Commission’s divest resolution, despite failing, breaks important ground

On Oct. 21, Berkeley’s Human Welfare and Community Action Commission held a hearing to consider a resolution recommending that City Council divest city funds from four multinational corporations that profit from Israel’s occupation and violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.

Speaking to the illegality of Israel’s occupation, now ongoing for almost half a century, the resolution cited international authority, including the International Court of Justice, the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council’s 1967 resolution requiring Israel’s withdrawal from the territories. The resolution also detailed specifics of Israel’s human rights abuses against the occupied Palestinian people and their documentation by many major human rights organizations around the world, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem.

In response, the Jewish Community Relations Council, or JCRC, sent out an action alert calling on Berkeley Jews (of which I am one) to tell the commission that they opposed the resolution.  The alert pointed out a jurisdictional question as to whether the resolution was within the purview of the Human Welfare Commission. But beyond that, the JCRC alert did not dispute a single fact cited in the resolution, nor was it framed in any way to facilitate supporters of Israel to debate the issues. Rather, it was framed to crush any debate at all by stirring alarm that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic and that divestment constitutes an existential threat to Israel. JCRC characterized divestment supporters as “seeking the elimination of Israel” and characterized the resolution as biased, one-sided, divisive and deeply offensive.  In hammering in the “divisive” talking point, JCRC warned that a debate over Israel “will be divisive in the Berkeley community where there is a wide range of perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Yes, the issue is divisive, just as women’s suffrage, civil rights and the war in Vietnam were divisive. Being divided is not a reason to end political speech; it is precisely a reason for more speech.  And when the debate is about public issues, it should be, as the Supreme Court observed in NYT v. Sullivan, “uninhibited, robust and wide-open.”  But for those who seek to maintain a stranglehold on the political narrative, the possibility of wide-open debate represents a threat to the status quo and so “divisiveness” is wielded as a weapon of repression.

A new report issued by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights documents how well-funded pro-Israel organizations routinely accuse pro-Palestinian activists, primarily university students and faculty, of being anti-Semitic and extremist.  Consequently, officials are often intimidated into unconstitutionally shutting down discourse that opens the door to advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Such tactics were in evidence at the start of the Berkeley Divestment Resolution process.  Commissioner Cheryl Davila, who was to introduce the resolution, was fired by Darryl Moore, her appointing council member, minutes before the first hearing on Sept. 16 after she refused as a matter of principle his demand the previous day to withdraw the resolution.

At the Oct. 21 hearing itself, there were more than 200 people in attendance and public comment — limited in most cases to one minute — went on for three hours, roughly evenly divided between opponents and supporters of the resolution. Consistent with the JCRC action alert, the themes of existential threat to Israel, anti-Semitism and divisiveness were repeatedly raised by those opposing the resolution.  

One of the final speakers of the night was Berkeley resident Rochelle Gause who was a close friend of Rachel Corrie when they were both doing community organizing in Olympia, Washington.  Corrie was crushed to death by an IDF Caterpillar bulldozer in 2003 as she stood in front of a Palestinian home in Gaza trying to protect it from demolition. In her comment, Gause spoke of how much it meant to the Olympia community when Berkeley passed a resolution calling on the U.S. government to investigate Corrie’s death. She urged the commission to stand strong in the face of bullying and repression like what Davila faced in being removed from the commission for simply bringing the issue forward.

In the end, the commission voted 5-2 against the divestment resolutions. The chair of the commission, Praveen Sood, said that some of the commissioners voted against the resolution because they questioned whether it fell within the commission’s purview. Sood himself voted against the resolution and favored an alternative divestment resolution he had helped draft, which included a provision for divested funds to be reinvested in companies that provide employment for Berkeley’s low-income residents. The majority had declined to consider the substitute resolution.

Supporters of the divestment resolution were disappointed, of course. They had hoped that Berkeley would be the first city in the country to call for divestment from companies complicit in Israel’s occupation, just as it was among the first cities to call for divestment from companies complicit in apartheid South Africa.  But the “first city” mantel will more likely fall to Portland, Oregon where, earlier in October, the city’s Human Rights Commission voted unanimously to call on the city to put corporations profiting from Israel’s occupation and human rights abuses on its “Do Not Buy” list.

Despite the Berkeley commission vote, for those supporting divestment, the hearing was remarkable if only for the fact that the issue of Palestinian rights was openly discussed at all, and at length, in a municipal space. It was clear that our perspective was no longer on the fringe and that in Berkeley, the center of gravity of discourse about Israel-Palestine has dramatically shifted.  A culture of silence, enforced by manipulating fears of “divisiveness,” is ending.

Carol Sanders is a retired attorney and a member of the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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