A Look Back at 2013: University of California Student Government

I actually took two brief breaks from my hiatus last year to deal with some BDS stories making news.

The most recent had to do with the American Studies Associations’ academic boycott, a subject I plan to get to with a series of postings next week.  But the other event that caused me to break silence (and pen this piece for my friends at CIFWatch) had to do with divestment votes at several University of California campuses last Spring.

Before building on the case made in the story linked above, we should first acknowledge that pro-divestment votes taken by some University of California student governments do represent a setback of sorts.  While (as noted below) this does not mean we must accept the BDSers assertion that such votes are a first step towards their inevitable triumph, it behooves us to not make the same mistake the boycotters do and treat everything that happens (including defeat) as just victory in disguise.

For one of the reasons BDS loses so often is that an attitude which essentially boils down to “by losing we actually won” so detaches you from reality that learning from mistakes becomes impossible (since a “movement” that never loses never makes mistakes).  This is why the BDSers keep getting caught by surprise when things don’t go their way.  For when you live in a bubble where only the opinions of the like-minded are listened to, the existence of a majority that reject those opinions cannot be comprehended, much less worked into your political calculus.

But even if there is pragmatic value in treating a political situation as it really is (while also avoiding the trap of assuming not winning every battle means the war is lost), such pragmatism does not require you to imbue any setback (such as these UC student government votes) with a significance it does not deserve.

For as I noted on that CIFwatch piece, a student council vote in favor of divestment can only be seen to be significant (or even relevant) if (1) it stands a chance of having a practical impact (such as setting in motion an actual divestment decision by a college or university); or (2) it can be credibly asserted to represents the opinion of a majority of students on campus.

Actually, let me raise the bar even lower for the BDSers and say that such a vote does not even necessarily have to meet one of these two criteria but merely has to generate enough ambiguity so that one of those two criteria can be considered plausible.

By way of illustration, when divestment first made waves in the early 2000s (before the claimed 2005 birthdate of the BDS “movement” – a story for another time), it took the form of petitions calling on college administrations to divest from the Jewish state.  Now these petitions drew just a few hundred signatures.  But because it was unclear how college Presidents would react to such petition-driven campaigns, the media attention they drew far outstripped what these numbers would normally warrant.

Even at the time, no one anticipated Harvard or MIT would immediately initiate a divestment process just because a few hundred people signed an online petition on the subject.  But there was certainly a possibility that leaders at these schools would avoid taking a stance on the issue and thus give anti-Israel divestment credibility as a legitimate position (if a controversial one).

But such ambiguity was removed when college leaders not only rejected calls for divestment, but denounced them for the bigotry they clearly represented (then Harvard President Lawrence Summers going furthest claiming divestment calls to be “anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent”).  And once ambiguity was taken out of the equation, the fact that anti-divestment petitions were outstripping pro-divestment ones by a margin of ten to one demonstrated divestment to be what it has always been: the preference of an unrepresentative, marginal fringe.

Getting back to the UCs, when student government votes on BDS first surfaced at Berkeley in 2010, again it was ambiguity (this time over whether such a vote represented the view of the student body) that made this story newsworthy.  But after that vote was rejected and subsequent votes also went against the boycotters, after multiple all-nighters where students with vastly different positions on the a matter argued with and condemned one another, after pages of letters appeared in school papers demonstrated heated differences over divestment, we now know that whatever BDS might be it DOES NOT represent consensus campus opinion.

Now no one’s opinion was changed between previous no votes and last year’s yes ones.  Rather, the more recent votes simply represented that the boycotters had finally figured out how to pack student government with people who would vote in a BDS resolution despite the fact that everyone knew BDS DID NOT represent the views of the people student government claimed to represent.  And given the boycotter’s readiness to ignore the countless times they were told no, is it any wonder no one paid the slightest attention when a vote finally went their way?

Actually, a group of people who probably did pay attention was college administrators who were handed yet another reason to not take student government seriously (given that such government had just flushed its only source of legitimacy – the claim to represent the student body – down the toilet).

And this brings us to the real story behind these UC votes, namely, what it says about the difference between BDS and any normal political movement.  Every UC campus, after all, is home to students of many nations with historic animosity (Indians and Pakistanis, Mainland Chinese and Tawianese, etc.).  But Indians are not lobbying college presidents to divest from and denounce their Pakistani rivals, nor are Taiwanese packing student governments to get them to stuff anti-PRC messages into the mouth of the student body.

Only the Arab-Israel seems to have generated a political movement of such monumental selfishness and insensitivity to others, one which insists that its needs must take precedent over not just every other human rights issue on the planet, but every issue of actual importance to the students at the University of California (or any other civic space into which boycotters decide to drag the Middle East conflict).

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?

BDS at Berkeley: Reversal of Fortune

Well Berkeley’s divestment “policy” barely lasted a week before it was undone via veto by student government President Will Smelko last night. No doubt a number of Berkeleyans are shaking their heads as these events unfold on their campus. But as someone who has followed divestment activities for years, I can attest that the Berkeley story is playing out along lines so familiar I can practically set my watch to them. To whit:

1. A divestment resolution is brought before a representative body of a large respected institution (such as the Berkeley Student Senate, the Aldermen of the City of Somerville, or the professional leadership of the Presbyterian Church) by a group of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists.

2. Because most members (and leaders) of the BDS group come from outside the community being asked to divest, local activists are given a high profile to make the divestment action seem as though it is welling up from the community itself.

3. Discussions of divestment are carried out behind closed doors or are rushed in hope that a divestment vote can be taken before the wider community becomes aware of what is being voted on in their name.

