This article was written by RJ Center Alum Omar El-Qoulaq.

Early Thursday morning on April 18th, 2013, the ASUC Senate decided in a 11-9 vote to pass a bill that called for divestment from companies associated with Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These companies, in which the ASUC and the UC have over $14 million in assets, included Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Cement Roadstone Holdings. According to the bill, these companies provide equipment, materials and technology to the Israeli military, including bulldozers and biometric identification systems.

The environment surrounding the vote was highly emotional for all sides involved, and the end result left one side of the divided Anna Head Alumnae Hall dejected and the other in pure elation. Some saw the bill’s passage as a culmination of years of struggle, while others decried it as taking a side in a very complicated and nuanced issue.

There is no doubt that emotions are still running high surrounding the topic. A year later, divestment continues to be a highly contentious issue, even creeping its way into the ASUC Presidential race. When one candidate made the mistake of giving two conflicting stances on the matter of divestment to two separate communities, he alienated both and his election campaign took a major blow, one that he was ultimately unable to recover from.

We at the Restorative Justice Center at Cal, a group involved in working with students to resolve campus conflict through restorative practices, have taken a keen interest in the subject of divestment. This past semester, the RJ Center has undertaken an initiative to better understand the different perspectives regarding divestment, in hopes of coming to a conclusion about the most effective and constructive method of approaching this topic. This initiative involved conducting interviews with representatives of several campus communities who were and continue to be invested in this issue on campus. Three inquiries were posed to each interviewee; the responses to these inquiries were quite revealing.

The responses can be briefly characterized in the following way:

  1. All participants felt there was an atmosphere of disrespect. Generally, they focused on the disrespect they felt coming from those they disagreed with. This disrespect took the form of not listening to others’ perspectives, personal attacks, intimidation, the chanting of provocative slogans, and even physical violence.
  2. All participants voiced the opinion that people were not communicating with each other effectively.
  3. All participants used the terms “anti-semitism” or “islamophobia” to describe the interactions, while also complaining that students had a difficult time extracting the issues or “facts” from these overarching structures of exclusion and marginalization.
  4. Relatedly, participants see themselves and this struggle in sweeping historical contexts

The following is a list of organizations involved in this study and in this issue as a whole, along with descriptions from their respective websites:

Students for Justice in Palestine

“Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley is a group of students, faculty, and community members working together at the University of California, Berkeley, in solidarity with the struggle of the indigenous Palestinian people against apartheid and occupation. In addition to organizing protests, memorials, and other events that attempt to visualize the Palestinian struggle, we organize frequent educational events that give a voice to the Palestinian narrative as well as highlight the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli aggression.”

Jewish Student Union

“The Jewish Student Union seeks to maximize opportunities for Jewish students to explore, celebrate, and sanctify life in a Jewish way. The Jewish Student Union also strives to unify Jewish student groups and coordinate their efforts by providing a forum for communication. Our programming reflects the interests of students and consequently evolves as students’ interests change. Students are empowered to take responsibility for their Jewish identity, whether they wish to participate in a community service project, express themselves artistically, participate in a social event, engage in formal Jewish learning, or attend religious services. Any student may participate in Jewish Student Union sponsored programs – no membership is required. The Jewish Student Union is committed to a pluralistic vision of Judaism.”

Tikvah: Students for Israel

“Tikvah: Students for Israel (SFI) is a group of students at UC Berkeley dedicated to advocating for Zionism – the national movement of the Jewish people for self-determination in their homeland, Israel. Toward this goal we engage in educational programs, cultural events, and political advocacy on the Berkeley campus and in the local community. The name ‘Tikvah’ means ‘hope’ in Hebrew, and refers to Israel’s national anthem. Tikvah has only one political position: we believe in the right of the Jewish people to have a sovereign state within the Land of Israel. Just like any sovereign state, Israel has the right to independent governance and the obligation to defend its citizens. While we have no positions on internal Israeli politics, or on final status agreements in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Tikvah demands the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland. In the face of an organized movement to delegitimize the Jewish state, Tikvah strives to educate about the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and advocate for Israel’s rights as a nation. We are committed to accurate, respectful, and fair dialogue, and we combat the spread of propaganda which is untruthful, demonizing, or unfairly biased against the Jewish state.”

Olive Tree Initiative

“The purpose of The Olive Tree Initiative is to promote education on the UC Berkeley campus concerning the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In an effort to discover the multiple narratives surrounding the conflict, OTI will engage students holding a myriad of perspectives. OTI’s purpose is not to impose any particular view on those who participate in it. The goal is for individuals who participate in this initiative to come with open minds and hearts to hear narratives that differ from their own. Students will cooperatively fundraise and work with the community to take an academic trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. There they will meet with politicians, political think-tanks, religious leaders, NGOs, and citizens in the region in order to comprehensively study the conflict. OTI at UC Berkeley expects that our initiative will act as a catalyst so that upon return, its members will educate their own communities, promoting a space for dialogue and relieving tensions on our campus and in our communities.”

Some of the respondents chose to either remain anonymous or speak unaffiliated with any student organization, or both.

Leilani Main, undergraduate student with Olive Tree Initiative (views do not represent OTI as a whole):

Describe the environment surrounding divestment from your perspective.

