Open Letter to UC President – Mohammad Talat

Received May 11, 2010
Published in The Berkeley Daily Planet, May 18, 2010

Dear UC President Yudof,

I received your enclosed message and statement, “UC Statement on Divestment,” and was saddened and disappointed. Not because I disagree with your position and the UC Board of Regents’ – that’s human – rather because of the thin rationale and less-than-honest language it employs. Let me elaborate.

Your statement purports to address “two bills put forward for a vote before student organizations within [UC] that call on the University to divest from companies doing business with Israel.” Your statement refers to a policy adopted by the Regents in 2005 where they “stated that a policy of divestment from a foreign government shall be adopted by the University only when the United States government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide.” This reference is the crux of your response, and its use is disturbing on several levels:

  1. The subject in the referenced UC policy is “divestment from a foreign government.” Neither of the two bills referenced in your opening paragraph mentions divestment from the state or government of Israel. The rest of your statement tries to squeeze in the language statements to establish relevance by association, such as “[i]n the current resolutions voted on by UC student organizations, the State of Israel and companies doing business with Israel have been the sole focus.” This is intellectually dishonest, and the policy language you cite as the main reason for your position remains principally irrelevant to your argument.
  2. Your statement that the student bills focus on “companies doing business with Israel“ is inaccurate and misleading by omission. The two bills focus on companies providing material support and profiting from Israel’s illegal occupation and war crimes in the Palestinian territories. The distinction is vast between companies selling attack helicopters and ones selling oranges to Israel, and it is again intellectually dishonest to phrase your statement as if the two bills you address do not make that distinction.
  3. As UC President, academic, educator, and defender of free speech, the policy you mention deserves your questioning, not your support. The notion that a student body or an academic institution can only follow a socially responsible investment policy after the U.S. government has made a finding that acts of genocide are taking place goes against UC legacy and the values of citizen-led democracy and activism. As autonomous actors, universities and independent citizens should have the capacity and duty to influence their government’s policy, free from diplomatic constraints and special interest meddling. Let me remind you that the Board of Regents is not an autonomous actor free from special interests, since it is composed of unelected political appointees. Instead of echoing unquestioning support to their unreasonable policy, you should be protesting it.
  4. The policy you support dictates that, as UC President, you are content reacting to international human rights violations only after the fact, only after genocide -no less- has taken place, and only after the US government has recognized it as such. This is most disturbing. Let me remind you that the official establishment of “genocide” is nearly impossible. The US government is still debating whether or not the Armenian genocide took place. This is an unreasonable, politically motivated, curb on social responsibility.
  5. The policy you support dictates that, as UC President, you would not have voted to divest from companies supporting the Nazi occupation of all of Europe and extermination of civilians in death camps prior to a US declaration of war and/or official recognition of genocide; the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and WMD program; and the list goes on. Also, had trade sanctions not been in place, you would have voted not to divest from companies supplying weapons to Hamas or military nuclear technology to the Iranian government. Moreover, you would not have voted to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime when the UC Regents memorably did, to ground-breaking success. In effect, your position empties academic conscience and activism of any substance, and turns them into slogans and colorful parades. Your position prevents UC from leading any effort to advocate social change or confront human rights violations. What’s next?!
  6. Another intellectual dishonesty committed in this statement is the description of the two bills it addresses as being voted on by “student organizations.” In fact, the two bills were presented for a vote by the student government bodies at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. Your dismissive language makes it possible to infer that the scope of this vote was limited to a fraternity or a student group on each campus, when in UC Berkeley alone more than 40 registered student organizations officially endorsed the bill you oppose, and the student senate had passed by 16 to 4 votes before being vetoed by the student president. Your statement implicitly serves to belittle the significance of this.
  7. Your statement argues that “[the] isolation of Israel among all the countries in the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.” I am astonished that you would repeat this discredited line. I expect to read this in a propaganda email, an oratory performance by the Israeli Consul General or the Director General of Hillel, or droves of pro-Israel students finding no better argument in the face of documented Israeli atrocities than waive the anti-Semitism card and play the victim in front of their 20-year old student senators who can be swayed by emotions. What makes isolating Israel for its illegal actions any different than isolating Sudan or South Africa, or makes the concern of pro-Israel communities worthy of your privilege?! As for your carefully worded allusion to “concern to members of the Jewish community,” I respect that you did not suggest, rightly, that the Jewish community opposes these bills. I wish your statement had afforded the same amount of respect and allusion to the “members of the Jewish community,” including prominent UC faculty, who fully supported these bills. I refer you to the sections “Endorsements”, “Letters of Support,” “Video Reel,” and “SB118 – Veto Rebuttal” of the website www.caldivestfromapartheid.com, and to Pages 8 and 9 of April 13th issue of The Daily Californian.
  8. In addition to my criticism of the rationale, your statement totally and inappropriately ignores the statement signed by 86 UC faculty members, along with 28 more California colleagues in support of the divestment resolution at UC Berkeley. I hope that you will receive a more articulate and scholarly critique than mine to your position from them, unless they choose to ignore your statement in return.
  9. Finally, I should note the following: Last week UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau issued a statement about the divestment bill at UCB. Many people who disagree with his established position appreciated the measured and balanced language he used, which reflected his feelings of responsibility and leadership of the entire campus, not only a vocal fraction of it. While many of those same people took issue with the title of his statement, which made an equivocal reference to “disputed territories in the Middle East,” it seemed not the time to engage in partisan or semantic rhetoric and most everyone moved on. Unfortunately, your statement does not reflect inclusive leadership, but unabashed bias. This makes me sad and, if I were younger and still one of your other-than-privileged students, almost angry.

I hope that this message will meet your eyes, and urge you to reconsider your position as President of all UC.

Sincerely,

Mohammad Talat, PhD, PE

Assistant Professor, Cairo University, Egypt (on leave)

UC Berkeley Alum

PS. As this is an Open Letter, I am inviting local press and online opinion pages to publish or to contact me regarding editing for space if interested.

PPS. Not surprisingly, I am not the only UC Alum who feels “almost angry,” about this statement enough to critique it. This letter owes some credit to Yaman Salahi’s posting.

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