Reflections on divestment: Supporting human rights is not ‘complex’

Kira Walker/Staff

Last week, the ASUC Senate voted 11-9 to divest funds from companies committing human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. It was a historic moment for the ASUC and added to the legacy of the institution taking a stand for human rights, just as it had done with South African Apartheid in the 1980s. As Golden Bears, we have a responsibility to heed the call of those who are oppressed, especially when the oppressed are in their situation because our funds are perpetuating their oppression.

During the course of the night, we heard many narratives, testimonies and arguments for and against SB 158 and SB 160. What struck me the most, though, was how the proponents of SB 160 were continually accused of “silencing” voices or perpetuating a “one-sided narrative.” I found this incredibly problematic, because it was clear that the Palestinian students afraid to speak for fear of retribution were the real voices being silenced. Not tens, but hundreds of students, from diverse backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, and orientations showed up to support SB 160, yet their truths were de-legitimized as “divisive” and “too complex.”

What I find complex was the lack of action, protest and anger over the fact that a member of Students for Justice in Palestine was struck in the face when he replied in the affirmative to the question “Do you believe that Israel is an apartheid state?” What I find divisive is hurtful and bigoted rhetoric labeling an entire community and coalition anti-Semitic because their beliefs vary from your own. Frankly, it is embarrassing to sit at a table and refuse to engage in constructive dialogue on human rights for the reason that “its too complicated.” Furthermore, it’s hypocritical to label the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “too complicated” then pass a bill calling on a two-state solution. Last time I checked, this issue was “far too complex” for us to possibly understand.

I do not believe that human rights is a complex issue. Either you violate them, or you don’t. Either you perpetuate them through your tuition and tax dollars ($14 million from the University of California and $3 billion annually from the United States), or you don’t. All night, I heard the “complexity” of this issue argued as grounds for disengagement. This was offensive because as students of the No. 1 public university in the world, we are taught to challenge the status quo and deconstruct institutions of power. And if you are not being challenged, then I urge you to actively engage with these issues as they are directly linked to you.

Dialogue is necessary, and so is building bridges. But they are not mutually exclusive with action. Dialogue is constructive when both sides are on equal footing, not when one side is receiving millions of dollars in support of the oppression of the other. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X did not only “dialogue” with white supremacists during the Civil Rights Era. But they did create something to dialogue about. That is what we, as UC Berkeley students, must do. Our job is to create a dialogue, not to use dialogue as a tool to sustain oppression. We must remove the barriers that are sustaining this unequal power relationship and then talk about what steps can be taken to reach compromise and peace. The acknowledgement of human rights abuses is not enough. Claiming to be “pro-peace” and “pro-human rights” is not enough if you continue to allow anti-peace actions to occur. Silence is consent, and remaining mum on the issue only sustains the violence and imbalance that is ripping Israeli and Palestinian lives apart.

Ultimately, the divisions between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine communities have existed since long before SB 160 or 158 were introduced. A piece of legislation did not cause these divisions, and neither will it perpetuate them. Campus climate has been and always will be an issue that the ASUC must address. It is not a reason to maintain the current status quo, because the reality is that the status quo is what is silencing, divisive and contributes to an unhealthy campus climate.

And if you do not acknowledge that as an issue that requires action and dialogue, it is clear who the real “silencer” is.

Sadia Saifuddin is an independent ASUC senator.

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