The fate of a bill passed by the University of California at Berkeley Student Senate (ASUC) to divest from two U.S. firms providing military support to Israel’s occupation of Palestine will likely be decided at an April 14 Senate meeting.
The bill says the ASUC will make sure its assets “do not include holdings in General Electric and United Technologies because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories,” and will urge the UC Regents to do the same regarding the university’s holdings. The bill also states that it is “a principled expression of support for universal human rights and equality,” and should not be interpreted as taking sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The measure, which passed, 16-4, in the wee hours of March 17, was subsequently vetoed by ASUC President Will Smelko, who was not at the meeting. He said the bill did not outline an effective divestment strategy or address possible effects on university finances, and would be perceived as “a symbolic attack on a specific community of our fellow students.” A two-thirds vote of the Student Senate can override a veto.
While the 16-4 vote suggests an override is possible, pressure for its defeat has been enormous, from groups on and off campus. American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) leader Jonathan Kessler reportedly told a recent policy conference the organization would “make sure pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote.” Other groups have urged their members to call on student senators to uphold the veto.
The bill is strongly supported by Jewish Voice for Peace, which congratulated the Student Senate for its “historic vote to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories.”
In a letter, “Shock Doctrine” author Naomi Klein urged the senators to stand firm, saying their bill will help build a grassroots non-violent movement to end Israeli violations of international law.
Student Senator Emily Carlton, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the People’s World by e-mail that among over 12,000 e-mails the Senate has received are communications supporting the bill from “many, many other individuals and organizations,” along with strong expressions of opposition.
Campus community reactions carry the most weight with the senators, she said, with the biggest opposition based on concerns about the bill’s divisive effect on the campus environment. But, she said, “Those in favor of the bill believe the campus has been divided on this issue, and has had to deal with the consequences, for years. We see this as removing our school from involvement, by removing our fund from support.”
Carlton said students from other universities are asking how they can create a similar resolution. Though the bill was meant to be about people’s human rights and not about a conflict between states, she said, if the divestment movement reaches the point where it causes the Israeli government to commit to the internationally agreed rules of war and to preserve the Palestinians’ human rights, “then I can’t see anything but positive outcomes.”
Carlton said if the bill goes forward, a divestment task force within ASUC will update existing socially responsible investment guidelines, which already ban investment in companies producing arms. If the veto is sustained, “a movement has been started … and its momentum will grow.”
Tom Pessah, the bill’s co-author who is not a student senator, said by e-mail that the discussion, and the renewed attention to reports on human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, are very helpful in themselves. “A primary goal of actions like ours is to prevent such things from occurring in the future,” he said.