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New: UC Student Senate Israel Divestment Vote Sparks Controversy

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 19, 2010 - 06:25:00 PM

A controversial UC Berkeley student senate bill opposing UC investments in companies providing military support to Israel has once again added a local twist to the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Although the bill is labeled “UC Divestment From War Crimes,” it focuses on the conflict in the Middle East and human rights violations by the Israeli Army in Gaza and the West Bank. 

The bill’s critics contend that singling out Israel as a perpetrator of war crimes is unfair, given the vast number of human rights violations that go on elsewhere in the world. 

Sandra Y. Cohen, a UC Berkeley Civil Engineering sophomore and one of the four Associated Students of the University of California senators who voted against the bill, called it a brazen attack on Israel in the guise of drawing attention to war crimes. 

“I hope everyone who voted yes realizes what they truly voted for,” Cohen wrote in an e-mail message to a Google group after the vote. “I am really disheartened.” 

The ASUC student senate’s vote is probably the first of its kind to take place in any college campus in the United States. 

At Thursday’s meeting, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups—comprised of students, professors and community members from different ethnic backgrounds—packed the first-floor room of the student union building, forcing the meeting to be shifted to a library on the seventh floor. 

ASUC senator Christina Oatfield said it was the highest attendance she could remember at any recent ASUC meeting. 

Many stayed to hear the final vote—16-4—announced at 4 a.m. 

“It was really exciting to see so many people engaging in the issue,” Oatfield said. “There was a little bit of shouting but overall I was surprised by how respectful everything was.” 

The Berkeley campus has been rocked by altercations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups from time to time, some of which were caused by alleged incidents of hate speech, graffiti and vandalism. 

“The bill cites facts, such as from the UN’s Goldstone Report, that should be disregarded,” said Cohen, as she boarded a flight Friday to leave for spring break. “It’s blatantly anti-Israel. I was told that the bill is not divesting from Israel, it’s divesting from war crimes. But then we should not have any reference of Israel in it. This is just dividing the community in Berkeley.” 

Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, a second-year Economics Ph.D. student who co-authored the bill, said that Israel had been used as a case study to highlight the ethics violations being committed by its government on Palestinian settlements. 

“What about the war crimes in other countries—China, Sudan, Afghanistan?” Cohen asked. “They are trying to make it about war crimes but it’s not about war crimes. If they cared about war crimes then the bill would have mentioned other countries. They are trying to dissolve the State of Israel.” 

Oatfield said that the ASUC senate has a long history of taking strong action to divest funds from countries involved in war crimes. 

“We have singled out Sudan, we have singled out South Africa in the past,” said Huet-Vaughn. “It’s our job to condemn unethical treatment. We want to make a statement about what can be done with student government funds. But the more significant thing is we don’t want our university to support war crimes.” 

The bill specifically calls for ASUC and UC to stop investing in two American companies—General Electric and United Technologies—which are providing Israel with weapons.  

Oatfield said that although the bill is focused on conflicts in Israel, it also asks the ASUC to create a commission which will investigate war crimes in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. 

“The immediate action is pertaining to two companies, but it also has long-term goals,” Oatfield said. 

E-mails supporting or denouncing the senate’s action started flying about right after the final vote, with author and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz being one of the first to issue a statement. 

“Divesting from Israel is immoral, bigoted and if done by a state university illegal,” Dershowitz said. “It encourages terrorism and discourages peace. Any university that would actually divest from Israel will be subjected to countermeasures—financial, legal, academic and political. We will fight back against this selective bigotry that hurts the good name of the University of California. This misuse of the university’s name does not represent the views of students, faculty, alumni and other constituents of the greater Berkeley community. Instead it represents the hijacking of the university for improper ideological purposes. It must be rejected immediately and categorically.” 

The international pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs called the bill “misguided.” 

Pro-divestment Berkeley residents who attended the meeting congratulated each other with celebratory messages. 

One e-mail called it a “substantial victory,” while another called it a “historic occasion.” 

Huet-Vaughn said that the bill would prohibit ASUC funds from going toward the two American companies with immediate effect.