Palestinians deserve an open discussion

Forget Chancellor Birgeneau’s platitudes, we need open debate

Related Posts

As Students For Justice in Palestine activists and a Berkeley attorney working with the SJP and Cal alumni, we feel compelled to respond to the chancellor’s criticism of the recent ASUC vote to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s human rights violations in Palestine.

The chancellor’s concern about the “rancor and divisiveness” caused by the divestment vote (Daily Cal, April 18) reveals little sensitivity to the role of the university as a forum for discussing and debating controversial issues. The univeresity has a proud tradition of hosting such debates but often in conflict with the administration. It was here at Cal in 1964 that civil rights activists sought to fundraise and recruit students for civil rights work in the South by setting up in tables in Sproul Plaza, activity later generations of student activists have taken for granted. But in 1964, this tabling activity was banned by chancellor’s office, citing university regulations prohibiting advocacy of political causes at Cal other than for the Democratic or Republican parties.  This effort by to muzzle Free Speech led to the famous sit-in at Sproul Hall in 1964, the arrests of hundreds of UC students and the birth of the Free Speech Movement.
Later that decade, Cal students, often at great personal cost, protested the war in Vietnam, seeking to end campus ROTC. In the following years, Cal students protested apartheid in South Africa, other causes and more recently, Berkeley Law professor John Yoo’s key role in justifying the use of torture in Iraq.

In the course of all these protest activities, always the administration has complained, just as the chancellor has done in relation to the divestment debate, that these issues were “divisive,” that activists were disrupting the peaceful, “civil” atmosphere they say fosters learning and the educational mission of the university.  Indeed, all of these protest movements were vigorously opposed by other students and faculty who complained that the protesters threatened something the UC administration now refers to as the “campus climate.” But what the chancellor forgets, in echoing the complaints of those who took offense at the “divisiveness” caused by the FSM, Vietnam War protests and now, the divestment debate, is that advocacy for social change almost always is somewhat “divisive”  and inevitably offends those resisting change. The university is not well served by what author Christina Hoff-Sommers describes as the growing “tyranny of niceness” at U.S. universities.

The UC administration also does a disservice to campus community when it weighs in on this debate by describing the divestment vote as “not a positive force for (the) campus climate” or “rais(ing) passions without moving the issues perceptibly forward.” (Daily Cal, April 24). Without question, the controversy on all UC campuses over divestment and Israel-Palestine stirs strong passions on both sides. But that passion should inspire, not stifle, debate and discussion here at the university over the serial wars in the Middle East, the failures of U.S. foreign policy there and the dire consequences especially for Palestinians.
Equally unavailing is the chancellor’s complaint that criticism of Israel is one-sided and the not so-veiled accusation underlying this complaint that this “one-sidedness” reflects anti-Semitism. Even the insinuation of that charge raises rather than dampens, the “temperature” on the campus relative to these issues. Understandably, those opposing Apartheid in South Africa spent most of their energies seeking change there and not elsewhere. And one can oppose North Korea without “balancing” one’s views with criticism of South Korea.

To be clear, many of the students protesting Israeli policies are sharply critical of the anti-democratic policies of Israel’s Arab neighbors – hence the near-universal celebration of the Arab Spring within the pro-divestment community. But there is no “equal criticism” burden on the exercise of First Amendment rights. And it is entirely understandable why pro-divestment students focus on Israel: This conflict threatens world peace and drains enormous resources. But more fundamentally and from a moral perspective, support for Israel perpetuates the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the 1948 war, in clear contravention of international laws, and abides the continued and often very brutal occupation of the territories seized in 1967.

A few years ago, Chancellor Birgeneau climbed on top of a police car on Sproul Plaza to honor the legacy of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement. If the chancellor really respects UC Berkeley’s historic role as a forum for debate, he should encourage, not stand in the way of, vigorous advocacy for human rights and equality as exemplified by the divestment campaign, even if it upsets some members of the UC community.

Jewish Voices for Peace member Liz Jackson contributed to this op-ed.

Matt Ross is a UC Berkeley alum. Maggie Sager and Nathan Stuckey are members of Students for Justice in Palestine.