Commentary: Pro-People Commissioners Champion Justice By PHOEBE ANN SORGEN

Tuesday August 23, 2005

Admired and emulated across the U.S. and in Canada, Romania and Japan, Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission was established almost 20 years ago. It has furthered Berkeley’s proud tradition of activist democracy, standing up to human rights violations in Afghanistan, Burma, China, Iran, Mexico and apartheid South Africa. We have championed citizen authority over transnational corporate power and vindicated the rights of women, workers and voters in the U.S. Residents bring concerns to volunteer commissioners who organize background information and formulate recommendations for the City Council, according to our mandate. We save city employees valuable time. Those of us who craft the approximately 10 recommendations per year put in countless research hours. Our preparation is arduous, so the City Council usually adopts our recommendation with little discussion. We help people reach for their highest ideals. Using the democratic process to address concerns “constructively, creatively” is healthy for the community and for individuals.  

Open communication and trust are all important, and particularly challenging if one feels emotionally threatened. I was initially stumped by recently published recriminations of anti-Semitism. I am sure the accusers believe that. I am also sure that “the peace faction” commissioners, some of whom are Jewish, are innocent. I believe commissioners share the goal of a world that is fair and just for all. Is distrust obstructing that common goal?  

Critiquing Bush’s policies is healthy. Critiquing the Israeli government’s policies is no more anti-Semitic than critiquing Bush policy is un-American. A Jewish man wrote the Rachel Corrie Resolution, adopted two years ago, which did not criticize Israel at all but expressed condolences to her parents and endorsed the request for an independent investigation. “The City of Berkeley supports peace and justice and opposes the senseless killing of innocent civilians including Palestinians, Israelis and others.” Many believe a Jewish Israel with 1967 borders will be more secure if the Palestinians have a viable state, too, and that Corrie was trying to block the gears of oppression with her young body. She was a nonviolent peace worker engaging in civil disobedience.  

Can time heal? At a protest outside City Hall during debate on the resolution, some extremists on both sides shouted insults. Some sent hate mail. Some people remained calm and tried to calm others. Passionate Berkeleyans do exercise their right of free speech. Could part of the solution be respectful communication and listening? We might learn that most Jewish people and others who support Israel want a fair deal for Palestinians, too, as long as Israel is secure. We might learn that most who endorse a Palestinian state want safety and health for Israelis, too, if the Palestinians can thrive. Most Berkeleyans oppose violence, especially against unarmed, peaceful civilians. It is sad to see people’s values and good intentions distorted or compromised by fear and insecurity.  

The issues are complex. It can help to communicate compassionately, without loaded language, giving the benefit of the doubt, finding common ground. Taking a stand is our proud m/patriotic duty. Criticizing suicide bombers and Republicans and even Berkeley commissioners asserts American free speech. Criticizing the policies of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitic but pro-democracy. Can honest, fair criticism be worded so as to push fewer buttons?  

In chapter 3.68.010 of the city code, the Council finds that, “...It is the responsibility of one and all to labor hard for peace and justice within forums of appropriate scale. The residents of Berkeley have continually demonstrated their concern for peace and justice based on equality among all peoples...The Berkeley City Council, to act successfully in furthering peace and justice, must have wise counsel, accurate research, vigorous analysis, articulate formulation of issues and proposals for action, and thus the establishment of a Peace and Justice Commission is proper.”  

I am grateful for Berkeleyans “solving differences constructively, creatively” to uphold democracy and assert citizen authority over corporate greed and the military industrial complex’s shortsightedness. You strengthen my hopes for an increasingly just and peaceful city and world.  


Phoebe Anne Sorgen is a member of the Peace and Justice Commission.