UC Berkeley Divestment Bill round-up: the emotions of it all

by tobybee

A lot has been published on the interwebs about what has happened with the Divestment Bill which was passed, vetoed, and then in a final vote the other day, the veto was not overturned. The Bill called for Berkeley Student Senate to divest from General Electric and United Technologies due to their collusion with the Israeli Government in the breaking of International Law, with the treatment that is done to Palestinians. So I’m not going to rehash what happened, but instead point you towards this blog post on zunguzungu, which brings together many of the key ideas and arguments which were raised, and explains really well what happened. And there’s also these posts on Mondoweiss (here and here, amongst other places) that you should check out for more information.

But I do want to draw attention to something, and that is the question of what the Bill was about. Because, reading a couple of different pieces of writing by people on what could, for neatness, be classified as opposing sides, it becomes very clear that people were not thinking about, nor speaking about, the same thing. This, written to advice those working in opposition to the Bill on how to address the meeting which voted on the motion of whether or not to overturn to veto, is from a pamphlet entitled “Unifying Strategies for Our Jewish Community”, and is taken from zunguzungu (who links to the whole pamphlet):

The message: The bill is an attack on our Jewish community. It silences our voices.

**End your speech with “Don’t Silence Me” This will have a powerful, unifying impact.**

DO include in your speech
Make it personal, include personal experiences and emphasize feelings of personal attack.

The Bill is out of context and based on questionable sources (no need to go into detail).

Thus, the bill is in fact an attack on the JEWISH COMMUNITY.

An unjustified attack on Israel is an attack on my Jewish identity. It is attacking ME.

DO NOT include in your speech
DON’T try to deconstruct the bill. DON’T focus on addressing the fallacies/specifics of the bill. Instead, focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community.

AVOID a debate on the Middle East. Supporters of the bill would like to argue on this platform.

It’s quite an amazing statement, no? Make the argument about emotions, rather than about the companies which are to be divested from. And, as zunguzungu points out, make the problem the feelings/treatment of Zionists at Berkeley, rather than the breaches of international law and human rights, and the violence against Palestinians.

Contrast this with a speech by Judith Butler, given at the meeting the other night where the veto was decided upon, (which can be found in many places, including here) who writes:

Let us begin with the assumption that it is very hard to hear the debate under consideration here. One hears someone saying something, and one fears that they are saying another thing. It is hard to trust words, or indeed to know what words actually mean. So that is a sign that there is a certain fear in the room, and also, a certain suspicion about the intentions that speakers have and a fear about the implications of both words and deeds. Of course, tonight you do not need a lecture on rhetoric from me, but perhaps, if you have a moment, it might be possible to pause and to consider reflectively what is actually at stake in this vote, and what is not.

[…]

[C]onsider this closely: the bill you have before you does not ask that you take a view on Israel. I know that it certainly seems like it does, since the discussion has been all about that. But it actually makes two points that are crucial to consider. The first is simply this: there are two companies that not only are invested in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and peoples, but who profit from that occupation, and which are sustained in part by funds invested by the University of California. They are General Electric and United Technologies. They produce aircraft designed to bomb and kill, and they have bombed and killed civilians, as has been amply demonstrated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. You are being asked to divest funds from these two companies. You are NOT being asked to divest funds from every company that does business with Israel. And you are not being asked to resolve to divest funds from Israeli business or citizens on the basis of their citizenship or national belonging. You are being asked only to call for a divestment from specific companies that make military weapons that kill civilians. That is the bottom line.

If the newspapers or others seek to make inflammatory remarks and to say that this is an attack on Israel, or an attack on Jews, or an upsurge of anti-Semitism, or an act that displays insensitivity toward the feelings of some of our students, then there is really only one answer that you can provide, as I see it. Do we let ourselves be intimidated into not standing up for what is right? It is simply unethical for UC to invest in such companies when they profit from the killing of civilians under conditions of a sustained military occupation that is manifestly illegal according to international law. The killing of civilians is a war crime. By voting yes, you say that you do not want the funds of this university to be invested in war crimes, and that you hold to this principle regardless of who commits the war crime or against whom it is committed.

Of course, you should clearly ask whether you would apply the same standards to any other occupation or destructive military situation where war crimes occur. And I note that the bill before you is committed to developing a policy that would divest from all companies engaged in war crimes. In this way, it contains within it both a universal claim and a universalizing trajectory. It recommends explicitly “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 human rights organizations.” Israel is not singled out. It is, if anything, the occupation that is singled out, and there are many Israelis who would tell you that Israel must be separated from its illegal occupation. This is clearly why the divestment call is selective: it does not call for divestment from any and every Israeli company; on the contrary, it calls for divestment from two corporations where the links to war crimes are well-documented.

Let this then be a precedent for a more robust policy of ethical investment that would be applied to any company in which UC invests. This is the beginning of a sequence, one that both sides to this dispute clearly want. Israel is not to be singled out as a nation to be boycotted–and let us note that Israel itself is not boycotted by this resolution. But neither is Israel’s occupation to be held exempt from international standards.

I highly recommend you read all of Butler’s piece.

What these two writings point to is the emotional hold which this question (and who knows that I mean by ‘this question’, for there are a million questions being asked) has on Jews, and the different ways in which we each respond. And these responses, I am quite convinced, are largely of the emotional order. Which means that we need to take emotions as a motivating force and analytical category very seriously if we are to talk through and understand what Israel does, and how we can change it.

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