Both sides of the anti-Israel divestiture movement were focused on UC Berkeley on April 29. Proponents of divestiture were making their third attempt to get a resolution passed, this time by trying to override Student Senate President Will Smelko’s veto of an earlier successful effort. Sometime near five in the morning — after a heated, all-night discussion — the veto was sustained. For now, the divestiture movement had lost.
Even so, the divestiture movement showed both tactical and strategic ingenuity, and increasingly, its narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taking hold on campuses and in liberal churches:
Israel’s settlements are the obstacles to peace. Palestinian violence is a reaction, if not a justified reaction, to Israeli settlements. If the settlements were removed, peace would break out tomorrow and two states would live in peace and harmony.
Of course this is unhistorical nonsense, promulgated by people who have interest not in a two-state solution but in finding an excuse to gain access to the public agenda and to oversimplify one of the most difficult conflicts on the planet.
In reality, divestiture is meaningless, and everyone knows it. Divestiture, boycotts, and sanctions against Israel are illegal. Even the Arab League, which makes a lot of noise about its boycott, neither enforces nor practices it: the PA openly trades with Israel.
The Associated Students of the University of California at Berkeley hold no stock in General Electric, for example, or any of the other American companies that do business in Israel. More than 80 million shares of GE trade daily. If all the proponents of divestiture coordinated their sale of GE stock, they probably could affect the price of the stock for a few hours to a few days, suffer losses, and yield the upside to those on the other side of the trade. More than likely, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, known for his acumen in spotting bargains, would be there on the buying side — GE and Saudi Arabia just announced a major partnership for sustainable economic growth.
Three of the most commanding spokespersons for divestiture were students from the Jewish group Kesher Enoshi, which repeatedly partners with the virulently anti-Zionist group Students for Justice in Palestine to produce events designed to delegitimize Israel.
Breaking the Silence is a group of Israeli soldiers that travels the world to speak about alleged Israeli war crimes. Although the accuracy and veracity of the group’s narrative has been challenged, it has been warmly welcomed at Berkeley’s Hillel. Sponsored by the New Israel Fund, Breaking the Silence’s presentations are jointly publicized by Kesher Enoshi and Students for Justice in Palestine.
A Jewish student who comes to Berkeley finds an environment inside and outside of the classroom where Israel is blamed for the continuing impasse in the Middle East. Fully one-third of the Jewish studies program faculty signed a petition on behalf of the divestiture resolution. The anti-Zionist Kesher Enoshi is welcome at Berkeley’s Hillel, while the pro-Zionist Tikvah students find Hillel to be a less than embracing environment. They have since moved their meetings to the more orthodox Chabad house.
Although Hillel’s mandate is to support Israel, Kesher Enoshi is still welcome even after some of its most prominent members played a leading role in mobilizing the campus for divestiture. After the failed divestiture vote, Kesher Enoshi members who sponsored the divestiture bill, along with their friends from Students for Justice in Palestine, showed up for Sabbath dinner at Hillel. The pro-Israeli students left in disgust.
Edgar Bronfman will tell you in his fundraising letters that Hillel stands on the front lines in the fight to support Israel. But Hillel at Berkeley is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
A constant procession of Israel-bashing spokespersons come through this area. Many of these, such as Dalit Baum of New Profile, or the members of Breaking the Silence, are sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF). The NIF officially denies that it supports boycotts, divestiture, and sanctions, but has no problem supporting groups involved in the behavior: a distinction without a difference.
Jewish students who come to Berkeley see a Hillel showcasing NIF-sponsored, Israel-bashing groups. They see fellow Jewish students from Kesher Enoshi supporting Students for Justice in Palestine and working for divestiture. They see one-third of the faculty of Jewish studies signing on to the divestiture petition. They see anti-Israel students like Avital Aboody recruiting in Hillel and ending up with an NIF social justice fellowship in Israel. They see the pro-Zionist activists go to the San Francisco Israeli consulate to warn about the divestiture movement and get met with indifference. They take courses in social sciences and humanities where the Palestinian narrative dominates. They see the pro-Zionist students marginalized in numerous ways.
So what happens to these students? Some, like Avital Aboody, actively move to the other side. Others find the conflict not worthy of their time and energy, which is why the divestiture movement is so powerful despite the large number of nominally Jewish students on campus.
The divestiture movement lost the vote on campus, but it has won a more important victory than a symbolic vote for a policy that no one will implement. Through a mixture of Jewish apathy and leftist-Jewish support for the Palestinian cause, the divestiture movement has further promoted the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative, and the movement is actively siphoning off much of the Zionist future.
The movement is using the Jewish community resources at Hillel to do it, as a clueless Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman looks on.
It remains to be seen if the larger Jewish community will now awaken to the danger that confronts it. But judging from past performance, Jewish organizations will continue to be mired in internecine conflict and denial, as the divestiture movement continues to strengthen and ultimately to achieve the symbolic victory it seeks.