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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May 12th, 2010 | Filed under Op-Eds

Statement of Solidarity with the UC Berkeley Hunger Strikers

“Pessimism comes from reality, because reality is tragic. Optimism comes from action, because action changes reality.”
~Jose Mariategui

We Students for Justice in Palestine stand in solidarity and support the actions of the UC Berkeley Hunger Strikers. We find their stand against the racist and violent Arizona law SB 1070 to be courageous, demonstrating a commitment to human welfare and social justice. We recognize that it is not enough to denounce this particular law. We must instead condemn the rules and norms that criminalize and dehumanize migrants especially the Latino people in this country and on this campus.

Our intimacy with the situation of the Palestinian people, who face similar racist laws geared at preserving the ethnic purity of Israeli space and government, moves us to note the similarities of oppression here and there. Since 1948, the return of Palestinian refugees to their land in what became Israel has been criminalized. In their own homes Palestinians have been called “infiltrators.” Like Latino people here, Palestinians did not cross the border: it crossed them. The situation has endured to the present, where a recent Israeli military order has authorized the occupying military to detain and deport any person defined as an “infiltrator” – even on their own lands.

Last month the Israeli government issued two military orders, like SB 1070, which legalizes human transfer. The Israeli military orders are in grave violation of the 4th Geneva Convention as it alters the law and allows an occupying power to prosecute, detain and deport any Palestinian defined as “infiltrator.” The Israeli military and Arizona police can use the law to abuse power secretly without public debate or judicial review. Such laws legalize, mandates even, racial profiling, and necessitates the dehumanization of migrants. Like the Latino and indigenous peoples in the America’s the Palestinians have been oppressed legally. The paradox is law is ideally supposed to the mechanism that protects people from injustice. What then are we to do when law is used to facilitate racist agendas?

We believe that this system of control on movement, whether by Israel, Arizona, or the United States government, is inhumane and invasive. That SB1070 legalizes the use of racial profiling points to the motivations of this bill. Egregious ramifications of such racist laws are already apparent and are part of a larger pattern of legalizing oppression. We believe that both policies insidiously mask their unjust core because they are laws—laws that create double standards, laws that facilitate injustice, laws that break up families, laws that advance the powerful over the powerless even as the laws claim all persons should be equal under the law.

Inspired by the energy and sacrifice of our brother and sister hunger strikers, we remain optimistic and steadfast in our solidarity with the Raza students who have acted with great courage to change and challenge power with what little they have, the truth and the righteousness of their cause. During our campaign urging the university to divest our efforts were actualized at the expense of what little we had, like the hunger strikers, we understand that confronting power requires sacrifice.

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May 8th, 2010 | Filed under Announcements

Democracy Now! UC Berkeley Student Senate Fails to Override Veto of Israel Divestment – April 30, 2010

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May 7th, 2010 | Filed under News, Video

Solidarity is a Weapon against Israeli Propaganda – Yaman Salahi

Published in Amateur Ramblings, May 6, 2010 

Perhaps the most important success of the divestment movement at Berkeley has been overlooked. Yes, it is true that a super majority of the student senate supported divestment from Israeli war crimes and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. It is true that the vote was reversed only after pro-Israel mobilization kicked in to remind people where the interests of power reside. It is true that it was thus clear to all, including the flip-flopping senators, what the “right” thing to do was. It was also clear that the right thing to do, would not be the easy thing to do.

Yet the greater success lies elsewhere. While many have hailed the diversity of the bill’s proponents, few have pointed out that these coalitions were built in spite of extensive and expensive campaigns by pro-Israel propagandists to conjure an image of Israel as the natural cause for people of color, queer communities, and other progressive-minded activists working on environmental issues. In and of itself this is a huge victory for Palestinians and their supporters, and a huge defeat for the Israeli propaganda machine.

