divisiveness of the bill and the rift it created in our campus community”. 

Landgraf went on to “reject the one-sided narrative of this bill, and its complete and utter failure to create any constructive discussion or dialogue on a complex and multifaceted issue.  This bill has served to do nothing more than divide our campus, foster anger, and encourage divisiveness”.  He waxed positively lyrical about the “pain this bill has already produced”, and in an interview with the Daily Californian, reportedly “characterized the week leading up to his announcement as one of the worst of his life”.  In the same interview, he contested that “this was not me siding with either side” in the same breath that he announced that he “couldn’t disagree more with this bill”.

But let’s take the deep breath Landgraf needed, and evaluate these rather dramatic claims. 

In all seriousness, it’s hard to take the divisiveness of the bill very seriously.  Any serious problem with its provisions has to be manufactured for the simple reason that if Landgraf and others actually read the legislation, they would understand that is a fairly modest and even-handed bill.

SB 160 (see the bottom of this story for the text of the bill, from which I’ll quote below) begins by recognising “the role of student activists in exposing South Africa’s apartheid system and supporting equality, freedom, and dignity sets an example for us to follow as students of global conscience”.  The most thick-headed of Israel’s supporters will begin hyperventilating at this point, until they arrive at the next sentence which explains that no direct parallel between Israeli colonialism and South African apartheid is being drawn, but that rather, the bill is simply invoking a history of student activism against discrimination and international crimes: “As the example of South Africa shows, it is imperative for students to stand unequivocally against all forms of racism and bigotry globally and on campus, including but not limited to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and the anti-Palestinian discrimination practiced under Israel’s system of illegal occupation in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem”

On to the second component of the bill’s argument, which begins with the uncontroversial statement that “certain companies have promoted and been complicit in many of the ongoing human rights violations systematically committed by the Israeli government”.  ASUC is not alone in recognising this problem, and the bill rightfully notes that “according to US policy, ‘the legitimacy of continued settlement activity’ has not been accepted by any US administration”.  Both Presidents Obama and Bush opposed the expansion of settlements.

Then comes a simple moral factual statement: “our university invests in, and thereby profits from, companies that have an active role in materially aiding Israel’s illegal occupation and the resulting human rights abuses”.

This is followed by the section of this carefully-worded bill which exposes the histrionics on the part of Israel’s staunch campus defenders for what they are: uncritical support for a violent government.  “UCB students”, the bill remarks, “enjoy peace of mind knowing that their university is barred by federal law from making investments that aid Palestinian militant organizations which engage in attacks that threaten the human rights of Israeli students and their families and UCB students are not able to enjoy the same peace of mind with respect to investments that threaten the human rights of Palestinian students and their families as our university profits from the human rights abuses visited upon these students and their families in the course of Israel’s illegal occupation”.

This gives the lie to those who claim that the bill is an attack on Israel and a defence of Palestinians (that it “takes sides”), or those who insist that the bill is only concerned with violence committed by one party in this conflict (a claim which, even if it were true, ignores the fact that one party to the conflict is a state which possesses overwhelming force and the unconditional backing of a superpower whilst the other party is a non-state, kept in its colonial status by the former power). 

It demonstrates that instead, the bill is addressing an existing inequity which in fact treats the two parties differently, permitting investment in companies which facilitate human rights on one side of the conflict, while forbidding similar investment on the other.  To further assuage its critics, the bill notes that “any attack directed at Israeli, Palestinian, or other civilians is unacceptable”.

The resolution itself is simple: “Let it be resolved that the ASUC will examine its assets and UC assets for funds being invested in companies that a) provide weaponry or other military support for the occupation of the Palestinian territories or b) facilitate the building or maintenance of the wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes, or c) facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements on the occupied territory...if at any time it is found that the campus or UC funds are being invested in any companies meeting any of these criteria...the ASUC will itself divest, and will advocate that the UC system divest, all stocks and investments in such companies with the goal of maintaining the divestment, in the case of said companies, until they cease the specific offending practices...[and] if at any time ASUC funds or UC funds are found to be invested in companies profiting from organizations that target Israeli citizens, the ASUC and the UC system should follow similar steps as outlined in the prior clause and divest those funds”.

The companies which are explicitly identified in SB 160 include Caterpillar Incorporated, Cement Roadstone Holdings, and Hewlett Packard, companies involved in settlement construction, the building of the wall, and the facilitation of checkpoints in the service of the police state in Israel’s colonies.

But now let’s leave aside Landgraf’s misplaced whining and turn to the simple moral purpose of SB 160, which is not a case of “Divestment from Israel”, but rather an attempt to divest from specific companies which are complicit in well-documented human rights abuses (Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International provide extensive documentation of these abuses). 

SB 160 represents an attempt by our campus community to say that we hold certain values, and that our value system is repelled by the abuse of human rights and the facilitation of that abuse by corporate power.  It is an action which recognises its own limitations: even if the UC Regents, generally representatives of the same corporate amorality which sustains inequality and state violence in our troubled world, consented to divest UC funds, Israeli colonialism would undoubtedly endure. 

But our campus is insisting on our right to say that our community should invest and sustain itself ethically, with reference to our values.  We are insisting that we, as the individuals who comprise this institution dedicated to a search for knowledge and equality and camaraderie in our world, must live and study and work in an institution which, at the very least, should not conspire to do harm to others or to sustain inequality.  We might even, if those who were so bitterly opposed to this modest and even-handed bill, think about whether we can do some good.

Last week I read a 1981 report by the Christian Concern for Southern Africa, “Arms For Apartheid”, which documented the complicity of the British government and British corporate power in sustaining the Nationalist regime in South Africa.  That document is part of a decades-long campaign which sought to make a similar statement about the ability of citizens in another time to hold their institutions to account.  Historians will always debate the extent to which the international community and the actions of an international global society influenced the end of apartheid in South Africa, or colonialism in European empires, or the end of the U.S. war on Vietnam.  Let us hope that our own actions, on this campus and elsewhere, will also give them the opportunity in the not-too-distant future to debate the importance of our civil society’s actions to the ending of Israeli colonialism in the Palestinian territories.

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