BDS: Is Berkeley “in the bag”?

Apologies if I gave the impression that the Berkeley divestment story was over. According to some West Coast friends, the student government constitution still provides a mechanism whereby a two-thirds vote of the Student Senate (or 14 votes) can override yesterday’s veto. And as one West Coast Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) supporter put it when commenting on the Daily Californian story on the veto: “It’s all a formality. We have the ASUC [the Berkeley Student Senate] in the bag.”

Now it remains to be seen whether the Senate is in truly “in the bag” of the local branch of SJP just because more than the 14 Senators needed to override the veto voted for the original resolution.

After all, student senators, like many Berkeley students, have strong feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights and many other domestic and international issues. But student government representatives also have a responsibility to represent their constituents and the student body as a whole.

And when the subjects on which they vote do not reflect top campus priorities or the issues on which they campaigned (which we can assume divestment from Israel did not), it’s fair to ask them: (1) in whose name they speak; (2) whether a divestment vote is relevant and a moral imperative for student government (just because SJP says it is); and (3) what will be the consequences of such a vote on the campus as a whole.

It’s clear what SJP gets out of the original ASUC vote and potential override. Their job is to take their political message (that Israel is an Apartheid state alone in the world at deserving economic punishment) and stuff it into the mouth of an organization more well known and respected that SJP itself. And the University of California at Berkeley, a 150-year-old institution ranked #1 in the world in almost every academic discipline, certainly falls into the “better known than SJP” category (as would almost every other organization in the world).

But now that student senators have gotten a whiff of what happens once they accede to SJP demands, now that divestment activists have sent out countless press releases and news stories stating that the ASUC vote last week means UC Berkeley as a whole now stands squarely on their side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, now that students have made it clear that the vote represents not consensus but bitter division on campus, it’s worth asking student leaders if dragging the Middle East conflict into the center of student politics is in the interest of those they represent.

The Daily Californian story mentioned above was closing in on 300 angry comments (complete with competing photos of bloody babies) at the time of this writing, and I suspect this is just a small percentage of the number of aggressive e-mails and other messages Berkeley student leaders have been getting in the last week urging them to vote this way or that. While each side will argue that they represent organic campus opinion (even if their messages come from a retirement home in Florida or a mosque in Oman), I think it’s safe to say that while divestment may represent the consensus of SJP and while many student leaders may agree with sentiments in the original resolution, the issue is NOT representative of anything other than an ugly disagreement among the student body as a whole.

I could certainly make a case against divestment based on history, fairness or my personal political opinions. But the best argument to direct at the student leaders at Berkeley is whether this vote represents leadership (either political or moral), or simple political posturing urged on by an organization (SJP) that only sees Berkeley as a means to their ends, people who will be long gone once the damage to the campus has been done, leaving their once-ASUC allies alone to deal with the wreckage caused by this divestment fight.

That wreckage will include more bitterness and division on campus, an opening of ethnic and religious conflict (at a time when Berkeley is already dealing with race-related controversy), and a student body and administration wondering whether student government can and should be taken seriously on any issue whatsoever (at a time of budget cuts when student voices are needed more than ever).

As I noted before, it’s clear what SJP gains if they can get the Berkeley student government chooses to hand the campus’ reputation over to them. The question remains, what does Berkeley get out of the deal that represents anything other than a loss?

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