For years, groups like BlueStarPR have attempted to outfit the pro-Israel groups like Israel Action Committee and Tikvah: Students For Israel with posters and talking points meant to produce such an image. Yet despite those crude and tokenizing appeals to queer, Black, feminist, Latino, and environmental groups, not a single organization genuinely affiliated with those causes stood with pro-Israel students against the divestment resolution.

Instead, they all joined the diverse chorus of voices supporting divestment.

Why?

One answer is the obvious point that no amount of distortion can whitewash Israel’s crimes. But an answer more helpful to those hoping to replicate Berkeley’s coalition-building success elsewhere is that, in contrast to pro-Israel students and organizations, Students for Justice in Palestine never treated its connections to other groups as merely strategic. What separated our interest from that of Israel’s apologists was that our interest in other people’s struggles was never a matter of strategy.

Unlike BlueStarPR and the like, we do not distort, in highly tokenizing and offensive ways, the views of Martin Luther King Jr., in order to shore up  the support of “the Blacks.” While pro-Israel groups try to “prove” that Black people “should” support Israel, because it would “look good” if “the Blacks” were on Israel’s side, SJP students, if they are not of those communities, seek to learn from them and work with them — irrespective of our interests in Palestine. We do not think — like Tikvah — that Black students on campus are so malleable and naive that merely mentioning Reverend King will result in their blind support. We rely on rational argument and the juxtaposition of social injustices, rather than the production of images by public relations and communications “experts.”

Our struggle occurs in light of the struggles of others. It is much more than a common aspiration for an ambiguous justice. We clash with power side by side. We are ready to put ourselves on the line with our brothers and sisters fighting for justice, whether they are queer, Black, Latin@, or any other group. Our struggle is the same as other struggles, and thus our interest guides us to know more about the peoples we feel at home with because we fight their battles and they fight ours. We seek allies, brothers, sisters, and friends in our struggle — not props.

More than anything else it was our substantive solidarity work and coalition building with other campus organizations that enabled the success of the divestment mobilization. It was not merely the persuasiveness of our arguments. It was also thanks to close alliances we have cultivated over the past several years. We had credibility as activists and as people with a consistent view and willingness to work on social justice issues.

This kind of coalition building is the kind of mobilization that will yield allies and activists who are willing to attend 3 consecutive senate meetings, from dusk until dawn. This kind of coalition building is the kind of mobilization that transforms us from a single-issue interest group to one that is embedded in a wider struggle. We must see the broader framework under which Israeli apartheid, US imperialism, and global capitalism occur in order to understand the framework under which our struggle to defeat them takes place. In other words, coalition work suggests not only the parallels between struggles, but rather the impossibility of one to succeed without the others.

If there is one thing to be learned from the Berkeley example, it is that we only stand to gain by learning more about other issues and applying ourselves to them as passionately as we apply ourselves to the liberation of Palestine.

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May 6th, 2010 | Filed under Op-Eds

Hedy Epstein Speech at ASUC Senate Hearing – April 14, 2010

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May 6th, 2010 | Filed under Video

Israel’s Consul General Admits “Occupation” in his ASUC Senate Testimony – April 14, 2010

@ 40 sec: “We seek to end the occupation; that is our position as a government,” while pounding on the lectern

@ 1:05 sec: “We want to end the occupation; this is the position of the government of Israel”

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May 5th, 2010 | Filed under Video

At Berkeley, Moral Victory Despite Divestment Vote Loss – Dina Omar

Published in The Electronic Intifada, May 3, 2010

On 28 April, University of California, Berkeley’s Student Senate narrowly missed an historic opportunity to divest its funds from United Technologies and General Electric which manufacture F-16 jets and Apache helicopters — weapons sold to the Israeli military and used against civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

More than a month earlier, on 18 March 2010, the Student Senate approved a bill (SB118A) to divest from companies that provide military support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. UC Berkeley student body president Will Smelko vetoed SB118A a week later, and the bill was voted on again on 14 April and 28 April was the last debate considering the bill. However, the count was one vote short of the two-thirds majority (14 votes) needed to override the veto.

