BDS and Human Sacrifice

I promised myself to give the whole Berkeley thing a rest, which I plan to do although not before using the last few week’s experience to illustrate a theme I’ve written about in the past (although not much on this blog): the sacrifice BDS demands of those institutions it tries to bring into the fold.

When the leadership of Mainline Protestant churches like the Presbyterians and Methodists were embracing divestment between 2004 and 2006, they did not do so simply as organizations with multi-billion dollar pension and retirement funds looking to modify their ethical investment policy to include the Middle East. Rather, their pronouncements on the matter were written in the most religious of rhetoric, again and again noting that their political divestment program was coming from a sacred place, was (using a phrase that’s appeared again and again in their communication) an example of “bearing witness” to human suffering.

It is no accident that the Palestinian organizations (notably the Sabeel Eccumenical Liberation Theology Center) which lobbied these churches for years provided a religious (rather than a political framework) to undergird the Presbyterian and Methodist divestment projects. For someone making a political choice can always change his or her mind. But if you’re asked to place everything you hold sacred onto the alter, to claim that a political choice is actually a religious requirement, it then becomes harder (if not impossible) to reverse course, even when doubt over the effectiveness or morality of your choices comes to the fore.

To take another example, when leaders of the UCU (the British educator’s union) chose to join the BDS bandwagon, they did not go the divestment route but rather spent year after year trying to begin academic boycotts of their Israeli colleagues. Echoing the churches, what is more sacred to educators than academic freedom? And so, naturally, it was the commitment to academic freedom that the UCU was asked to sacrifice in order to join “the movement.”

In both these cases, the cost for these sacrifices has been high. In the UK, teachers have faced one economic blow after another during the last few years. Yet the one thing that would give this union a moral platform when asking for public support (their devotion to academic freedom) was jettisoned years ago to make room for their impotent attacks on the Jewish state. And when was the last time political leaders or the media turned towards the Presbyterians or Methodists for answers to moral or religious questions of the day?

At Berekely, it seems that battle lines of the recent divestment debate were drawn between the two major political parties in student government. Now I won’t pretend to understand that political landscape in any great detail (having been surprised that any university can sustain organized political parties for decades, as has Berkeley). But while the party that’s been driving divestment votes (called CALSERV) would never consider itself a wholly own subsidiary of Student for Justice in Palestine (SJP), I suspect that SJP does not return the favor.

And so, even with the vote all-but lost the BDS partisans have used parliamentary maneuvers to ensure the issue gets dragged out for weeks on end, hoping that they can sway (i.e., bully) a crucial Senator needed to override the veto that doomed divestment weeks ago. And, possibly in violation of the Senate’s rules, these meetings have been held behind closed doors. While I can understand the desire to avoid more circuses like the recent all-nighters where the fate of divestment was recently debated, it seems the decision to go behind closed doors was made to allow some kind of BDS “surprise” resolution to be put on the books before the year is out.

Why the rush? Well apparently the other major campus political party (Student Action), which has pretty much stood against BDS during the recent conflict, won a handy majority in an election that fell right in the middle of the whole divestment brouhaha. In other words, rather than taking their recent loss at the polls as a possible example of students having a say on the divestment matter, the pro-boycott partisans are doing everything they can to stuff the BDS message into the mouth of that student body before their term expires.

So just like with the churches or the unions, student government is being asked to sacrifice the things upon which their authority rests (in this case, democratic responsibility), hiding behind closed doors in order to ram something down the campus’ throat, even after it seems pretty clear that they have no mandate to do so.

No doubt the pro-divestment Senators would claim that they are “bearing witness,” that a higher calling requires them to bend or break the rules in order to screw their constituents. But, in fact, they are simply being asked by their SJP/BDS handlers to throw everything under the bus: the rules, their reputation, those people they claim to serve, not to serve a higher calling, but to do something that the boycotters (and the boycotters alone) are telling them is their only moral choice.

Berkeley BDS and Democracy

Most of the “by losing, we really won” arguments from the BDSers defeated in last week’s Berkeley divestment battle are like this piece by Jewish Voice for Peace/Muzzlewatch Queen Cecilie Surasky, who substitutes the excitement of getting hundreds of people in a room to bash Israel for ten hours for actual political success. If such arguments rang a hollow ten years ago when groups like JVP begun providing a Jewish face to every BDS initiative on the planet, claiming unstoppable momentum seem positively bizarre after a decade of watching divestment fall flat on its face time and time again.

Now there is one argument the boycotters are making that’s worth dissecting: their claim that they actually won a majority of votes in the Senate (16/20 in the original vote, and 12/20 in the veto override) and should thus be considered the winner of the democratic process (implying that their win was undone by undemocratic political maneuvering by their foes). Not that this argument holds any more water than the other ones they trot out, but it does open up some interesting discussions vis-à-vis BDS and democracy.

