Berkeley Passes Resolution Urging Divestment from Israel

In the latest of UC incidents pertaining to Israel, UC Berkeley’s A.S. Council passed a controversial resolution last month urging the public divestment of the entire University of California system from Israel, only to see it vetoed by ASUC President Will Smelko a week later.

The resolution called for the university to stop investing financially in companies that provide war supplies to Israel and was passed on March 18 by a 16-4 vote by ASUC senators after a four-hour hearing attended by over 150 students.

Resolution co-author and UC Berkeley graduate student Emiliano Huet-Vaughn said he believes the university has a moral obligation to invest its assets in a manner consistent with the ethics of higher education.

“There’s a very well documented litany of abuses from many human rights abuse organizations,” Huet-Vaughn said.

According to Huet-Vaughn, authors of the resolution spent the past year analyzing the public records of the university’s investment portfolio and singled out two corporations that did not match these criteria: General Electric and United Technologies, both of which have come under fire recently for allegedly indirectly facilitating human rights violations by Israel.

Huet-Vaughn said the university invested $55 million in General Electric and $8 million in United Technologies during the 2009-10 fiscal year and cited reports from organizations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations and the International Red Cross, which accuse the two corporations of manufacturing products involved in carrying out the alleged violations.

“These companies in a very direct and documented way have helped Israel to continue its military occupation and its violation of human rights,” Huet-Vaughn said. “We want to communicate to the regents that we care about responsible investments and that we don’t want to be profiting off of war crimes, whether Israeli or not.”

The outcome of this resolution could have wide-reaching effects on other UC campuses as well, where racial issues and budget crises have been in the spotlight throughout the year.

The resolution follows a string of Israel-related incidents, beginning with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s visits to UC Irvine and UCSD, where he was met with pro-Palestine protesters. During his speech at UCI, 11 students who disrupted his speech — now dubbed the “Irvine 11” were arrested and facing punishment.

UCSD A.S. presidential candidate Wafa Ben Hassine, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said the resolution merits attention.

However, Sam Spector, Vice President Internal for UCSD Tritons for Israel, said the students involved in drafting the resolution did not have the qualifications necessary to undertake such measures.

“The Palestinian and Israeli leadership have had a tough enough time over the past 22 years when dialogue was started trying to figure out things for themselves and they haven’t been able to do that,” Spector said. “So I don’t think it makes much sense to have a bunch of 19 and 20-year-olds, most of whom have never been to that land or don’t really have much background on the situation, deciding international policy for the university.”

Supporters of the resolution hope to expand the document’s scope to encourage the university to divest from other nations accused of violating human rights, but feel that Israel’s distinctive place in American foreign policy makes it the necessary starting point.

“Israel deserves attention because of the unique relationship that it has with the U.S. government,” Huet-Vaughn said. “Unlike Sudan or North Korea — where we have sanctions against the countries that we have hostile relations with — Israel is singled out for preferential treatment. It has a double standard where it can commit these human rights abuses and still get $3 billion in military aid a year.”

It is the same singling out of Israel mentioned by Huet-Vaugh that has been the central criticism made by the bill’s opponents.

“[The resolution is] not anti-Israel, it’s anti-Semitic,” Spector said. “There are many countries, including our own, that are taking part in controversial defense measures, including military action. If they pass [those], then they should also pass a resolution saying no investment with Russia or China or Great Britain; you need to apply the same rules to everyone. If you apply that only to the Jewish state, then it’s simply anti-Semitism.”

Smelko said he vetoed the resolution because he believes the deliberation and public input involved in drafting the document was insufficient.

“The magnitude of what was decided and discussed became so big and even though the ASUC senate of Berkeley talked about this issue for four hours, I think that it’s nowhere near enough time,” Smelko said.

Smelko added that a more comprehensive strategy of analyzing divestment must be made before any student government can make a decision.

“I realized that the four-hour discussion that our students had was predominantly based around two-minute public comment periods, based largely on feelings and emotions and not so much [on] analyzing what a divestment strategy of this magnitude would actually be,” Smelko said. “It’s something that clearly, in my mind, needs more thought and discussion.”

Following Smelko’s veto, the resolution returns to UC Berkeley’s student senate no earlier than April 14, where it needs 12 votes out of 20 — representing a two-thirds majority — to overturn the presidential veto in order to permanently pass.

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