BDS: Frustration, but with hope

Senate Bill 160, which calls for targeted divestment from companies that profit off of human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories, passed this last week in the University of California, Berkeley, student senate. The debate it sparked left us both frustrated with the broken campus dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hopeful due to the changing conversation in the Berkeley Jewish community.

We come from Jewish homes in Los Angeles, where we spent countless Shabbat mornings in shul and two respective high school semesters studying in Israel. We both arrived at Berkeley as dedicated supporters of Israel looking for an open space in which to ask challenging questions about Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. 

We found that space in J Street U. We found people who believe, just like us, that American Jews have an obligation to protest and discuss the injustices we witness — especially those in Israel, a place with which we have deep, personal connections. 

The fall before we arrived at Berkeley, J Street U was rejected from our Jewish Student Union (JSU). More than a year later, we still hear members of the new JSU board declare that “now is not the time” for us to be invited into the community. Despite the vibrant support system we have found in J Street U, we still hear others in Hillel murmur that we are not pro-Israel enough. 

Upon hearing that a divestment bill was returning to the senate, we braced ourselves for what we anticipated would be a contentious discussion within Berkeley’s Jewish community. 

Instead, however, members of the Jewish community, representing perspectives from Tikvah to J Street U, were invited to collaborate on writing an actionable alternative to divestment. Although the negative experiences of Berkeley’s 2010 divestment debate still haunted Hillel, with many in our community either disengaged or defensive, we viewed this as a hopeful sign that 2013 would be different.  

Our suggestions to oppose Israel’s occupation and promote American responsibility in achieving a lasting peace became the focus of the bill the student leaders wrote in response to divestment. In Jewish community meetings, the necessity of taking proactive steps toward a two-state solution became central to our messaging.  

Unfortunately, this was not the message heard by the hundreds of students who packed into the senate hearing for the bill. Many members of the Jewish community who spoke emphasized their own marginalization, instead of acknowledging the legitimate grievances presented by Palestinian students and their allies. For example, they defended Israel’s security barrier as a necessary security asset, ignoring how it has bifurcated private Palestinian land and impeded everyday life. 

But problematic rhetoric was not limited to the anti-divestment side. 

Advocates of divestment called for a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea,” ignoring the lengthy history of Jewish connection to the land and directly exacerbating Jewish students’ sense of marginalization. They snickered when Jewish and Israeli students told stories about terrorism, failing to acknowledge these real and legitimate security concerns. Most paradoxically, they mocked students who were seriously attempting to wrestle simultaneously with Israeli and Palestinian narratives of suffering, alienating the people, like us, most interested in finding common ground.

People spoke past each other without truly hearing or respecting the other side’s narrative. They did not realize that recognizing one community’s claim to self-determination inherently requires that they recognize the other. 

We did not support the divestment resolution because it did not explicitly endorse the Jewish people’s right to a homeland, but it is hard for us fully reject its premise. We recognize the bill as a well-intentioned effort to fix real problems we, too, are frustrated with, and we had hoped to convince the senate to choose alternative actions that would constructively engage more members of the Jewish community.

Moreover, as part of the anti-divestment community, we could not ignore the irony of hearing our peers declare themselves, “pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace.” The same members of the Jewish community who have previously sought to exclude our message from the JSU suddenly selectively appropriated it on the senate floor without internalizing what those words mean.

To those students, we say, join us. 

We believe that peace can come in our lifetimes and that we have an important role in bringing it. We are proud that, at the Berkeley senate meeting, many in our community pressed for a two-state solution. We hope to hear these same individuals speak out against settlement expansion, support democratic rights for all who live within Israel’s borders, and be willing to openly criticize Israel’s human rights violations — and not just when they are desperate to defeat divestment.

The Jewish community will only be considered a serious partner in campus discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once we demonstrate our commitment to making the necessary sacrifices for peace. If we can back up our rhetoric with serious action and sustained political engagement to achieve a two-state solution, hopefully we will empower pragmatic moderates on the other side to do the same.

Berkeley’s divestment debate was just the beginning. Join us, and let’s prove to our peers that the Jewish community is committed to peace, justice and freedom for all — and that we, too, have a strategy for acting on our values.

Shayna Howitt and Zoe Lewin are undergraduate students at University of California, Berkeley.