In the Spring of 2010, anti-Israel activists nearly managed to get an anti-Israel bill passed in UC Berkeley’s student government. This bill, if passed, would have given anti-Israel activists worldwide the opportunity to claim that Berkeley’s student body is in support of divestment from Israel. The story of how this bill came about, what the battle over it was like, and how I and my colleagues in the pro-Israel community managed to see the bill defeated is an important one, and I’d like to explain this story. I also would like to offer commentary and advice to current and future college students on how to fight and defeat anti-Israel measures in their own student governments.
It began when I heard through the grapevine that a divestment bill was being proposed in Berkeley’s student government, the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California).
My student group, Tikvah: Students for Israel (I was an executive member of the group in Spring 2010, and had been one of the group’s first members, helping shape the group’s ideology and methods, during the group’s inception back in the Fall of 2007), only heard about this at the last minute, and so several of us went to the Senate committee meetings which would determine whether this divestment bill would make it on to the general floor, with the intent of trying to stop that from happening.
It was useless; as a friend of mine in the ASUC, a Jewish student senator, told us: “There’s nothing we can really do to stop this from getting through and on to the general floor.” People’s – the Senators’ (or those Senators who were in the relevant committees) – minds had already been made up by the time we got to the committee meetings. I write “meetings” plural: Students for Justice in Palestine, the notorious, vehement anti-Israel group on campus, had actually written up two bills of nearly identical text in order that if one failed (didn’t get through the Senate committee it was being brought up at), the other, proposed at a different committee, might yet pass and get on to the general floor. As it would turn out, one of these bills did make it through.
The bills had both been written by two particularly inflammatory members of the Berkeley chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine: one, Tom Pessah, is an Israeli expatriate who seemingly has made it his personal mission to spread hatred for his own state as wide as possible in Northern California; the other, Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, was a newcomer to Berkeley, a new graduate student who had a track record of stirring up anti-Israel sentiment abroad at the London School of Economics and attempting (once successfully) to pass divestment there. (Huet-Vaughn’s past was even more sinister than that, I would soon find.) These two Berkeley graduate students had done ‘meticulous research’ and written up the two essentially identical bills, both extended diatribes against the state of Israel tossing in all the language typical of rejectionist anti-Israel propaganda (‘illegal occupation’, ‘war crimes’, ‘disregard for human rights’, ‘laying siege to the citizens of Gaza’, etc.). Their bill was loaded with citations from organizations which
The bill which ended up making it to the general floor (and which I will henceforth refer to as the ‘divestment bill’) was voted on very promptly and passed. This led to a flood of over ten thousand emails sent from around the world to ASUC members and officials, as well as to campus officials, variously praising and disapproving of the passage of the bill. Anti-Israel partisans, unsurprisingly, wrote of the ‘moral fortitude’ and ‘courage’ expressed by the Senate for approving divestment; pro-Israel individuals wrote of their shock and disgust that the only even reasonably moral state in the Middle East was being singled out for criticism and was publicly being tried and convicted, in the absence of any clear evidence, of all manner of atrocities.
