[Editor's note: The Jewish Telegraphic Agency's video report (above) on Israel-defense training for students made me think that now would be a good time to re-publish Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort. My colleague Sydney Levy and I wrote it this summer in response to the UC Berkeley divestment struggle and Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor's rather strange response to the effort.
In watching the JTA video in which the national head of Hillel is trying to make a subtle point but revealingly ends up comparing Muslims to vampires, I'd add that it has never been so clear to me how older Jews have failed this younger generation. Students are smart enough to handle an open conversation about complexity and Israel. But many in the older generation in power don't want that to happen. The fundamental irony, of course, is that when it comes to both delegitimizing and existentially threatening Israel, no critic can hold a candle to Israel itself and its ever-expanding settlement project (and human rights abuses etc...) There is no faster way for Israel to continue down the path of self-destruction than to continue the status quo, unhindered. In that very important sense, the BDS movement may be Israel's last chance. Especially now that we know that Congress and the Obama administration is no more willing to hold Netanyahu accountable than previous administrations.]
Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort
By Cecilie Surasky and Sydney Levy, Jewish Voice for Peace
(June 1, 2010) Israel right-or-wrong apologists have reason to be worried after three lengthy UC Berkeley student senate hearings concluded each with a solid majority of votes (60% or more) in favor of divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. Though in the end, the vote fell 1 short of the needed supermajority required to overturn a veto, neither our opponents nor we forget that a clear majority consistently supported the bill.
Now, a few weeks after the hearings are over, it is a good time to examine how familiar tactics were deployed to stop the divestment effort and are now being used to prevent future similar ones. These tactics do not advance the cause of peace and have the unintended potential to cause harm to Jews in the US. Silencing debate, confusing the facts, taking over student senates, making indiscriminate charges of anti-Semitism, criminalizing anti-occupation activism, implicitly or explicitly condoning widespread hostility against Muslims, Palestinians, and anti-occupation Jews – these are the tactics with which we’ve unfortunately become too familiar. We’ll review them below.
1) Silencing debate
The first tactic, which predates UC Berkeley’s divestment initiative, is the effort to shut down debate within the Jewish community. The story is an old one, but given the growing level of desperation among the Israel right-or-wrong crowd, the measures being deployed are increasingly bold and destructive.
Just a few months ago, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation issued the most restrictive funding guidelines in the country. These guidelines aim to silence open discussion within the institutional Jewish community on Israeli policies and the merits of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. And they also have led to an old-fashioned blacklist of well-known human rights groups now banned from the Federation’s donor designated fund’s acceptable charities list.
The guidelines’ impact has not gone unnoticed. An open letter in The Forward signed by Jewish professors, rabbis, and other notables from both the left and center describes the San Francisco Federation guidelines in these terms:
Despite the guidelines’ repeatedly stated commitment to the values of free and open discussion and diversity, they will have a chilling effect on the entire spectrum of community institutions, including educational, service, social justice and arts organizations. They will also limit American Jewish exposure to the range of art, literature, scholarship, and political discourse that exists in Israel. The guidelines will encourage self-censorship. Organizations will fear losing their funding; individuals will fear losing their jobs.
Though the ad is written in future tense about the negative effects the guidelines will have, we know for certain that these effects have already taken hold. Fearing loss of jobs or funding, people are staying quiet.
More recently, the guidelines were directly linked by a Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston to Israel’s banning of political linguist Noam Chomsky and other indications of incipient “fascism.”
This effort to stifle debate inside our communities has ironically meant that the only way that Jews have been able to speak face-to-face with other Jews about divestment has been at the UC Berkeley hearings. And what the hearings revealed was striking: an authentic crisis in the Jewish community. By all appearances, the number of Jewish supporters of divestment on campus easily matched the number of opponents. The group that sponsored the divest initiative, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), includes many Israelis and Jews as well as Palestinians and Muslims and many others of various faiths and nationalities, and the co-author of the divest bill himself is an Israeli Jew. Many Jewish professors, including members of the Jewish studies program, came out in support of the divest bill.
The Federation guidelines not only prevent an open conversation on these critically important issues, but they also banish these Jewish studies professors and the Jewish and Israeli students from any public forum on Israel funded by the Federation. The guidelines banish some of our best and most knowledgeable minds from the conversations where we truly need them most. By silencing debate, the Israel right-or-wrong advocates get to act like they’re speaking for the majority of Jews. But we know that they are not. For now, they’ve shut down public debate inside the Jewish institutional world, and their McCarthyite methods cast a long shadow. But the divestment hearing shows that whether or not the Jewish institutional world is ready, these conversations will take place because people, including many Jews, want to have them.
2) Confusing the Facts
The second tactic we saw used, yet again, was a consistent campaign to mislead the public about the nature of specific divestment resolutions. Many in the Jewish world, including the director of Berkeley Hillel ignored the fact that the UC Berkeley divestment resolution addressed only the Israeli occupation and repeatedly suggested instead that it targeted Israel as a whole.
3) Take over student senates
The Forward reported that,
At an AIPAC conference in Washington in late March, AIPAC leadership development director Jonathan Kessler said that his organization would “make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote,” as recorded in a video taken at the conference by the JTA. “This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s Capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses,” he said.
You can watch the chilling but frank video with Mr. Kessler’s statement here, where Mr. Kessler explicitly refers to the Berkeley resolution. This of course did not stop an AIPAC spokesperson from declaring:
“We took no position on the Berkeley student election, since like in any other election, we don’t rate or endorse candidates. Of course we would always, publicly and consistently, encourage pro-Israel students to be active in civic and political life.”
This year alone, about 1,300 students from all 50 states were offered a travel junket to DC to attend an AIPAC conference and learn the finer points of Israeli Hasbara. About a quarter of those in attendance were student government presidents, the kinds of leaders that can veto a divestment bill, just like UC Berkeley student senate president Will Smelko did. What is striking, as documented in the AIPAC video, is that a number of these student leaders had not heard of AIPAC before the offer of the free trip.