UC Berkeley and the Israel divestment bill

Over the past few weeks, international attention has turned to the University of California (UC) Berkeley. On March 17, the UC Berkeley Student Senate passed a resolution that the university should divest itself of companies in which it owns stock that conduct business with Israel. The resolution targets over $130 million purportedly invested by UC Berkeley in two companies, General Electric and United Technologies, which supply jobs, military equipment and electronics to Israel. On March 24, the Student Body President of UC Berkeley, Will Smelko, vetoed this divestment bill; Smelko called the resolution “a symbolic attack on a specific community” that is “being used as a tool to delegitimize Israel.” On April 14, the Student Senate voted on whether to override the President’s decision in the packed and contentious senate meeting. Twelve voted in support of Israel divestment, with seven against and one abstained. Since a two−thirds majority vote of the senate is needed in order to override a presidential veto, the resolution to divest from Israel did not pass. Nevertheless, the vote was tabled again for April 21, but the president’s veto was not overturned then either. On April 28 the final decision to not divest was established.

Fighting for human rights is an extremely noble cause, but, in the case of Israel, a divestment bill is “immoral, bigoted and if done by a state university, illegal. It encourages terrorism and discourages peace,” as stated in March by Harvard Law School professor, Alan Dershowitz. This bill is not a legitimate critique of Israeli policy; it is hateful, it singles out Israel for condemnation and it distorts the truth. Israel is under siege by terrorism and has a right to secure her citizens. The reason the Palestinians do not have a state of their own is not due to Israeli policy in the disputed territories, West Bank and Gaza, but rather, because over the years Palestinian leadership has failed to denounce terrorism and to accept peaceful coexistence.

Yet the biggest problem with the UC Berkeley divestment bill is that its supporters believe that their efforts are comparable to the efforts made in 1980 to end apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, a UC Berkeley Senator, Rahul Patel, supported the Israeli divestment bill, declaring that “in the 1980s the Student Government was a central actor in demanding that the university divest from South African apartheid … We must utilize these spaces to engage each other about issues of justice worldwide.” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to the UC Berkeley community that “[Your predecessors] changed the moral climate in the United States and the consequence was the anti−Apartheid legislation, which helped to dismantle apartheid [in South Africa] non−violently. Today is your turn.”

The regime in South Africa was racist and unjust and called for international condemnation. But comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa has no basis in fact and is an inflammatory lie that is damaging to both Israelis and Palestinians. An institutionalized system of racial discrimination and strict, legally−enforced segregation defined apartheid South Africa, giving the white minority population control over the state and the black majority population. Black South Africans were disenfranchised because of the color of their skin, and were prohibited from sharing public places with whites, from studying at the same universities and voting in South African elections — let alone running for office.

Israel is a textbook example of multicultural society, whose equal and free citizens are Kurdish, Ethiopian, Russian, Polish, Iraqi, Yemenite, Bedouin, Druze, Bahai, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and more. Every Israeli citizen is free to vote, participate in political life, free to practice their religion, and share schools, hospitals, beaches and bars with one another. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arab, and there are countless examples of Israeli Arabs who serve in the country’s government, courts and army. In short, Israel is a liberal democracy.

Those demanding divestment from Israel and comparing Israel to South Africa are at best naïve and at worst seek to demonize Israel to make it appear that seeking Israel’s dismantlement has moral ground. Even worse than perpetuating this malicious, untrue comparison is that genuine oppression is ignored in this bill, and that the energy spent spewing hatred at Israel could be spent fighting true injustices. Sudanese human rights activist and former child slave Simon Deng articulates the truth and responds to Archbishop Desmond Tutu best when he says, “Bishop Tutu, I see black Jews walking down the street here in Jerusalem. Black like us, free and proud … Today, black children are enslaved in Sudan, the last place in the continent of Africa where humans are owned by other humans … So where is Desmond Tutu when my people call out for freedom? Slaughter and genocide and slavery are lashing Africans right now. Where are you for Sudan, Bishop Tutu? You are busy attacking the Jewish state. Why?”

The students calling for divestment from Israel at UC Berkeley, and those comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, as so many do during the annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” held in March on various campuses, need to realize that their condemnation of Israel feeds the fire of the conflict. Instead of advocating for collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians, they incite hatred. Those who truly seek to advocate for peace in the Middle East and to earn the title “pro−Palestinian” should “publicly campaign against financial corruption and abuse of human rights by Fatah and Hamas,” as Palestinian−Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh writes. Being pro−Palestinian and pro−Israel are not mutually exclusive; calling yourself a human rights activist doesn’t mean you are one. In the case of these activists, they are part of the problem, not the solution, to the Middle East conflict.

Ariella Charny is a sophomore majoring in International Relations. She is a student fellow for CAMERA: Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.


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