For Berkeley’s student government (like the US government) is not an Athenian democracy (where all citizens/students vote on every issue), but is rather, like the US, is a constitutional representative system. Because the word “democracy” is used to describe these very two different kinds of systems, it can get confusing why simple majorities do not always get their way.

Berkeley’s student leaders face the same conundrum as leaders from any representative government: is their responsibility to represent the people who voted for them, or to take positions without knowing what those constituents actually want? Fortunately, most decisions that fall into this latter category are ones where knowing public opinion is not vital. We elect leaders to manage a host of routine issues that requires that these representatives do the work we’d rather not (draft budgets, craft rules and policies, etc.). While not strictly “democratic” in an Athenian sense, trusting leaders to develop the expertise to manage these tasks is certainly more effective than having 35,000 Berkeley students show up the quad to ratify every budget line item by voice vote.

But what happens when the issue under consideration is whether or not Berkeley’s name is going to be used to shore up a political statement about which student leaders cannot claim any unique insight or expertise? For example, can a majority of 20 Senators decide that Israel is guilty of war crimes via a mechanism that will be communicated around the world as the voice of the entire student body? In such cases, Student Senators face a higher threshold regarding knowing the will of the campus before deciding they can represent the conscience of that student body.

So… Do those Student Senators possess (or did they acquire) unique insight into the Middle East conflict or international law before making pronouncements regarding which participant in the former was guilty of violations of the latter? No doubt anyone who gets into Berkeley is extremely clever, but such a description applies to all 35,000 students on that campus, many of whom are enrolled in the #1 or #2 History, Middle East Studies, Political Science, and Law programs in the world. Given this, it’s not clear that the Berkeley Student Senate has more information at its fingertips than 20 students randomly chosen off the quad.

In fact, given the wealth of expertise the Student Senate could have tapped into to inform their decisions, it’s shocking to hear claims that participating in two all nighters consisting mostly of emotive testimony from partisans on both sides of the issue provided the education needed to make decisions on international politics and law in the name of every student on campus.

For a vote of this nature in which the Student Senators were presuming to speak in the name of those they represent, knowing the will of those voters/citizens/students is critical to determining whether such a vote represented 12 or 16 out of 20 (a majority), or 12 or 16 out of 35,000 people with opinions on this matter (a tiny minority).

That being the case, how can the will of the public be determined? Well one could put the whole divestment matter to a campus-wide vote, but this was already dismissed as too expensive. (It also opens up another challenge of whether or not the means to determine which question would be put on a ballot should also be put to a majority vote of the Senate.) Some type of professional survey could help us understand campus opinion better, but that too is expensive and would at best only provide a snapshot.

If ASUC leaders had a mandate for their divestment vote (i.e., had campaigned on this particular issue and won) we would have certainly heard about it during the hours of arguments on the matter (we didn’t). But we do have some electoral data in the form of last week’s ASUC Presidential election which the leader and party most against divestment won handily.

Add to this some substantial anecdotal data (including hundreds of people yelling at each other at marathon ASUC meetings, hundreds of comments appearing in Daily Cal articles and thousands of e-mails directly to student leaders) and I think it’s a fair conclusion that campus opinion on this matter is, at best, bitterly divided. And thus, those 16 or 12 leaders who voted “Yes” to divestment can make no claims to represent anything other than themselves.

And this is where we get to the “constitutional” part of constitutional representative government. For such forms of government provide ways for the public to be heard if and when one part of that government seems to do something that does not represent public will. The veto wielded by an elected President is one such mechanism, as is the high threshold required to overturn a veto. In other words, the outcome last week is an example of student government working to make sure a bitterly divided campus was not represented as having one mind on the Middle East, simply because a dozen Student Senators said it did.

Of course, the whole democracy argument rings a bit hollow from BDS advocates who cried foul when the elected board of directors at the Davis Food Co-op (an organization comparable to the Berkeley Student Senate in every way) rejected their boycott proposals unanimously. In fact, the few temporary successes BDS ever enjoyed (such as with the Presbyterians) only happened because divestment activists successfully appealed directly to leaders behind the backs of the people those leaders represented. I have yet to hear an argument about “democracy denied” by Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine or anyone else when those members rejected divestment by majorities of 90-100%.

As ever, a discussion of divestment and democracy is far more interesting once you can get past the BDS formula which self-servingly states that democracy only manifests itself when they get their way.

Berkeley BDS: Untangling the Final Vote

Well it took a little doing, but I was finally able to figure out the Byzantine nature of decision-making at UC Berkeley to determine that yesterday’s “tabling” of the final divestment vote was just a way to ensure that headlines the next day read “No Final Decision” vs. “Divestment Loses at Berkeley.” While this has worked with regard to how web sites and blogs sympathetic to BDS portray yesterday’s defeat, most news sources are calling it like it is: ASUC Fails to Override Divestment Bill Veto.