4. At some point, word gets out regarding what is happening and a controversy, often leading to a last-minute public hearing, ensues.

5. At the hearing, BDS activists do what they do best: zeroing in on a few, emotionally charged issues (the suffering of Palestinian Arabs, complete with bloody photographs), the flushing of alternative facts and history down the memory hole, and demands that support for BDS is the only democratic and moral choice for the institution considering divestment.

6. Hastily organized opponents of the measure do their best to publically respond, although their messages tend to be all over the map (refutation of the other side’s facts, history lessons, passionate condemnations of the divestment resolution as unfair, etc.)

7. The body considering divestment either votes it down immediately (in which case, skip to step 12) or passes it.

8. If passed, word immediately goes out on a hundred Web sites, 200 blogs and 500 Facebook pages that the institution is now in full agreement with the real message of divestment advocates: that Israel is an Apartheid state alone in the world deserving economic punishment.

9. People in the community wake up one morning to discover that a tiny minority has handed the reputation of the institution over to a single-issue, partisan group that is now leveraging their name for their own narrow political ends.

10. Outrage ensues, both from inside the community (which was never consulted before their representatives signed the institution up to join the BDS bandwagon) and externally.

11. Responding to the outrage, and appalled at how the decision is being portrayed publically (despite assurances by BDS advocates that a divestment vote was a simple, uncontroversial human rights matter), the institution finds a way to vote down or otherwide undo the hasty, controversial decision.

12. The BDSers howl at their reversal of fortune, throwing a public tantrum if divestment is voted down at a public hearing, and impotently threatening electoral revenge against those who decided the reputation of the organization should not be handed over to divestment crew, just because they demand it.

13. Because of divestment’s short-lived success, the institution is falsely listed as a divestment supporter for months or years to come in hope that other organizations will follow this now-pretend example.

14. Despite their threats, the BDSers move on, leaving the local leaders alone to deal with the bitterness and wreckage this entire incident has caused.

15. Wash, rinse, repeat at the next institution.

I’ll have a bit more to say about matters specific to the Berkeley story in the next day or so. But suffice to say, Berkeley has joined a long line of organizations which has flirted BDS only to discover it is not so much a political movement as an opportunistic virus, delivered by an organization that may still be hoping that Berkeley does not have antibodies strong enough to resist it.

California Scheming: BDS at Berkeley

At the start of the 21st century, the year of butterfly ballots and hurricanes, some people speculated whether Florida was the new California, i.e., the one US state whose daily news triggers smirks and eyebrow-raising in the other 49. Well all I can say is that in the last week California has come roaring back, at least as far as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is concerned.

The week began with the historic decision of the Davis California Food Co-op to unanimously reject attempts by local BDS activists to turn the store in to the first voluntary Israel-free retailer in the country. The BDSers had put months of effort into trying to get their propaganda campaign made the Co-op’s mission. Needless to say, once the grown-ups who ran the organization read the boycotters the riot act before kicking them down the stairs, the divest-niks have not had much to say about what once seemed their top priority.

Unsurprisingly, they have been less reticent about bellowing the results of a vote taken a few days later by the Berkeley University Student Senate which at 3:15 AM on Wednesday voted 16-4 to pass a resolution requesting the school divest in companies doing business with Israel.

Needless to say, the two events are quite different in their significance. At Davis, the organization had to make an actual decision regarding whether or not it would partake in a boycott. Berkeley, in contrast, consisted of 16 students striking a pose by demanding someone else (i.e., the university as a whole) do their impotent bidding.

The fact that the university has already rejected divestment again and again over the last decade does not seem to diminish the divestors thrill at their own “success.” This starts to make sense if you read over their actual resolution, which can be seen in its entirety here, but basically boils down to:

* Whereas we agree that the Middle East conflict is too complex for a student government body to judge;

* Whereas every Israeli crime against humanity we can dredge up, imagine or pull out of our rear end (contained in the following 16-paragraph indictment) is absolutely and unconditionally true;

* Resolved: The 16 of us (or .045% of the 35,843 students enrolled at the university) have decided that Berkeley is now part of the BDS movement;

* Resolved: the textbook example of taking sides in the Middle East conflict represented by this resolution should not be interpreted as taking sides in the Middle East conflict (because we just said so)

In short, in the minds of the BDSers, victory is not measured by actual wins (of which they have none) or losses (such as Davis). Rather, their success is self-defined as getting their words (all 1700 of them in the case of this resolution) stuffed into the mouth of an organization that is more well known than the boycotters themselves (which pretty much includes everyone).

It was particularly amusing to read this crow that links the Berkeley vote to the BDSers Hampshire “victory,” which – in Pinky and the Brain fashion – is interpreted to mean that their movement now has unstoppable momentum. The fact that Hampshire divestment was exposed as a hoax over a year ago seems to have not sunk in with them, nor has the fact that the students who overplayed their hand at Hampshire helped send a warning signal to every college administration in the country about what to expect when BDS comes knocking at the door.

Now I could be cruel and use the divest-niks own formula (which says that investment in = political support for the Jewish state) to claim that Berkeley’s continuing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Israel (despite demands that they divest) demonstrates the true political position of the university (a position that likely involves the decision of more than 16 undergraduates).

But instead I’ll be generous and agree with the Berkeley-16 that the opinion of a dozen-and-a-quarter people must be considered sacrosanct. In which case, I’ve decided to play with a new widget that comes with Blogger, a poll (which you’ll see to your right) that lets you, my dear reader, weigh in on the issue of Berkeley’s divestment resolution. And remember – according BDSers themselves – only 16 votes are needed to make this non-binding “resolution” legitimate.

Vote early, (but preferably not often)!