May 13, 2010

zeek/forward: "BDS and Hopelessness: Response to Moshe Yaroni"

A Threatening Mood

If Moshe Yaroni had been present at the Berkeley divestment deliberations on April 29th, I doubt he would maintain his benign assessment of the resolution and its initiators. The atmosphere was mean and raw. I wish I didn't have to say it - it ought not be part of the Israel debate - but the anti-Semitism in the room was blatant. An Israeli doctoral student wearing a kippah, but also blond and blue-eyed, was told by a pro-divestment advocate that he reminded her of a "Nazi officer." When the veto was upheld, an elderly gentleman voiced his agreement, exclaiming "Yeah." From two rows away came the loud response, "Why don't you go and crucify Jesus again."

In a very strange message, distributed the day after veto was first upheld, Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, described her "ecstatic feeling" at the divestment meeting:

"This was so apparent when I saw, on one side of the room, Jewish and Palestinian and Muslim students literally leaning on each other and holding hands for support–and on the other side of the room, a relatively small, and by their own admonition, fearful, group of Jews that seemed to mostly have each other. It was very jarring and poignant and deeply sad."

I have italicized the words which appeared in Surasky's widely sent email message, but are absent from Yaroni's citation of her statement in ZEEK. Perhaps Ms. Surasky understood that Yaroni might not react well.

I'm not making a plea for moral equivalence. Unemployment in Gaza is worse than mean words in Berkeley. But if you are blind to the blatant hatred expressed against your own people, right before your eyes, your devotion to victims ten thousand miles away becomes suspect.

BDS Manipulation

Multiple levels of manipulation were at play in the divestment debate. It was disheartening to see a student party engaging in persistent, willful distortions to achieve their political goal. The cynicism and prevarication before a crowd of hundreds was reminiscent of Isaac Deutscher's account of the Moscow show trials.

Vote for it because the resolution is not about Israel…

The resolution, we were told by the authors, is not about Israel. It is about war crimes in general, Israel merely being mentioned by example. To obfuscate, the resolution was misnamed "UC Berkeley Divestment from War Crimes" and in its first paragraph claimed the senate was not competent to deal with complex international issues.

In 9 out of 13 paragraphs, the resolution proceeded to index Israel's war crimes against the Palestinian people. The word "Hamas" did not appear in the resolution, nor were there any mentions of rocket fire from Gaza, or suicide bombings. In the summation paragraph, the resolution stated it should not be construed as taking sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but rather as a principled expression of human rights. The authors further argued that it was not an act of divestment from Israel, but from two American companies which manufacture weapons used to commit war crimes.

…but proclaim it "Israel divestment" the moment it passed

Only after the vote, (the culmination of a three day process) did several senators understand the meaning of the resolution they had adopted. They woke up to the headline "BNC salutes University of California Berkeley Student Senate for Passing Israel Divestment Bill", touted by the Global BDS Movement website, saluting the Student Senate for making UC Berkeley the first US university to divest from Israel.

This was only one of several manipulative moves. The resolution text contained many others.

Israel is the Primary Moral Criminal

The subtext of the resolution is that Israel's "war crimes" are the most egregious moral crime today. Not Iran's repression of its citizenry, nor any of the other tens of egregious human rights violators throught the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Surely, Moshe Yaroni understands the meaning of being singled out.

Misdeeds by Israel should not be glossed over. However, Yaroni cannot mean by this that Israel should be the sole member of the international community singled out for divestment by the Berkeley Senate.

Denial of Israel's Self Defense Capacity

The resolution called for divestment from GE and United Technologies, which provide Israel with F-16 fighter aircraft and Apache attack helicopter engines. However one feels about Operation Cast Lead and Israel's presence in the West Bank, the F-16 and the Apache are not the primary tools of Israel's military presence there. Rather, they are the backbone of the Israel Air Force in protecting the country from Syria, Hizbullah and Iran. The resolution claims that it aims to punish Israel's "military support of the occupation." In reality, it attacks Israel's essential means of self-defense in a hostile region.

Manipulation of the Holocaust

Hedy Epstein was brought in from St. Louis to call for divestment from Israel "in the name of Auschwitz." Need one say more?

All these manipulations lead me to question Moshe Yaroni's conclusion that the opponents of the resolution exercised "intellectual laziness" in not sorting out the many strands of BDS thinking. The cloud of confusion created by the divestment resolution proponents was purposeful, and deeply antagonistic.

Against the Peace Process

Yaroni himself states that the BDS movement "leans much more towards demonizing Israel and has a significant contingent in it whose goal is to eradicate the state". This is exactly as it was in the two nights of divestment hearings. Thus, it is very difficult for me to understand his criticism of J Streetand the New Israel Fund for joining with other Jewish groups in calling the bill exactly what it was: a radically anti-Israeli bill that foments anti-Semitism on campus.

But the really dispiriting part of the divestment debate was the denigration of peace. The people against divestment spoke repeatedly about their hopes and prayers for two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and prosperity. Similar sentiments were barely mentioned by the pro-divestment speakers. The pro-Israel side acknowledged Palestinian suffering and Israel's imperfections. There wasn't much empathy coming the other way. Rather, we heard a litany of crimes committed by the "Nazi" Israeli state. Obviously a state of such wickedness must not be allowed to continue.

Following the final defeat of the bill, near dawn, on April 29th, a hundred Muslim students gathered impromptu outside of Pauley Hall, where the vote was held. The speaker exhorted the students to defeat the Empire and Israel, which executes its imperialist horrors. He berated the student Senate for allowing Israel's Consul General, a "war criminal" and an "Arab killer", to sit amongst them. His words were welcomed with enthusiastic applause.

Walking past this crowd, down Bancroft Street, I felt relieved that the bill had been defeated, but depressed at the current spectacle. If these were the opinions and feelings of American Palestinians educated at a great Western university, how in the name of heaven will we ever make peace?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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