It was kind of a surreal experience following yesterday’s debate via a Twitter feed hosted by BDS supporters. It brought to mind those professional wrestling matches where a heel (or evil wrestler) is allowed to provide color commentary on a match between a fellow villain and a face (or good wrestler):

Ringcaller: What’s that? It looks like The Executioner has somehow snuck a live hand grenade into the ring. And he’s pulling the pin!

Heel Color Commentator: I don’t see any grenade, but look at how Virtuous Vinnie is cowardly fleeing the ring! I guess we can all agree that the Executioner is the only real man in this match!

Honestly (if I can use that word in the context of BDS), with the #UCBDIVEST Twitter feed hailing the courage of every divestment champion and sneering at every critic, I suspect everyone following the debate was shocked when the final vote was taken and their hopes of being able to fan out across the country claiming “Berkeley’s on board” came crashing to the ground. Perhaps that’s why they spent the last half hour before the vote screaming: YOU HAVE NO CHOICE! THIS IS A MORAL ISSUE! VOTE NOW!!!!!!!!, only to switch sentiments an hour later and hail the decision to avoid making the vote they demanded final.

Note to self: Learn to Tweet. Second Note to Self: Get someone from our side (or, even better, a neutral journalist) to live feed any similar event in the future.

Anyway, what appears to have happened is that divestment supporters used a procedural move to avoid a final vote while they worked on the one Senator who had abstained for two more hours. And once it was clear that no one was going to change his or her vote, they “tabled” the motion in order to avoid that being the final say on the matter. It doesn’t look like the same motion will be brought up again this semester (or possibly ever), although new resolutions that are not quite so ludicrously dishonest might make it onto the floor before the end of the year.

So, as ever, eternal vigilance is the watch-phrase of the day (and every day). This is OK for me since I take great pleasure in watching BDS get its ass handed to it week after week, month after month, year after year, but I know that other people (including, I expect, 95% of the population of Berkeley) would prefer it if those devoted to bashing the Jewish state in order to inflate their own sense of importance would do so on their own time and leave everyone else out of their personal psycho-dramas.

BDS Loses Big at Berkeley

Update: In the time it took to write this, it looks like the divestors, knowing the vote was going down for them, decided to table the motion until their next meeting, extending Berkeley’s pain for at least another week. (Was it just me, or did anyone else following the meeting via the UCBDIVEST Twitter feed recall BDSers screaming IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS just an hour or two ago that a vote MUST BE TAKEN NOW!) Anyway, I’m letting my write up stand until I hear more from people on the ground about this latest delaying tactic.

Well, it looks like the Berkeley Student Senate (or ASUC) wasn’t “in the bag” for divestment after all.

After a debate that began at 7 PM last night and looks to be just wrapping up now (at 6:30 AM, West Coast Time), a vote was finally taken with regard to overturning the Student President’s veto of the UC Berkeley divestment bill. An override required 15 votes to pass (or two-thirds of the Senate) and the final count turned out to be 12 for, 7 against and 1 abstention (down from 16 for and 4 against the first time around).

And so BDS loses again. (I never tire of typing that sentence.) And this time, they not only lost on friendly ground (the most sympathetic-to-their-issue campus in America), but they managed to pull off a defeat with virtually the entire BDS pantheon (Chomsky, Tutu, Klein) behind their efforts. They lost despite support from virtually the entire global BDS network applying pressure to ASUC members. They lost with the support of vast stretches of Berkeley’s Balkanized student organizational leadership behind them. And they lost after arguing this issue in an all-night session that ended with what sounded like some serious bullying of Senators who chose to not join the boycott crew.

Now this is not to say that anti-divestment forces didn’t also have inside and outside support. In fact this article, while a bit sensational, does point out the individuals and organizations supporting each side in this debate. But given that the BDSniks would have hailed a victory as a clear-cut repudiation of the people and organizations who urged a no vote (like Hillel, AIPAC, AJC, etc.), doesn’t this mean divestment’s defeat represents a similar reputation of Chomsky, Students for Justice in Palestine, etc., and everything they stand for? (Just asking.)

Needless to say, the post-vote chatter falls along the familiar lines of “even though we lost the vote, we actually won.” And depending on how you define “victory,” this morning’s losers do have a point. Clearly if we mean by “win” that you actually are victorious in a political battle, then BDS clearly lost (again, I love typing that phrase). And if you define “win” as showing support for the Palestinians, remember that BDS is really a way to tell those Palestinians: “don’t compromise, don’t negotiate, help is on the way!” Given how well that’s worked out for the people in the region over the last six-and-a-half decades, I would think the boycotters (who claim to care about the Palestinian people) might at least give this matter a little bit of thought.

