Berkeley Divestment: Comments

Rumor has it that student Senators at Berkeley are receiving e-mails from around the world regarding how they should vote on the divestment veto override at a rate of 50 an hour. Now only they are privy to the contents of these suggestions, but if this debate is playing out similarly to the one I participated in years ago in Somerville, MA, it must be getting harder and harder to hold the position that the divestment bill was a simple human rights measure that takes no sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In Somerville, it was letters from Bahrain congratulating the Somerville Aldermen for “standing up to the Jews” that gave these leaders the hint that they may have unleashed something nasty by voting for a divestment bill crafted for them by the Somerville Divestment Project (the equivalent of the Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP, who drafted the Berkeley divestment bill) without fully understanding the implications of their activity. (Sound familiar?)

Now Berkeley is certainly different from Somerville, and it could be that – as SJP activists have been touting –the 20 elected student Senators represent the will of the students on campus, while the equally elected student-body President who vetoed the bill does not. But that presumes either one of two things:

* The student Senators specifically campaigned on divestment and were elected based on their stance on this issue; or

* By some other measure, divestment from Israel can clearly be seen as representing a consensus of campus opinion, if not an unquestionable majority

Presuming the first option is not the case (a safe assumption, given that no one has yet brought up a specific electoral mandate for divestment since this debate began), then the only way to claim the student Senators are representing their constituents on this matter is if they can demonstrate overall agreement to divest from Israel among the student body. This is not an impossible hurdle to overcome. After all, South African divestment debates in the 1980s (which divestment advocates claim they are heirs to) were built on such a consensus.

We do have a way of testing this level of consensus, by looking at how the matter of the vote for and veto against the divestment bill is playing out on campus. Berkeley’s Daily Californian newspaper (usually referred to as “The Daily Cal”) has published several news articles and editorials on the topic, each of which has attracted ten to a hundred times the usual number of comments on their online edition.

Unlike a professionally designed and run poll, Internet comments (especially on Web sites that do not limit input to only local students) hardly represents a scientific measure of campus opinion. But with numbers this high, we can take a stab at determining whether or not this issue has reached a level of agreement high enough to approximate a civil debate or at least demonstrate a desire to reach an understanding between supporters and critics of the divestment measure and veto.

So what do we find if we peel through the comments sections? Well there are lots of references to babies, often within phrases such as “baby killers.” And photos of bleeding corpses (victims of last year’s Gaza conflict or Palestinian terrorism) seem to dot the comments pages. Accusations of racism, anti-Semitism, hatred and bad faith abound, as do talking points that can be lifted right from the speeches that accompanied debate on this resolution last week.

If I were to pick a word or phrase that encapsulates this online debate it would not be “consensus-building” but “polarizing.” In other words, this debate has hardened everyone’s positions, taking an issue over which there is no campus consensus and turning disagreeing parties into armed camps.

So who wins on an issue that does nothing for Berkeley other than has to help exacerbate existing splits on campus (which, like the Middle East itself falls along political, religious and ethnic lines)? Well the Students for Justice in Palestine clearly won (albeit temporarily) once the Senate vote was taken. Within minutes, they and their international allies quickly capitalized on the vote, sending out press releases claiming that Berkeley (the university, not just 16 student Senators) was now squarely in the divestment camp and explaining that other campuses should follow suit and condemn Israel as an Apartheid state (is that what Senators voted on, by the way?).

But it’s not entirely clear to me why SJP’s needs must take precedent over the other 35,000+ student on campus, simply because their one skill is the ability to morally blackmail people who (like the student Senators and I would guess nearly all students on campus) actually possess the concern for human rights that SJP simply feigns for their own political gain.

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