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.