The divestment bill was then vetoed by the conscientious ASUC President, Will Smelko (see here for an interview concerning his feelings on the Berkeley divestment bill and why he didn’t support it); and then was unsuccessfully resuscitated twice in attempts to see the President’s veto overridden (the second time, through all manner of political trickery). Both resuscitation attempts failed, though both meetings where the attempts occurred lasted all night – one went, all told, from around 7 PM to 7 AM the next morning, on a weeknight (the first four or so hours were devoted to finding a suitable venue for the rapidly expanding group of spectators and guest speakers on the bill) – and were filled with a shockingly obscene level of vitriol and animus, including hate speech almost entirely emanating from the mouths of the hundreds of anti-Israel students and community activists who attended the meetings. It is worth noting that the frenzy of the anti-Israel activists, which I saw in the massive ballroom where the latter two Senate meetings were held on those fateful meeting nights, was unlike anything I’d ever seen in person before – a mass of hundreds of individuals wearing identical green ‘I am a ___ [Jew, Christian, UC Berkeley Student, Pastor, etc.] and I support divestment’ shirts, whooping loudly when people on ‘their side’ would speak and openly mocking and laughing at those of us on the ‘other side’ when we would speak, as well as shouting hateful things and curse words (at least one pro-Israel speaker was called “Nazi”) and, occasionally, anti-Semitic tropes such as ‘the Jews are Christ killers’, ‘Zionists control politics, even on this campus’, ‘the Israel lobby is yet again stifling all voices counter to it’. I remember solemnly having to assent to a pro-Israel student colleague’s observation, at the end of the very first divestment bill meeting, where the bill had passed, that the ‘other side’ of the room had cheered extremely loudly, whooped and grinned and laughed at us after their ‘victory’, not to celebrate their own ‘victory’ so much as to make us feel as bad and weak as possible – naked sadism. And I also remember feeling queasy upon the realization that the rhetorical tactics being used by the anti-Israel speakers at the various divestment bill Senate meetings were strikingly reminiscent of those used by Hitler in his infamous speeches of the 1930s: wearing a ‘uniform’ (aforementioned green ‘I support divestment’ shirt, keffiyeh) and starting off speaking slowly and calmly, but with an intensity and composure, before slowly raising the pitch of one’s voice and, ultimately, ranting at high pitch and full volume while gesticulating wildly, with passion and anger and intensity and hatred, a cacophony of hate designed to gain ‘followers’, to enthrall the audience to join the speaker in his or her hatred of his or her preferred target (in this case, we pro-Israel advocates and students, as well as the state of Israel herself). At the second Senate attempt to override the veto, these speakers, not content with having been granted a 2:1 ratio on the speakers list (in the grounds that there were more of them in attendance than us) even signed up for our speaking slots to make the scene even more one sided. Fortunately, the Senate parliamentarian caught on to this deceitful tactic fairly quickly.
Ultimately, again, we won the day, managing to convince (with a little help from the aforementioned thousands of pro-Israel individuals who emailed the Senators to protest the initial passage of the divestment bill) three more Senators after the initial four who had opposed the divestment bill not to vote for it, and thereby keeping the pro-divestment vote stuck at 13 out of 20 Senators, one less than is necessary to override a Presidential veto.
2. Students for Justice in Palestine and how they operate
The questions I would like to examine are: “How did we win?”; and, “How can college students at other campuses learn from what we at
The divestment bill war raged for about half of this past Spring semester and dominated campus news and discourse. The lessons learned here will, I hope, help those who face similar challenges at their own universities.
The first matter which needs to be discussed is how anti-Israel campus groups operate – how, that is, the bill gained so much traction so quickly as it did, and how it gained such support within the student senate that if it hadn’t been for the President’s fateful (and unexpected) decision to veto it, it would have passed.
Having been one among the founding class of Tikvah: Students for
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), whose Berkeley chapter was, again, the primary group behind the divestment bill, is one of several prominent, nationwide college student organizations which dedicates itself to delegitimizing Israel and spreading lies about the Jewish state. (There are other prominent anti-Israel groups on campuses in
The answer to this question is really pretty simple: groups like SJP exist and thrive on college campuses, and specifically at college campuses, because the student culture at universities (especially at the most elite universities in America) is usually overwhelmingly progressive and left-leaning, and it’s not hard for groups like SJP to distort the history and events of the Middle Eastern conflict in order to frame it in terms that progressive-minded students can relate to .Specifically, the narrative of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict which groups like SJP sell to the student body and to specific student groups (more on this later) is one of Western imperialism vs. an indigenous, peaceful people: the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, SJP members insist, is a history of white European Jews having been illegitimately given the land of innocent Arab (i.e., Brown) indigenous peoples in the Middle East by colonial European powers, and then forcibly seizing this land, displacing the peaceful indigenous residents and fostering a culture (in Israel) of racism toward the Arabs while simultaneously neglecting to respect the human rights of those helpless Arabs living right next door to Israel in unspeakable squalor.
That this narrative bears very little relation to what actually happened with the founding of
Since its inception in 2001, SJP at
So SJP and similar groups market themselves as champions of justice, supporting indigenous oppressed peoples against the White Man, and manage to gain tremendous political power and influence on student campuses as a result, by allying themselves with all the other progressive and far left groups and gaining prominence in those circles. That’s one reason divestment, and SJP, nearly succeeded.
