After almost nine hours of often contentious debate and discussion Wednesday, the fate of the UC Berkeley student senate Israel divestment bill remains undecided as of Thursday morning.
The student senate voted at about 7 a.m. to table the bill—which was vetoed by senate President Will Smelko last month—until next Wednesday.
Regarded as anti-Semitic by some pro-Israel groups, the bill urges UC Berkeley to divest from two American companies—General Electric and United Technologies—which produce aircraft for the Israeli Army designed to bomb and kill civilians.
Although the bill’s supporters—including Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and UC Berkeley professor of rhetoric Judith Butler—told the student senate they would do the right thing by overriding the veto, its staunch opponents, like Consul General of Israel for the Pacific Northwest Akiva Tor and Oscar Schindler’s niece Reverend Rosemary Schindler, said it would only lead to a divided campus and hatred among student communities.
“Israel seeks peace with the Palestinian people,” Tor said. “We seek to end the occupation. That’s our position as a government. Your resolution demonizes Israel. It weakens our ability us a nation to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace.”
Tor went on to say that the senate’s resolution “seeks to undermine security for each and every Jew and non-Jew living in Israel.”
“If we lack modern air force, as your resolution seeks to make us do, we cannot take the risks,” he said. “We are not Bosnian Serbs. We are not Syria and Hamas. We fight as a NATO army fights. We are not war criminals. So why have you singled us out? If you listen to Judith Butler, also listen to Lawrence Summers, who says singling out Israel is anti-Semitism.”
The singling out of Israel was also one of the main reasons why Smelko decided to veto the bill.
“After 12,000 e-mails and phone calls, the complexities have only got worse,” Smelko said. “For every e-mail in support there was one against.”
Smelko said that he was against the bill because of the complexity of the issue, the analogy made to South African Apartheid and the effect on the campus community.
“I see two sides clashing with no groups in the middle,” Smelko said. “If we leave this room with the bill passing, Jewish students will feel hurt, prospective students will not apply. I want the ASUC to be a visionary. If we reach deep in our guts we will feel there is something wrong with [the bill].”
Berkeley Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman warned the senate that if it overturned the veto it would lead to a dramatic decrease in Jewish students attending UC Berkeley.
Pro and anti-Israeli groups have been flooding the senators’ mailboxes ever since the bill was passed March 18, and Wednesday’s meeting was expected to have a record attendance.
When more than 700 people showed up for the 7 p.m. meeting at Eshelman Hall, it was moved twice to accommodate the overflow crowd, finally ending up in Pauley Ballroom and starting closer to 11 p.m.
The bill has created tension on the UC Berkeley campus, with some senators getting hate mail and complaining about getting shoved or having beer thrown at them by their peers.
However, students were not afraid to speak their minds Wednesday. Some even wore them on their T-shirts.
Morgan Siegel, whose father is from Israel, sported an “Another Israeli for Human Rights” sticker at the senate meeting.
Asked why she was supporting the divestment bill, Siegel said “because wrong is wrong and right is right. You can’t escape one Holocaust and create another somewhere else.”
Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Arabs, Blacks, Asians and Americans stood up before the senate one by one to testify, often drawing from personal stories and experiences.
Tempers flared, voices rose in anger, some people cried, but perhaps the most poignant words came from those who had lost a family member in the Holocaust or in military warfare on the Gaza Strip.
Hadi Epstein, daughter of parents who perished in the concentration camps in Auschwitz, said: “President Smelko does not speak for me. The question now is not if, but when. So do the right thing and override this veto.”
UC Berkeley professor of rhetoric Judith Butler’s speech— “You Will Not Be Alone” —advance copies of which were being circulated on the Internet just hours before the meeting, came to life when she took to the microphone.
“You don’t want a lesson in rhetoric from me today,” Butler said. “By voting for this bill you say you don’t support war crimes. Israel is not being singled out, it’s the occupation that’s being singled out.”
Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, testified over the phone that “never has a pattern of criminality been more well-documented than the Israeli criminal acts during the occupation of Gaza.
“There is clear indication that Israel is unwilling to investigate these allegations in a credible manner. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel is whitewashing these allegations and will not admit that they are in violation of International law. We the citizens have the opportunity to send the signal that in these circumstances the government does not speak for the citizenry ... Divestment is a perfectly suitable way of joining a global movement of boycott that is nonvoluntarily asking Israel to uphold international law,” he said.
There were some tense moments inside the auditorium as well, especially when a young Israeli student at the university walked up to the podium, pointed at a girl in the audience and said that she had “looked at me and said your face reminds me of a Nazi.”
“It’s already happening,” he said referring to the claims that the bill would only work toward alienating student groups. “I wonder how many more people will call me a Nazi because I am wearing this,” he said, pointing to his kippah.
Students criticized their senators for approving a bill without campaigning about the issue on campus, asking, “When will my student government stand up for me?”
UC Berkeley Law School student Lena Lay reminded everyone that fighting for human rights has never been popular.
“Having two sides on campus is something to be proud of,” said a Palestinian student. “It means our university taught us to do the right thing—think.”
As the senators started to debate at 5 a.m., senator Emily Carlton said that although one of the “most legitimate concerns was that the bill was divisive,” she had seen this divide on campus for years.
“Instead of being divisive, this bill has brought us together in a room for five hours to talk about something we have never talked about,” she said.