A controversial UC Berkeley student senate bill opposing UC investments in companies providing military support to Israel has once again added a local twist to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Although the bill is labeled “UC Divestment From War Crimes,” it focuses on the conflict in the Middle East and human rights violations by the Israeli Army in Gaza and the West Bank.
The bill’s critics contend that singling out Israel as a perpetrator of war crimes is unfair, given the vast number of human rights violations that go on elsewhere in the world.
Sandra Y. Cohen, a UC Berkeley Civil Engineering sophomore and one of the four Associated Students of the University of California senators who voted against the bill, called it a brazen attack on Israel in the guise of drawing attention to war crimes.
“I hope everyone who voted yes realizes what they truly voted for,” Cohen wrote in an e-mail message to a Google group after the vote. “I am really disheartened.”
The ASUC student senate’s vote is probably the first of its kind to take place in any college campus in the United States.
At Thursday’s meeting, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups—comprised of students, professors and community members from different ethnic backgrounds—packed the first-floor room of the student union building, forcing the meeting to be shifted to a library on the seventh floor.
ASUC senator Christina Oatfield said it was the highest attendance she could remember at any recent ASUC meeting.
Many stayed to hear the final vote—16-4—announced at 4 a.m.
“It was really exciting to see so many people engaging in the issue,” Oatfield said. “There was a little bit of shouting but overall I was surprised by how respectful everything was.”
The Berkeley campus has been rocked by altercations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups from time to time, some of which were caused by alleged incidents of hate speech, graffiti and vandalism.
“The bill cites facts, such as from the UN’s Goldstone Report, that should be disregarded,” said Cohen, as she boarded a flight Friday to leave for spring break. “It’s blatantly anti-Israel. I was told that the bill is not divesting from Israel, it’s divesting from war crimes. But then we should not have any reference of Israel in it. This is just dividing the community in Berkeley.”
Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, a second-year Economics Ph.D. student who co-authored the bill, said that Israel had been used as a case study to highlight the ethics violations being committed by its government on Palestinian settlements.
“What about the war crimes in other countries—China, Sudan, Afghanistan?” Cohen asked. “They are trying to make it about war crimes but it’s not about war crimes. If they cared about war crimes then the bill would have mentioned other countries. They are trying to dissolve the State of Israel.”
Oatfield said that the ASUC senate has a long history of taking strong action to divest funds from countries involved in war crimes.
“We have singled out Sudan, we have singled out South Africa in the past,” said Huet-Vaughn. “It’s our job to condemn unethical treatment. We want to make a statement about what can be done with student government funds. But the more significant thing is we don’t want our university to support war crimes.”
The bill specifically calls for ASUC and UC to stop investing in two American companies—General Electric and United Technologies—which are providing Israel with weapons.
Oatfield said that although the bill is focused on conflicts in Israel, it also asks the ASUC to create a commission which will investigate war crimes in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
“The immediate action is pertaining to two companies, but it also has long-term goals,” Oatfield said.
E-mails supporting or denouncing the senate’s action started flying about right after the final vote, with author and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz being one of the first to issue a statement.
“Divesting from Israel is immoral, bigoted and if done by a state university illegal,” Dershowitz said. “It encourages terrorism and discourages peace. Any university that would actually divest from Israel will be subjected to countermeasures—financial, legal, academic and political. We will fight back against this selective bigotry that hurts the good name of the University of California. This misuse of the university’s name does not represent the views of students, faculty, alumni and other constituents of the greater Berkeley community. Instead it represents the hijacking of the university for improper ideological purposes. It must be rejected immediately and categorically.”
The international pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs called the bill “misguided.”
Pro-divestment Berkeley residents who attended the meeting congratulated each other with celebratory messages.
One e-mail called it a “substantial victory,” while another called it a “historic occasion.”
Huet-Vaughn said that the bill would prohibit ASUC funds from going toward the two American companies with immediate effect.