Incidentally, before moving on, I would like to bring up briefly what SJP’s ballyhooing about human rights is a smokescreen for: terrorism apologetics. Students for Justice in Palestine and groups like it routinely oppose Israel’s ‘occupation’ of ‘Palestinian lands’ and allege that the Jewish state commits human rights violations on a level perhaps unrivaled in the world today. What, then, is SJP’s solution for ending this ‘occupation’ and the ‘crimes’ committed by the state of
Another reason why SJP is such a force on campus is that SJP itself – again, this applies in other universities, where there are other student groups dedicated to the same anti-Israel end – is chock full of what are essentially ‘professional students’ (the aforementioned Tom Pessah is one), graduate students who are taking seemingly forever (more than a decade, for instance) to finish up their studies in part as a smokescreen for being able to continue to have influence on campus and feed anti-Israel propaganda to students. SJP and the anti-Israel movement worldwide know that in order to convince college students of a point, their representatives should ideally be college students themselves, so we find various cases of 35 year old graduate students who seem to spend more time doing anti-Israel advocacy on campus than graduate work. At least several students who fit this description are among the leaders of SJP at Berkeley, and their status as graduate students (especially in fields which would lend apparent credibility to their pronouncements on the Middle East, fields such as Middle Eastern Studies, Law and, regrettably, my own field of Philosophy) lends them credibility in the eyes of impressionable undergraduates on campus who care about justice and are concerned and curious about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
A third reason SJP is so powerful on campus, and reaches so many students, is that it seems never to lack resources: every event they put on is guaranteed a hundred or more loyal, regular attendees (many of whom though are not college students but adults who live around the Berkeley area), SJP prints hundreds of fliers for their events, buys hundreds of t-shirts. In the case of the divestment bill fight, again, SJP even flew in worldwide anti-Israel activists. The question of where college anti-Israel groups get their money is a very important one which more research needs to be done into, especially in light of recent events such as the revelation that the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine may have funneled donation money to Hamas in 2009 .I do not believe it would be premature to raise the question of where SJP’s money comes from, and if any of it may come from nefarious and sinister sources (one place to start poking around would be the International Solidarity Movement, an international anti-Israel group which works closely with college students and anti-Israel student groups, as I’ll go into more later). The bottom line is that SJP seems never to lack money when they need it, and can be seen to spend much more extravagantly than other student groups on campus, in general, when they put on events.Fourth, and most shockingly, SJP at Berkeley has managed to look Jew-friendly, even Jewish itself, to the point where one pro-divestment Senator memorably told me when she and I got lunch during the divestment bill war on campus, “I know some Jews, many Jews, are against divestment, and many Jews are for it, too”, in response to my informing her that nearly all of American Jewry, the overwhelming majority, would be not only against divestment from Israel but horrified at the very notion of it. There are several ways in which SJP has successfully managed to portray itself almost as a rival Jewish group, a home for Jewish students who ‘conscientiously object to the occupation of Palestine’, and the fact of SJP’s success in selling itself to college students as representative of many American and Israeli Jews is probably the fact most worth noting of any I mention in this article.
 I do not mean to suggest that Muslims are naturally or generally anti-Israel. Unfortunately, student groups who claim to represent Muslim students on American college campuses often are.
 Note that I am not saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a Left or Right issue, since I don’t believe that it is. For whatever it’s worth, I myself am left-leaning. I merely believe that anti-Israel activists and propagandists tend to frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Leftist issue in order to sell their viewpoint on it to avowed progressives and hard leftists, such as the majority of politically engaged students at campuses like
 Though many good books, as well as many websites and articles available for free online, do a good job refuting it. I personally would chiefly recommend Samuel Katz’s book Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine; another good place to start is Myths and Facts online, available for free at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/myths/mftoc.html.
Of course, it is supremely ironic that SJP, who subtly champion or at least ally themselves strongly with regimes and cultures which feature institutionalized racism, sexism and great discrimination toward homosexuals, and no regard for the well-being of the environment, would be a member of a coalition of student groups championing every one of those social causes. I am not the first to notice this.
The group often says that it doesn’t want
The university has since brought it to the attention of the US Department of Justice: http://www.zoa.org/sitedocuments/pressrelease_view.asp?pressreleaseID=1715. The question is this: If anti-Israel groups fundraise for terrorist groups in the