The battle at Berkeley — part of a global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions of apartheid Israel — was closely watched. Speakers for the bill on 28 April and on 14 April included UC Berkeley faculty members Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin, Hatem Bazian, law professor George Bisharat of UC Hastings and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights Richard Falk along with testimonies of Palestinian students living under Israeli occupation.

Notable personalities and dozens of activist groups on campus and around the world strongly supported the resolution. More than 40 student groups representing a variety of ethnic groups and political interests joined the call on the university to divest its funds from companies profiting from Israel’s war crimes.

More than 100 UC faculty members, 45 from UC Berkeley, signed a statement supporting overriding the presidential veto. Prominent thinkers such as Naomi Klein, Alice Walker and five Nobel Peace Prize Laureates — among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu — supported UC Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine in their efforts to uphold the divestment bill.

Nobel Women Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and Jody Williams issued a Statement of Support reading: “We stand united in our belief that divesting from companies that provide significant support for the Israeli military provides moral and strategic stewardship of tuition and taxpayer-funded public education money.”

However, the tremendous amount of support for SB118A was not enough to override the veto.

According to a report in the Jewish Daily Forward, the Berkeley chapter of Hillel organized closed meetings for the student senators with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council, J Street and Akiva Tor, the Israeli consul general of San Francisco (“How To Beat Back Israel Divestment Bill: Get Organized,” 21 April 2010).

Some senators received threatening e-mails and Senator Emily Carlton told the Forward: “‘There were undertones of intimidation'” during the meeting organized by Hillel. Three student senators reversed their votes over the course of multiple senate meetings and extensive lobbying efforts.

Waseem Salahi, a UC Berkeley student and senator-elect, questioned the influence of powers that be: “The senators knew what was right, but decided instead to cow to political pressure and intimidation.” After the bill missed passage by one vote, international students expressed their dismay about attending a university that continues to actively support the oppression of their family members and friends overseas.

In support of the bill UC Berkeley alum Basima Sisemore told the student senators a moving story about her two-year-old cousin who died at an Israeli checkpoint in the occupied West Bank because he was turned away while in need of medical attention.

The final speaker and visiting scholar from Palestine, Ibrahim Shikaki, drew a standing ovation from the audience by when he challenged the senators, saying: “the narrative that has captured you is the same that named Nelson Mandela and Malcom X terrorists. If that is the case, then I am a proud, indigenous, Palestinian freedom fighter, because that is what we are. Rethink your terminology, rethink your narrative, rethink injustice and rethink this veto.”

Once it was clear the veto was going to be upheld, despite the wishes of the 700 students, educators and community members supporting the bill, the supporters exited the room with their mouths covered in tape in a gesture meant to convey that their voices had been silenced by the veto.

Senator Rahul Patel, who supported the bill from the beginning, invited student supporters to raise their left fist in the air and to walk out. Patel said their fists raised symbolized “The seeds of truth and freedom that we have sowed tonight.”

Hundreds of students walked out of the meeting, and reconvened outside to share their feelings about the vote. UC Berkeley and SJP alum Sophia Ritchie said: “Something has shifted — in the discourse, in the sheer numbers of people who are concerned, in the solidarity work and coalition building amongst a broad and truly diverse range of student and community groups, in the energy around Palestine — that cannot be ignored. In this way, we are winning.”

Dina Omar is a UC Berkeley graduate student in Middle Eastern Studies and Anthropology. The author is a member of SJP and a poet and currently works as the membership coordinator for the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

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May 4th, 2010 | Filed under Op-Eds

UC Berkeley Senate Discuss Divestment from War Crimes

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May 2nd, 2010 | Filed under Video

UC Berkeley Students Argue in Favor of Divesment from War Crimes

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May 1st, 2010 | Filed under Video

Democracy Now! Summary Coverage of ASUC Senate Hearing – April 29, 2010

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May 1st, 2010 | Filed under Video