Text of the Berkeley Student Senate Divestment Resolution
A Bill to In Support of UC DIVESTMENT FROM WAR CRIMES
Authored By: Emiliano Huet-Vaughn and Tom Pessah
Sponsored By: Senators Gaurano , Carlton, Kwon, Oatfield
1. WHEREAS, the ASUC notes the complexity of international relations in all cases, including the Middle East, and recognizes the inability of a body such as the ASUC to adjudicate matters of international law and human rights law, or to take sides on final status issues on wars and occupations throughout the world. Yet, we do note the following findings from the United Nations and other leading human rights organizations regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict, and use it as a case study; and,
2. WHEREAS, prior and subsequent to the bombing the Israeli government has engaged in collective punishment of the whole of the Palestinian population, in the view of the human rights community, as exemplified by the ongoing 32 month blockade on Gaza, of which Physicians for Human Rights-Israel has written, “the prolonged siege imposed by the Israeli government on Gaza, the closing of its borders, the tightening of policies regarding permission to exit Gaza for medical purposes, and the severe shortage of medications and other medical supplies all severely damage the Palestinian health system and endanger the lives and health of thousands of Palestinian patients,” and of which the Red Cross has said “the whole strip is being strangled, economically speaking” making life in Gaza “a nightmare” for the civilian population, with essential supplies, including electricity, water, and fuel, being denied to the 1.5 million inhabitants 90% of whom depend on aid to survive; and
3. WHEREAS, within the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Israeli government continues a policy of settlement expansion that, in the opinion of the United Nations Security Council, Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and numerous other organizations concerned with enforcement of international law, constitutes a direct violation of Article 49, paragraph 6 of the 4th Geneva Convention which declares “an occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies.”; and
4. WHEREAS, in the context of this bill, “occupation” refers to the current state of Palestinian life under Israeli’s military control in the West Bank and Gaza; a definition that is consistent to commonly-held international law; and
5. WHEREAS, student research has revealed that, according to the most recent UC investment report, within the UC Retirement Program fund and the General Endowment Program fund there exist direct investments in American companies materially and militarily supporting the Israeli government’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, including American companies General Electric and United Technologies; and
6. WHEREAS, General Electric holds engineering support and testing service contracts with the Israeli military and supplies the Israeli government with the propulsion system for its Apache Assault Helicopter fleet, which, as documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has been used in attacks on Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, including the January 4, 2009 killings of Palestinian medical aid workers; and
7. WHEREAS, United Technologies supplies the Israeli government with Blackhawk helicopters and with F-15 and F-16 aircraft engines and holds an ongoing fleet management contract for these engines, and, Amnesty International has documented the Israeli government’s use of these aircraft in the bombing of the American School in Gaza, the killing of Palestinians civilians, and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, that the ASUC will ensure that its assets, and will advocate that the UC assets, do not include holdings in General Electric and United Technologies because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories; be it further
RESOLVED, that the ASUC will further examine its assets and UC assets for funds being invested in companies that a) provide military support for or weaponry to support the occupation of the Palestinian territories or b) facilitate the building or maintenance of the illegal wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes, or c) facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territories; be it further
RESOLVED, that if it is found that ASUC and/or the UC funds are being invested in any of the abovementioned ways, the ASUC will divest, and will advocate that the UC divests, all stocks, securities, or other obligations from such sources with the goal of maintaining the divestment, in the case of said companies, until they cease such practices. Moreover, the ASUC will not make further investments, and will advocate that the UC not make futher investments, in any companies materially supporting or profiting from Israel’s occupation in the abovementioned ways; be it further
RESOLVED, that this ASUC resolution not be interpreted as the taking of sides in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, but instead as a principled expression of support for universal human rights and equality; be it further
RESOLVED, that the ASUC Senate engage in education campaigns to publicize the divestment efforts and violation of international human rights law, and that furthermore, a committee of 5 members, 2 senators selected by the senate body as a whole, 2 members of or students selected by the UC Berkeley Divestment Task Force, and the ASUC President or a representative from his/her office, form at the end of this semester to monitor and promote university progress in regards to the above mentioned ethical divestment goals; be it finally
RESOLVED, that this Committee will recommend additional divestment policies to keep university investments out of companies aiding war crimes throughout the world, such as those taking place in Morocco, the Congo, and other places as determined by the resolutions of the United Nations and other leading international human rights organizations.
Professor Alan Dershowitz immediately issued a statement denouncing the resolution: `Divesting from Israel is immoral, bigoted and if done by a state university illegal.` Evidently, he had not read the text of the resolution, which says nothing of Divesting from Israel as such, but only from US companies involved in Israeli human rights violations... [Ed.]