The ASUC election took a turn for the nasty this week. Never in recent memory have elections been this negative, nor has the democratic process made the UC Berkeley student body look so bad.
The week’s vitriol, mostly targeting CalSERVE members, began with legitimate concerns about ostensibly inconsistent statements presidential candidate Naweed Mohabbat made about his stance on Israel-related divestment. But those concerns devolved into mudslinging that unfairly shifted public attention to attacking the character of a candidate rather than engaging with the real issues at hand.
At a town hall hosted by members of the campus Jewish community April 1, Mohabbat indicated he opposed the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and said he would work to make sure the issue of divestment wasn’t brought up again on campus. Then, at The Daily Californian’s ASUC Candidates Forum on April 4, he said he supported targeted divestment from Israel and would oppose an effort by the ASUC Senate to reverse its pro-divestment stance. The next day, he said he did support the global BDS movement during a Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian community town hall.
SQUELCH! Senator Grant Fineman, one of the Jewish town hall’s hosts, drew attention to those apparently contradictory comments, arguing in an op-ed that they constituted an intentional attempt to mislead the Jewish community.
Students are right to be concerned about such statements by a front-runner for the student body’s highest office, and CalSERVE deserved the chance to publicly clarify them. But while Fineman did well to bring the issue to light, his hostile tone was unnecessary and the ensuing smear effort against Mohabbat was even worse. Most significantly, the creation of a website entitled “Mohabbat Dishonesty: Naweed Misleads” represented an overt attempt to use Mohabbat’s unclear remarks for political advantage in a manner unbefitting of elected officials.
Revealing Mohabbat’s statements was enough — students should have been left to make judgments about him for themselves. Sadly, the way that the information was promoted opened the door to a counterproductive effort to paint Mohabbat altogether as a liar, creating a more vindictive campaign atmosphere overall. Public focus on the election’s more pressing issues — and likely faith in the ASUC as an institution as well — subsequently eroded.
The apparent effort to spoil Mohabbat’s campaign also caused needless division of the Jewish community. Many Jewish students felt that Fineman’s stance toward Mohabbat did not reflect their own feelings, yet the effort has made it seem like divestment is the only issue of concern for the Jewish community — which is much more diverse in its interests, concerns and political expression.
The negativity continued with personal attacks on others involved in the election. An anonymous user-created post on BuzzFeed targeted Caitlin Quinn, CalSERVE’s candidate for external affairs vice president, for her past posts on social media. And ironically, the party website of presidential candidate Pierre Bourbonnais — who has said he wants to foster community among students and shift focus away from the campus’s most divisive issues — also partook in personal mudslinging when it lambasted ASUC President DeeJay Pepito for her tactics in dealing with UC President Janet Napolitano. In each instance, opponents had legitimate criticisms to raise, but the hostile manner in which they were expressed further tainted the discourse surrounding this election.
As a whole, the UC Berkeley student community should be mature enough to talk about divestment — and other thorny issues — in a productive way. Although divestment is a valid subject, the symbolic and divisive issue should not have come to dominate this year’s election. It’s disappointing to see student leaders exploit such a politically charged subject to advance their own goals.
A previous version of this editorial incorrectly identified Caitlin Quinn as a candidate for executive affairs vice president. In fact, she’s a candidate for external affairs vice president.