Tag Archives: UC Berkeley

Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort, Hillel on Campus


[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.
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The BDS Movement: Now with Plasma TV’s.

Sue Fisckoff writes in the JTA about the off season preparations of Team Israel, aka Hillel, the Jewish student organization. The article highlights the very real panic the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement has caused and its automatic equation with anti-Semitism in the minds of some.

Amanda Boris is nervous about what she’ll face when classes resume at the University of Wisconsin later this month. “There’s an uncomfortable amount of anti-Semitism on my campus,” said the incoming senior.

We begin with some descriptions of actual anti-Semitism, namely an ad denying the Holocaust and anonymous internet posts, which sound bad if not exactly a groundswell of hatred. But within a sentence, we move to an unnamed professor charged with “making openly false statements about Israel.” No examples are given, but the professor whoever she or he is, is now in league with neo-Nazis and people who believe Jews had it coming. Whatever the real threats this student faces are now conflated with political views that differ from hers, and it sounds like Hillel’s trainings on Israel advocacy are doing nothing to sharpen that distinction. The article does not give any other examples of the titular “anti-Israel” sentiment “on the lesson plan,” implying in the classroom.

Rather, the focus is on the BDS movement, which is predicted to be “better organized, more prevalent and more vitriolic” this school year. The first two seem quite likely, but no evidence of the latter is given. Instead, anti Divestment students are warned that their foes have…better technology!

Whereas past years might have involved handfuls of anti-Israel students passing out photocopied flyers, last year saw a high-tech traveling exhibit of Israel’s separation barrier, complete with an embedded plasma TV showing anti-Israeli images.

Now we come to the heart of the matter, divestment resolutions on campus.

Only one of those proposed resolutions passed, in a non-binding student body vote at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. But every time such a bill is put forward, activists say, the charged atmosphere leaves lasting wounds.

Actually, Berkeley passed one too, and it was vetoed by a campus President. And what are those lasting wounds? Seeing Jews who disagree with you.

When the student government at the University of California, San Diego voted on a divestment bill in April, Hillel campus director Keri Copans noted some Jewish students standing across the room with the pro-divestment crowd, even as most Jewish students stood with her in opposing the bill.

The article does not actually interview any of these strange creatures, these Jews for BDS, But their very existence is painful,and Copans feels bad for them.

‘Divestment bills come and go, but these are Jewish students,’ she said. ‘I want them to have positive Jewish experiences, and that’s not what they get by being glared at across the room.’

However much pain is being felt, it seems clear that Hillel has NOT drawn the lesson that truly representing all Jewish students means allowing for a range of positions on Israel. Instead, students with differing views or who just don’t want to engage in this debate are compared to a piece of defective furniture.

‘For the average student, Israel is a problem — and they don’t want more problems,’ said Michael Faber, longtime Hillel executive director at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. ‘It makes that leg of their Jewish identity wobbly.’

Wayne Firestone, the Hillel executive, said: ‘We want the students to be prepared, not paralyzed with fear.

We are in the identity-building business, and the Israel issue is one we are standing up for.’

Free advice, Michael and Wayne: lay off the carpentry metaphors, stick to the actual anti-Semitsim your students face, and stand up for them and their values, not the “Israel issue.”

PS The article also interviews StandWithUs as a “pro-Israel” organization, last seen on Muzzlewatch making Jewish Voice for Peace members feel highly unsafe with slurs and threats on their family members.

–Jesse Bacon

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Fact Check- 3 case studies in the distortion of reality and “extremizing” peace advocates

As Republican pollster (and Israeli Hasbara guru) Frank Luntz knows all too well, the relationship between reality and language is increasingly tenuous. Words are how he carefully works to shape political outcomes. But it’s also true that the rather wide space between reality and language, especially on the issue of Israel-Palestine, is where the blogosphere can make a real difference.

Here are three examples of deliberate and not so deliberate blurring of messages and how people and peace groups are routinely “extremized”, as Naomi Klein says.

CASE 1) Though I have some real disagreements with Moshe Yaroni’s post in Zeek on the Reut Institute analysis (Yaroni didn’t have the whole report at the time), he has many insightful points including his analysis of how nuanced approaches to divesting from the occupation find little reward. As one example, he looks at my group, Jewish Voice for Peace, and our campaign on Caterpillar and work with church groups on selective divestment from companies that profit from the occupation:

The response was a campaign of disinformation that cast these efforts in precisely the opposite light. Opponents of any sort of organized action against the Occupation simply said this was a boycott of Israel, ignoring completely that it was only the settlement project and the Occupation that were targeted. The strategy worked, and the Methodists and Presbyterians as well as JVP were cast as anti-Israel and as opponents of the state itself, not merely the Occupation. Anyone looking at the groups’ work on the issue would have known this to be false. Unfortunately, most believed what their opponents said.

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