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A former IDF soldier is speaking out in opposition to the occupation of Palestine. An 85-year old Holocaust survivor testifies to the peril of waiting to make a decision rather than saving lives now by stopping war machines. A queer Jewish Latino speaks about his own journey from living in a settlement in East Jerusalem to coordinating a national organization opposing the occupation. A Palestinian student shares the story of his own family’s loss and highlights the lost logic in the room. The Israeli Consulate General admits to the existence of an “occupation” and states that Israel wants to end it! An orthodox man calls in a metaphor of candlelight illuminating goodness, each of us a candle. Facts are flung around like snowflakes that melt on impact spilling into the subjective world of painful stories that pull at heartstrings and paint barbed pictures. It all went down in Berkeley, California on Wednesday night, April 14, as the world watched (and tweeted).
The UC Berkeley student government became an impassioned theater of views on the occupation of Palestine. The UC student government (ASUC) Senate started a meeting to discuss the divestment bill at 10:30 pm that lasted until daybreak. While the ASUC has passed countless bills of political nature – supporting the Dream Act for immigration reform, for example – on the issue of divestment from the Israeli occupation, the Senate ran into blowback and took time to deliberate the issues. This pro-occupation lobby turned the bill about divesting from US companies involved in the illegal occupation into a fear-for-all — suddenly Jewish students were the only marginalized community, and the passage of the bill would somehow make them unsafe and endangered on campus. (Incidentally, marginalization of other minority groups on campus, and the daily dangers Palestinians face in the occupation were not mentioned by the pro-occupation speakers at the ASUC meeting.)
Let’s rewind for a little background on the Berkeley debate: On March 18, Berkeley’s Student Senate voted 16-to-4 to divest from two American companies, General Electric and United Technologies, because of their role in harming civilians as part of Israel’s illegal occupation and the attack on Gaza. A week later, the Senate president vetoed the bill. The bill’s opponents waged a fierce campaign of misinformation; student senators were flooded with letters from many persuasions. UC Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine mobilized over 35 campus groups, and dozens of national and international human rights and interfaith organizations, and many well-known voices for justice, including Naomi Klein, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, and Noam Chomsky signed on to support the bill.
Finally after weeks of debate, the student Senate had an opportunity to overturn the president’s veto. More information about the bill can be found here.
The democratic process of the CAL student Senate meeting to vote on overturning the president’s veto created an opening for dozens of testimonies on all sides of the issue on Wednesday night in a ballroom on campus where over 1,000 students gathered. 85 year old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein gave a moving opening statement in which she said, “[Student Senate] President Smelko does not speak for me, nor for over 20 Jewish and Israeli organizations who endorsed the bill, and whose members sent him more than 1,000 emails, nor for many more in the Jewish community, some of whom are in present in person here, or in spirit, in support of this bill.” Epstein went on to cite Israel’s war crimes: “Throughout its 62 years of existence, Israel has been in flagrant violation of international law, even some of its own laws, the fourth Geneva Convention, more than 70 UN & Security Council resolutions, besides 32 US-vetoed Security Council Resolutions. Israel’s attack on Gaza amounted to war crimes were all confirmed by the UN’s Goldstone commission report. 62 years make not only Israel culpable, but all of us, who stand idly by, or who veto resolutions like the one before us. I have lived 85 years; I have not witnessed one other war crime theater allowed to exist for this long.”
Professor Judith Butler gave a moving testimony as a Jew and an academic. Many students with Students for Justice with Palestine and many other campus groups spoke eloquently on the bill. Penny Rosenwasser, who teaches a course on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, stated, “For 20 years I have organized marches and rallies and nonviolent civil disobedience. I have lobbied senators, signed petitions, and toured the country giving educational slideshows. But none of this has worked, none of this has ended the occupation – in fact things have only gotten worse. More Israeli and Palestinian lives have been lost. I am asking you to vote for this bill for two reasons: 1. It supports a nonviolent strategy 2. It targets US – NOT Israeli – companies who are profiting from the occupation.”
Matthew Taylor, a Jewish Bay Area resident, wrapped himself in the Israeli flag, and brought the occupation issues home to US history:
“When Americans took action against slavery, against segregation, and for women’s rights, were they anti-American? Of course not. They were patriots.
