When a bill calling for divestment from some companies doing business with Israel surfaced at a mid-March 2010 student government committee hearing at the University of California, Berkeley, local Jewish communal watchdogs were taken by surprise. When the divestment measure was overwhelmingly approved at a student senate debate days later, some students affiliated with Hillel left the meeting in tears.
Even when the student senate president vetoed the measure, those against divestment hardly saw it as a victory; they knew that the veto could be easily undone, since the bill was passed with more votes than would be needed to overturn the veto.
And so a campaign was launched. The debate on the veto was scheduled for the night of April 14. In the two weeks prior, Berkeley Hillel coordinated a comprehensive national lobbying campaign consisting of a teach-in, face-to-face meetings with student senators and an intervention by a Nobel laureate, all aimed at robbing the divestment supporters of three senate votes.
Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the Hillel’s newly installed executive director, said that the strategy for countering divestment efforts was devised at a roundtable meeting convened by Hillel and attended by representatives of local branches of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council, J Street, Israel’s consul general in San Francisco and local rabbis.Outmaneuvering the pro-divestment supporters, this organizing coup appears to have worked: After a marathon debate that lasted well into the next morning, two senators changed their minds and one abstained, and the veto was upheld.“Three votes changed,” Akiva Tor, the consul general, told the Forward. “So something happened.”The controversial resolution called on the university to divest from General Electric Co. and United Technologies “because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” It also created a committee to suggest additional companies for future divestment.The Hillel-organized teach-in, open exclusively to members of the student senate, featured talks by the consul general, an Israeli visiting professor, a professor of international law and others. Seven senators attended. One, a co-sponsor of the bill who did not change her vote, said that the presenters were respectful but she felt uncomfortable.
The effort involved not only Hillel and students, but also faculty as well. Visiting Israeli Professor Hanan Alexander took the lead among faculty. While he wrote articles against divestment for the campus newspaper and for the Jerusalem Post, he believes the most important role faculty can play is being a symbol of support for the students who bravely stand up against divestment, saying, “I cannot tell you how many students thanked me for coming to the public meetings of the ASUC senate even when I did not speak, or asked me why more faculty members did not join me. They saw in my presence moral support and validation of their view, and this also helped them to stay focused on the difficult task ahead, when facing ugliness of the sort they had never seen.”
In addition, the Jewish groups solicited open letters to the student senators. Letters were sent by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, J Street, and Amos Oz, among others. Scholars for Peace in the Middle East also played an active role, publishing articles explain why divestment is anti-peace and a letter of support by six Nobel laureates.
Supporters of the bill were able to muster a Nobel laureate of their own. Emily Carlton said divestment proponents solicited a letter in support of their position from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded a Nobel peace prize for his work in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.
A group of prominent Jewish members of the U.C. Berkeley community, including professor Daniel Boyarin, took out a two-page advertisement in The Daily Californian, a student-run newspaper, in support of the bill. Boyarin said that the advertisement was organized through an e-mail listserv that had been convened for an earlier campaign, and that it was not coordinated by the student groups promoting the bill.
Naftalin-Kelman and Tor were among the hundreds to attend the marathon debate that ran through the night April 14. The venue was changed multiple times to accommodate overflow crowds.
Finally, at 5:30 a.m. on April 15, 12 senators voted to overturn the veto, seven voted to let it stand and one senator abstained. One of the senators who voted to let the veto stand was actually a supporter of the bill, and after the vote, she made a motion to reopen discussion. Debate continued until 7:30 a.m., when the measure was tabled.
In Berkeley student government election results announced April 13, one of the senators who had vocally opposed the divestment resolution was elected president of the student government. His party, considered the more moderate of the two Berkeley student parties, won a majority in the senate.
The above text includes excepts from the Jewish Daily Forward
UC Student News
Cal Divest From Apartheid (Group Info, Op-eds, endorsers)
Jerusalem Post Blog
Divest This! on Berkeley
Haaretz: The Occupation’s New Best Friend