ASUC Senate passes Israeli divestment bill SB 160, 11-9

Henry Ascencio/Staff

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In a dramatic vote that was emotional for all sides, the ASUC Senate voted 11-9 to divest from companies affiliated with Israel’s military early Thursday morning.

The heated debate began Wednesday evening and carried on for 10 hours, continuing into Thursday. Anna Head Alumnae Hall overflowed with hundreds of UC Berkeley students, faculty and community members engaging in a contentious debate regarding the bill, SB 160.

SB 160, authored by Student Action Senator George Kadifa, calls the UC system a “complicit third party” in Israel’s “illegal occupation and ensuing human rights abuses” and seeks the divestment of more than $14 million in ASUC and UC assets from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings. According to the bill, these companies provide equipment, materials and technology to the Israeli military, including bulldozers and biometric identification systems.

The final vote, which occurred just before 5:30 a.m., was met with cheering, stomping and cries of joy by supporters of the bill.

Independent Senator and bill co-sponsor Sadia Saifuddin said she saw the vote as the culmination of years of struggle.

“Tonight is not about corporations,” she said. “It’s about asking ourselves before we go to sleep whether our money is going toward the destruction of homes, toward the erection of a wall. I am a working student. And I don’t want one cent of my money to go toward fueling the occupation of my brothers and sisters.”

But across the aisle, opponents of the bill were silent, absorbing the defeat with dismay.

SQUELCH! Senator Jason Bellet decried the bill for ignoring an important side in the issue.

“If we walk away with anything tonight, it’s that this conflict is nuanced,” Bellet said. “But divestment and the language set forth in SB 160 frames Israel as the sole aggressor. This is more than just divesting from three companies. Divestment is undoubtedly taking a side in the conflict.”

The vote was emotional for senators as well as spectators. At least three senators broke down in tears as they gave their final comments following the vote.

Dozens of community members spoke at the beginning of the meeting, pleading their cases to the senate late into the night.

Supporters of the divestment bill — which included Muslim and Jewish students alike, as well as members of other campus communities — said they opposed the ASUC and university’s financial involvement with companies that benefit from alleged human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli government.

“There are few experiences more traumatic than losing your home or being forced out of the place you call home,” said UC Berkeley junior Kamyar Jarahzadeh. “This university’s money — our money — is complicit in the deprivation of human rights.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who said she had visited the Gaza Strip, was present at the meeting and publicly voiced her support for SB 160.

Following the senate’s decision on SB 160, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau released a statement Thursday afternoon expressing disapproval of the bill’s passage.

“It is my personal opinion that targeting a single nation or state in this highly complex world is not appropriate and does little to advance the cause of peace and coexistence,” Birgeneau said in a statement. “Ultimately, we believe that engaging in dialogue on these difficult issues is the best hope that we have for achieving peace.”

In his statement, Birgeneau also revealed that UCPD is currently investigating an incident on Sproul Plaza in which a student who was handing out pro-divestment fliers was struck in the face. UCPD Lt. Eric Tejada confirmed in an interview with The Daily Californian that the incident to which Birgeneau referred is the battery that occurred on April 1, when a student tabling on Sproul was punched and knocked to the ground.

On Wednesday night, the senate was also set to vote on SB 158, an opposing bill to SB 160, but the bill was tabled following the long discussion of SB 160. SB 158 “seek(s) investment opportunities that strengthen Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in pursuit of a two state resolution to the conflict” rather than divestment.

Many members of the Jewish community decried SB 160’s targeted divestment from Israel as choosing one side of the conflict at the expense of the other when suffering has occurred on both.

“Divestment does nothing to better the lives of Palestinians,” said political science professor Ron Hassner. “It seeks to undermine, harm and destroy and offers no vision of an Israeli-Palestinian future.”

Opponents of divestment also reminded the senate of the hostile campus climate Jewish students faced after the 2010 divestment attempt. Many said they felt alienated and unwelcome and warned that the passage of SB 160 could affect Jewish students’ decisions to come to UC Berkeley.

“We will take home that an amendment asking for a two-state solution was failed,” said SQUELCH! party chair and former Daily Cal columnist Noah Ickowitz. “We will take home that an amendment asking for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was failed. We will take home that this body takes divestment as a weapon of choice when that is not the only weapon in our arsenal.”

Although the bill passed, ASUC President Connor Landgraf has the option to veto it. According to the ASUC Constitution, the president may veto an action by the senate within seven days of the decision. A two-thirds vote by the senate is needed to override a presidential veto.

“It was a very close decision, and clearly, it’s an issue in which our campus is divided about,” Landgraf said in an interview. “I will be thinking about (the vote) and deciding on that.”

In 2010, the senate passed a similar divestment bill that was later vetoed by then-president Will Smelko. In the weeks that followed, the senate failed to reach a two-thirds vote to override the veto.

Daphne Chen contributed to this report.

Contact Jeremy Gordon and Daphne Chen at [email protected].