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Divestment debate: Our university is complicit in human rights violations

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APRIL 16, 2013

Jim Crow was wrong for the United States, and it’s wrong for Israel.

Last month, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders gathered at the U.S. Capitol to unveil a full-size bronze statue in honor of Rosa Parks. The legendary civil rights icon was honored for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which resulted in the prohibition of racial segregation on public transportation during the American Civil Rights Movement. A few days after this historic unveiling, the Israeli Transportation Ministry initiated a plan to create separate bus lines for Palestinians traveling from the West Bank to Israel to work inside Israel. The segregated buses complement already existing segregated roads and segregated housing throughout the West Bank.

African American civil rights icons such as Alice Walker and Angela Davis have made note of the many disturbing parallels between the oppression of blacks in the Jim Crow era and the contemporary systems of institutionalized segregation and oppression of Palestinians under Israeli rule. As UC Berkeley students and as American residents, we are complicit in this discrimination because our school’s money and our country’s tax dollars are being used to support Israel’s discriminatory occupation through investments in companies aiding the abuses against Palestinians and through billions in unconditional federal aid to the Israeli military.

In March, Obama went on a three-day trip to Israel in an effort to boost relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both spoke of the “unbreakable” bond between the United States and Israel and about extending U.S. military aid beyond 2017. The last U.S. military aid deal between the two nations started in 2007, in which Israel secured $30 billion over the decade. Israel already receives about $3 billion in grants annually. This “aid” funds the illegal occupation of Palestinians and enables Israel to build Jewish-only settlements on illegally confiscated Palestinian territory.

In a time when our nation’s domestic education and social programs are suffering from a severe lack of funds, we are giving our tax dollars to an already wealthy state that violates international law and, according to some UN officials, takes part in Apartheid practices.

The answer lies in part in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a multimillion dollar special interest lobby that members of Congress and D.C. insiders ranked as the second-most powerful lobby in the country in 1997.

Mondoweiss blog reports that in 2010, an AIPAC official, speaking about UC Berkeley, declared the lobby wants to “make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government … This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.” This threat followed a 16-4 vote in our student senate supporting divestment from companies aiding Israel’s occupation. That vote was vetoed by then-president Will Smelko following private meetings he had with Israel’s consul general, and a few weeks later, a former AIPAC intern, Noah Stern, became president of our student government amid well-documented allegations of voting on behalf of other people and voting for himself multiple times. Since then, AIPAC has been currying favor with our student government by offering ASUC officials free trips to Washington, D.C. Two of our ASUC presidential candidates, Rafi Lurie and Jason Bellet, have admitted to going to AIPAC conferences in the past, as have several other ASUC executives and senators. This doesn’t mean these students have done anything wrong, but the imprint on our campus government of a powerful off-campus group with a multimillion dollar budget is a cause of concern for many.

With UC Berkeley students at the forefront, the University of California has historically succeeded at leveraging its funds to achieve social justice and progressive change. Just as divestment campaigns were a nonviolent tool that ultimately pressured the end of South Africa’s Apartheid regime (a cousin of our own country’s historic Jim Crow policies), divestment can play a role in ending apartheid policies in Palestine and Israel. A well-known way to resist destructive corporate practices and pressure companies to be held accountable for their actions, divestment has been used recently by UC Berkeley students. In February, the ASUC Senate unanimously approved a bill calling for the university to divest from fossil fuel companies, joining the nationwide environmental campaign to stop climate change.

This Wednesday, the ASUC Senate will likely vote on a divestment bill. Since this fall, UC Irvine and UC San Diego have passed resolutions pressuring the UC administration to remove its investments from companies that are profiting from the human rights abuses attending the Israeli occupation of Palestine. So far, the administration is not listening. It is past time to heed the Palestinian people’s call for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s illegal occupation and systematic discrimination. It is past time we demand our university stand up against discriminatory apartheid practices, send a message to corporations complicit in human rights violations and hold them accountable for their business practices. Just as it did in South Africa, apartheid in Israel will end. Students of conscience at UC Berkeley will want to look back and know that their school was on the right side of history.

Waj Bhatti is a UC Berkeley junior.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]

APRIL 16, 2013

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