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 Divestment and “Loose Change”

Loose Change. That’s the term fringe political movements use to describe people who join their organizations or show up to their events, not because such people believe in what the group stands for, but because such people want to be doing something, anything, to demonstrate they care about an issue.

For example, in the last decade several far-right European political parties found success among voters who didn’t care for the right’s political and economic policies, but who wanted to “make a statement” on Europe’s challenging immigration issues. And in the US during that same period, many people who came out to protest the war in Iraq found themselves at rallies and marches where the messages from the podium or on banners and signs seemed to go far beyond the issue that brought them into the streets. To the uncomfortable European voter or the bewildered American marcher, he or she was trying to take a stand about issues they found important. But to the organizations that claimed those voices as their own, these well-intentioned people were just so much loose change.

To see the relevance of this “loose change” in the current Berkeley divestment debate, think about the outcomes (bad or good) that could come about if such a resolution ultimately wins the day.

Practically speaking, the vote will have little to no economic impact. The Berkeley administration, like the administration of hundreds of college campuses that have had divestment pressed on them over the last decade, has shown no interest in politicizing their investment strategies, especially based on the questionable characterization of the Middle East conflict so perfectly embodied in the Berkeley resolution.

But if the practical repercussions of the resolution are small, the symbolic impact is more significant. For, despite the fact that the issue was sold to Berkeley’s leaders as a uncomplicated, general human-rights issue that takes no specific stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict, last week’s vote is today being communicated around the world as the university as a whole standing four-square behind the divestment movement’s real message: that Israel is a racist, apartheid state alone in the world deserving of punishment. And one need only look at how the controversy is playing out on campus to see that, far from helping students better understand these complex issues, divestment is helping to rub political, religious and ethnic wounds raw.

Given the resolution’s limited practical potential and significant downsides, we are left searching for where a successful resolution would do anyone any good. And thus we are left with twenty student Senators, many sincerely concerned about problems in the Middle East, and desiring to do something, anything, to make a statement. Even if they have no electoral mandate to make statements, much less take action on international issues, a “Yes” vote would give them the feeling that they are doing something virtuous, even though the actual effects will be all bad for Berkeley and for the Middle East. It would turn leaders trusted to do what’s right for the students they represent into a handful of loose change in the pocket of the worldwide boycott Israel movement

There are times, most times, when we want our leaders to lead, to think about and act on issues on which the rest of us have entrusted them. There are also times when we want our leaders to follow, or at least listen to the people who have elected them more than the few month’s preceding an election cycle.

Acting like loose change, however, does not represent either leading or following. It consists of being manipulated into taking harmful action in order to make oneself feel good. Another term for this would be “sucker” and while it would make me sad to see leaders at Berkeley or anywhere else waste their own money or reputation taking a sucker’s bet, it’s far worse to think that they are considering taking that bet with the reputation of the entire university, an asset they are not empowered to sell.

Courage

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?