Imagine that the year is 1960 and you are being asked to divest from companies that sell busses to segregated US southern states. On one side of the room you’d see a large number of white Americans who would claim that the bill marginalizes white students, that you can’t possibly understand the complexity of the US South enough to cast a vote. And they would claim to speak for all white students. On the other side of the room you’d see a large number of white Americans saying, ‘Please vote for this bill for the benefit of the South, for the benefit of blacks and whites.’ They’d be a diverse multicultural group [like the group of students advocating for this bill last night]. I am a patriot of Israel, of the Jewish people. I beg you please vote yes.”
Those of us who spoke up as Jews implored the senators to not be fooled by the baseless claims of anti-Semitism from our Jewish brothers and sisters. After all, the majority of Jews, 55%, oppose Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land. We drew attention to the reality that holding Israel accountable to the same standards of international law that the rest of the global community must follow is not an attack on Jewish identity. I spoke about feeling safer as a young Jew in the Bay Area since ASUC passed the bill.
I also stated, as a representative of CODEPINK Women for Peace, which also signed onto the letter of support for the bill, “When I critique or protest the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, I am not anti-American or un-patriotic. Passing a bill to divest from US corporations who are profiteering from an illegal occupation is not anti-Israeli. It is in the best interest of Israel to end the occupation. This bill will take a bold step towards doing just that – ending the occupation. I yearn for a day in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security, with dignity and human rights for all. If you share that vision you will vote to again pass Senate Bill 118A.” I also yearn for the day when all war profiteers will be held accountable and when our nation will reinvest our resources in life-affirming pursuits.
On the final day of the women’s suffrage movement struggle, one state’s vote came down to one person. Those in the audience wore colored roses to show which way they would vote. On Wednesday night many of us wore neon green stickers, which said “Another (fill in the blank) for Human Rights. Divest from the Israeli Occupation!” People in the room wrote in “mother” “Jew” “Israeli” “person of color” “self loving queer Jew” and such. These stickers signified that we were not pro-Israel or pro-Palestine – we were on the side of justice. There was a time when our country asked if women had rights like men did. On Wednesday night the underlying debate was about whether Palestinians, and all who live under occupation, have rights like people who are free. What would the Berkeley Senate answer?
The student senators most likely did not bargain for an international political debate when they were sworn into office. But on Wednesday night, faced with history in the making, many senators rose to the occasion and made excellent points on occupation, justice, and moral responsibility. One student of color senator commented, “This bill did not marginalize me; I was marginalized when I stepped on this campus. To veto this bill is to marginalize the majority of the student senate.”
Finally, in the wee morning hours, the bill came (yet again) to a vote. After countless testimonies, recesses, heated cheering and clapping (contrary to the asks of the Senators), and discussion within the Senate, the roll call began. The final vote was 12-7, which was not sufficient to repeal the president’s veto. But it was still the majority of the student senate. The majority of student senators in favor of the bill then took another tack and entered into more rounds of discussion, and ultimately the bill was tabled with the added suggestion for the writing of another bill focusing on war crimes and profiteers in several nation states. (Or at least that’s what I thought the outcome was, after 12 hours of listening and a sleepless night!)
While the veto was not overturned, the all-nighter meeting represented a huge step in building the global movement for justice in Palestine and Israel. The eloquent testimonies and words from the senators moved many who listened to tears and heightened awareness. As Cecilie Surasky, Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, stated, “If the enemy is the status quo, which feeds on silence and invisibility, then that enemy fell tonight. An incredible coalition of Jewish groups, student groups, human rights groups, prominent activists, authors, and Nobel Prize winners, came together to take a stand for justice. This is the future, right here in this room.”
As the final speaker before the vote, a Palestinian student in favor of the bill said, “This bill asserts that I am human, that Palestinians are humans, that we are equal.” May the University of California, and all campuses and governments, speedily realize these words and divest from the corporations in violation of human rights and the basic principle that we are all one, we are all equal. And may the UC Berkeley campus continue to create safe spaces for dialogue between students of many perspectives and exposures.
The 12-hour meeting ended on Thursday morning, April 15, Tax Day, just hours before Tea Partyers would begin pouring into American streets to protest bloated federal budgets (among other issues). How fitting for the local debate on war funding to end on this day, when taxpayers will fork over the funds to give Israel another $3 billion in military aid (which last year was used to break international law in Gaza) and potentially another $33 billion to fund the occupation of Afghanistan. While many may not yet be ready to engage in war tax resistance, or feel that Congress is listening to the call to stop funding war, local divestment campaigns such as the courageous bill in Berkeley offer an avenue for putting our community’s money where our values are – for justice and peace, not endless war and occupation.
Rae Abileah is an American Jew of Israeli decent who lives in San Francisco, CA. She works with CODEPINK Women for Peace and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.