But that brings us to where the divestment victory really lay. For if you define “victory” as allowing a bunch of people who fantasize that they are part of a great revolutionary vanguard to spew anti-Israel venom for twelve hours straight and now huddle together to talk about how they were defeated by a vast conspiracy of powerful forces, their tiny voices stilled, then indeed last night was a victory for them. If Palestinian suffering has to be extended for another decade or three, or the UC Berkeley campus turned into a war zone of competing factions divided along ethnic and religious lines to allow SJP and its friend and allies to dwell in such a fantasy world, then so be it.

But in the end, I can point out two real (vs. imagined) winners in this struggle: the Berkeley students who valiantly fought against this resolution, holding their ground (and their principles) against what looked at times to be a snarling mob. And the second winner is UC Berkeley itself.

Despite hours of be-fogging rhetoric about human rights and fair play, what last night’s twelve-hour session really demonstrated is what the campus could expect for the coming months and years if this resolution passed. Just as in other communities where divestment has been attempted (Somerville, PCUSA, etc.), the Berkeley BDS resolution succeeded only in dividing another community into warring camps. One needed to only look at all the ASUC meetings, or read the comments that accompanied Daily Cal articles on the subject, or (one guesses) look at the 13,000 e-mails Student Senators each received to see that a “Yes” vote would have turned a campus founded on mutual respect to a place where students ran the gauntlet between partisans waving bloody photos at each other.

Just as there are winners, there are also heroes to this tale, the top of the list being the eight Senators who decided not to inflict the mayhem they were exposed to for hours and hours to the entire campus for months or years on end. While most of the 13,000 kibbitzers who communicated with them (including me) were telling them where their conscience should lead them, conscience is a personal thing. And as much as it would be nice to think that a Zionist heart secretly beats in the chest of each of these people, their vote against divestment demonstrates something more powerful and profound: their desire to put their campus and their constituents first despite unprecedented pressure to do otherwise.

I’ll have a few more things to say on this matter over the coming days (including thoughts on those representatives and their constituents). But for now, it’s safe to congratulate Berkeley for dodging the BDS bullet just in time.

Now take a nap everyone!

Berkeley Nu?

While I’d hoped to have some news vis-a-vis Berkeley by this morning, it sounds like the debate which started last night at 7 PM is still going on…at 3 AM West Coast time!

Perhaps this wasn’t just a simple little generic human rights resolution (with Israel just used as an example, of course) after all…


Apologies for anyone who finds the next few days looking like a clip-show of previous writings, but the Berkeley story is playing out with such freakish familiarity that I thought I’d repurpose some things I’ve written during previous divestment conflicts for this site.

It’s hard not to notice that despite ongoing troubles in the Middle East, leaders and members of 99.99% of 4200+ colleges and universities in the United States do not seem to be at each other’s throats about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor are their leaders, representatives and students being bombarded daily with letters, e-mails, tweets, links and heaven-knows-what-else, trying to help “educate” recipients so that they can fall officially on one side of that conflict or the other.

The difference between UC Berkeley and virtually every other educational institution in the country is that Berkeley has chosen to turn a conflict that has challenged and perplexed wise and committed men and women for generations into official student government business.

No doubt, students who have succeeded in getting into one of the world’s greatest universities possess remarkable intelligence and ability. But even with these gifts, how many Student Senators truly feel in their heart of hearts (and brain of brains) that they now possess the understanding and wisdom needed to speak with understanding on this issue, much less act on it in an official capacity?

Do Berkeley Student Senators know so much more than student government leaders at over four-thousand colleges and universities (from the Ivy League to the Community College) who have not touched this issue or who have rejected BDS when divestment was similarly asked of them? Are Berkeley’s student leaders wiser than the thousands of college presidents and representatives who have chosen to not make the Middle East the focal point of student government policy or campus debate? Or have leaders outside of Berkeley shown wisdom by avoiding matters they may be unprepared to handle, issues that are guaranteed to cause division and pain?

While those pushing hardest for Berkeley to join the divestment chorus take great pains to dress their anti-Israel petition in the acceptable clothes of human rights and social responsibility, one need only read their communication that have gone out over the last week to discover the courser language that will only accelerate if the ASUC decides to overturn last week’s veto. For make no mistake, the goal of divestment advocates (like the Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP, organization that seem to think they already have the Student Senate “in the bag”) is to brand Israel a racist, apartheid state, alone in the world in deserving economic punishment. If divestiture passes, SJP and its allies will be gone, transmitting a message they have succeeded in stuffing into the mouth of every Berkeley student to the world, while everyone else is left behind to deal with the wreckage.

There are times when courage is defined as standing up against overwhelming pressure to do what’s right. But in this case, courage could more accurately be defined as not doing what you suspect is wrong, just because someone else is telling you that it is your only moral choice.

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?