Turmoil in Berkeley

University of California at Berkeley student Ariela Alberts sent an e-mail to friends describing the attempt to get the student government there to pass a bill calling for divestment from companies doing business with Israel.  Alberts gives a detailed account, from one Jewish student’s perspective, of the turmoil there:

As many of you know, the UC Berkeley ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California), our student government, has recently voted on a bill entitled “Divestment from War Crimes.” Despite the bill’s title, it goes on to criticize Israel only for military acts in Gaza under Operation Cast Lead, and calls for divestment from General Electric and United Technologies for supplying Israel with F16s and military planes. Most ironic to me is the fact that our ASUC, as reported by the ASUC Attorney, is not invested in either of these companies. To me, there is no other way to classify this bill with that knowledge other than as a symbolic attack on the state of Israel and its right to exist. Initially, this bill was passed by the Senate. Our President, Will Smelko, vetoed the bill.

On the personal level, I attended a Senate meeting last night that was meant to decide whether or not the veto would be overridden with a super-majority of senators. Initially, the meeting was supposed to start at 7 pm. Due to large masses of people that could not get in to the room that was reserved, they postponed the meeting to 10:30pm and held it in one of our largest rooms, Pauley Ballroom. The meeting did not end until 7:30 am, and I stayed there all through the night with at least 200 others from both sides that waited until the very end.

I wanted to share with you some of my experience. I know that many of you have been watching this process quite carefully, and I wanted to offer my insider point of view. A total of about 90 people spoke, 45 from each side in a pro/con series with each person allowed to speak for two minutes. Some of the behavior was truly disgusting, with snickering and laughing, hissing and calling out, true of both sides quite unfortunately. I was embarrassed that my peers could act so disrespectfully at points. At least 500 people attended, though it felt like even more than that. Some of the arguments were quite expected, often upsetting exaggerations or fabrications. I do believe that Israel has made mistakes, but I do not think that our Senate should be attempting to resolve issues that governments internationally cannot. Ultimately, the Senate voted to uphold the veto, though according to some of the bylaws of the ASUC (which I assure you seem pointless and are quite hard to follow) , the Senate motioned to “table the motion to override the veto”. The bill as it stands will not pass. No senators will change their votes, but they are trying to find a way to amend it. As a general consensus, those against the bill support the creation of some bill that “Divests from War Crimes” as a general policy without citing countries or singling any out. We’ll see what happens next week. I can tell you more about specific arguments if you would like, but I wanted to share some of the things that stood out to me the most. I helped write the concluding statement and some of the arguments against the bill, but in an effort to bring diverse voices against the bill, I did not speak and instead helped a good friend who is a Sikh, East Indian student in support of the veto.

The writers of the bill say that in itself, the bill is not anti-Semitic. Whether or not you believe that, I argue that whatever it is, something about the bill brings out anti-Semitic sentiment that I have never felt before. An Israeli man, probably in his forties, wearing a kippah, was tapped on his shoulder by the woman behind him (a supporter of the bill and local Berkeley resident), and told by her, “You know what’s ironic? You really look like a Nazi. There is something unpleasant about your face and features that really resembles a Nazi.” While this doesn’t reflect everyone in the room, I was shocked that someone would have the audacity to say that. I cannot think of something more offensive that could be said to a Jew. And here we are in 2010. When the bill was first voted upon and the veto was upheld, a hispanic student that had been sitting in front of me the entire time jumped up and turned back (where many of us who are against the bill were sitting) and yelled, “You killed Jesus.” I was shocked to say the least. Finally, a common refrain of “AIPAC is taking over the ASUC” was called out many times, partially in response to our newly elected Jewish president (what a relief). To me, this is the oldest of anti-Semitic claims – the Jews are running the world, they are running our government. To be honest, this was the first time I was scared because of anti-Semitism, and I really was.

I tell you this not to villainize Berkeley or even its students – many of the accounts above were not even said by students. I still love Berkeley and am happy to be here. In fact, if anything, this should be a reason that I and future Jewish students should come to Berkeley. The community I have here has been unbelievably supportive, Hillel in particular. I do not feel alone and I know that what took place at the Senate meeting involved only a polarized group of students. The majority of students here probably don’t even know this is going on.

I know that many of you have been asking about this, and I wanted to share my experience with you.