On Sept. 15, by a vote of 12 to 0, and 2 abstentions, the UC Student Association, which represents hundreds of thousands of students at all the UC campuses, passed a resolution condemning recent attempts to censure boycott and divestment efforts by Palestinian human rights activists on campus, and demanding that the UC system stop profiting from Israel’s human rights violations.
The UCSA’s decision marks another chapter in the struggle taking place throughout college campuses between proponents of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions and its detractors.
The BDS movement was established in 2005 when 170 Palestinian civil society organizations called upon people of conscience throughout the world to boycott, divest and sanction the state of Israel until it compiled with obligations under international law and 1.) ended the colonizing of Palestinian lands, 2.) recognized the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, and 3.) treated Arab-Israelis as full citizens of Israel and gave them equal rights as Arab Jews.
Since then BDS has played a critical and divisive role in Berkeley politics. BDS supporters on campus have repeatedly called upon the ASUC, UCSA, the UC Regents and UC Berkeley to cut their ties and divest from the state of Israel. The BDS movement reached its climax two and a half years ago when a divestment effort was narrowly defeated in the Berkeley senate after three extremely contentious all-night senate debates.
Many articles have been written in these pages both advocating for and fighting against the BDS movement. However when witnessing the rival demonstrations BDS supporters and detractors put on Sproul, many students wonder why can’t these groups get together and hammer out an agreement? Why can’t they simply figure out a way to talk and get along? Why can’t we all be friends?
The division on campus is not fundamentally a failure of the two communities to interact socially. Some of the biggest proponents of BDS are close friends with some of its biggest detractors. Nor is it a failure of one side or the other not to understand the “facts.” There are individuals who are both with and against the BDS movement who are extremely well versed and educated on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Both BDS supporters and detractors have traveled to the region and lived there extensively and experienced the conflict first hand.
The two sides do not disagree fundamentally on the facts. They instead disagree about how they should be ordered. The fight over BDS is a fight between two narratives. These two narratives are rooted in the historical memories of different communities on this campus. On one-side BDS supporters views themselves as activists engaged in a modern day civil rights struggle. On the other side, BDS detractors view BDS as another chapter in thousands of years of historical persecution against Jews.
On the Berkeley campus the BDS movement is spearheaded by an organization known as Students for Justice in Palestine. SJP members come from a wide variety of religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds, including many Jewish students. SJP members are generally left-leaning activist minded students. Their allies include the Middle Eastern Muslim and South Asian communities and the politicized minority communities that make up the CalSERVE constituencies. Increasingly Christian students have become involved in SJP in viewing the Palestinian struggle in the context of liberation theology.
The narrative of BDS supporters argues that the Palestinian struggle is the civil rights movement of our generation. The struggle for Palestinian human rights is analogous to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa or the struggle to end racial segregation in the United States. It is a struggle that pits an oppressed against an oppressor. BDS supporters advocate for boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning the state of Israel as a way of righting a power imbalance and putting pressure on the state of Israel to comply with international law. BDS advocates believe students are “a nation’s conscience” and have a responsibility to take political action when their nation deviates from their values.
In contrast vocal BDS detractors are generally limited to Jewish students. BDS detractors view BDS as disingenuous and misguided in its claims to advocate for Palestinian human rights. Consciously or unconsciously BDS advocates are simply participating in another of history’s many anti-semitic movements. Many BDS detractors will admit to Israel having many flaws but wonder why not similar attention is focused on other countries on this campus such as China, Iran, or Syria. BDS detractors argue that there is limited historical evidence that boycotts work, thus BDS advocates are not motivated by a desire to advocate for Palestinian rights but rather as a way to attack Israel out of spite. Boycotting the Jewish state is inherently anti-semitic as it is analogous to boycotts against Jewish businesses that took place throughout Europe in the early 20th century leading up to Holocaust. The plethora of student groups in favor of BDS simply demonstrates the pervasiveness of anti-semitism throughout world history.
This conflict on campus cannot be solved only through dialogue groups or social groups, like Bears Breaking Bread, although these organizations are important to our campus in helping facilitate more civil debate. The conflict is fundamentally political and therefore can only be resolved through political action in the political bodies that represent students.
This conflict will be resolved in one of three ways. First, one or the other narrative will disappear from this campus, which is highly unlikely. Second the situation in the region, a peace agreement or full-out war, will completely shift the paradigm of the political debate. Or finally, students will find a way to synthesize these narratives and take political action based upon a synthesized narrative. This is extremely difficult as both sides are predisposed to view the other as complicit in the marginalization of their community.
On a final note, it is my observation that there appears to be a pervasive and appalling lack of empathy on both sides to how one’s actions can contribute to the perceived or real marginalization of another’s community. A wise friend once told me “never forget that people different from you can be empathetic to you” and any attempt to synthesize these narratives will have to begin with that understanding.
George Kadifa is an ASUC senator with the Student Action party.