On the night of the divestment vote, I witnessed a lot of blatant disrespect coming from both sides. The problem was that those who were against divestment were working against it by disrespecting people, rather than attacking the actual premise of the bill. I didn’t feel like anything productive, anything that would help build support for the Palestinian cause, could have come out of this environment of disrespect. Tikvah (Students for Israel) is unyielding, they absolutely refuse to change their mind on the issue, claiming anything anti-Israel is anti-Semitic, which is conflating two different issues and is unproductive. They’re also very exclusive, anyone perceived to be sympathetic with the Palestinians is shunned.

What harms do you feel were committed towards you or your organization?

The Board of Regents completely disregarded the effort when the vote came out, they were very patronizing. They mentioned the Olive Tree Initiative positively without informing us, which we didn’t appreciate. We felt like we were misrepresented in this whole thing. Also, I feel like no one on campus is being heard because SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) is being called anti-Semitic. Jewish groups generally have much more influence on campus, while SJP and MSA (Muslim Student Association) deal with a lot of discrimination, islamophobia, and racism. But this doesn’t just have to do with student groups on campus, the administration has a part to play that they have been seriously neglecting. They need to get involved and hear students’ concerns. Talking face to face is important, there needs to be a greater sense of responsibility and accountability provided to the students by the administration.

(Link to Chancellor Birgeneau’s statement that Leilani is referring to: https://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/04/18/chancellor-responds-to-divestment-vote/)

Describe the environment you would like to see on campus with regards to this issue.

I would like to see more crossover between groups. I want education to be on the forefront; let the facts speak for themselves, let there be enough decency that people can show up to each other’s events so that the issue can be more accessible for students who don’t know about the conflict. There needs to be more accessibility to the issue so people can learn, all people hear about is the fights between the groups. There’s not enough productivity and knowledge being spread. I want less animosity and tension so that people can get involved in the issue instead of being on the sideline. People are afraid to get involved with the campus in its current state, they want to feel that it’s okay to disagree, to have dialogue.

Benjamin Feiner, Jewish undergraduate student (chose to be unaffiliated with any group):

Describe the environment surrounding divestment from your perspective.

The environment surrounding divestment was both incredibly divisive and hostile.  To understand where I am coming from in respect to this issue, it is important to understand my perspective as a Jewish student.  Jews have been persecuted and massacred in nearly every country in nearly every era.  I personally have no faith that this will cease to continue in the future.  The reason I believe in Zionism, as defined as the right of the Jewish people to self-determine in their homeland, is that I think this is the only thing that will save Jewish lives when the next genocide occurs and the world once again turns its back.  Given these ideas, there are a few reasons I had a problem with the divestment environment.  Firstly, although many pro-divestment speakers insisted that their aim was not the disestablishment of Israel, these thoughts were contradicted by actions such as chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and other statements.  I also felt as though my opinions were made less important than those of others simply because I was sitting on the wrong side of the room.

What harms do you feel were committed towards you or your organization?

The biggest harm I felt was an implicit anti-Semitism in the divestment debate.  The whole notion that we have had two Israel divestment debates in the last few years and none on any other country indicates a double standard when it comes to human rights.  Similarly, denial of Israel’s right to exist, false blood libel-like accusations and use of the term Zionist Nazi all use traditional anti-Semitic thought.  The comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany is particularly heinous considering the vast differences between the two countries, and the fact that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.  That appropriation of our tragedy to describe others is offensive.  Lastly, a senator telling members of my community that their opinions were not valid because of their privilege was simply unacceptable when Jews have perhaps had the least “privilege” of any religious or ethnic group in the history of the world.  I acknowledge that I am privileged to have been born in the U.S. as a person who is commonly identified by others as white.  However, when I speak at a divestment meeting, I speak as a Jew.  Additionally, many anti-divestment people were either non-white Jews or not Jewish at all.  Any attempt to pigeonhole pro-Israel students is just as offensive to me as saying all Native Americans are the same to a Native American person.  These are all relatively small things, but combined, they create a threatening atmosphere of anti-Semitism that I assume for most is not intentional but based on ignorance.  However, ignorance is no excuse for intolerance.

Describe the environment you would like to see on campus with regards to this issue.

I do not think it is reasonable to expect that the campus climate for any divestment will be good.  When two groups of people care so deeply about an issue, there is bound to be some level of reasonable frustration from both sides.  Personally, my whole goal is to not approach this issue in the future; we already did it twice in the past few years.  However, if it were to come up again, I think a few differences in approach would be helpful to climate.  First of all, personal attacks and intimidation is completely unacceptable.  Secondly, I think any debate needs to remain centered around the specific bill involved. Chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” merely confirm many students fears and belief that what the pro-divestment community ultimately wants is an end to the state of Israel, not just selective divestment.  Lastly, it is important that all opinions are heard.  The oppressor-oppressed paradigm is, in my opinion, not only false, but used in an anti-academic manner to silence certain views and opinions.

Anonymous representative from Students for Justice in Palestine:

Describe the environment surrounding divestment from your perspective.

A big issue I had was that this whole thing was how it was being framed as a “campus conflict” as if it was one side versus another. This is not one side versus another, it’s not “Muslims versus Jews” by any means, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s people who stand against oppression, and people who accept it as necessary. You can’t simply say divestment was divisive, you have to examine what the divisions are. At the vote, there were Jewish and Zionist groups on one side, and an enormous diversity of people and student groups on the other. There’s a movement to stand for human rights, and people who dissent to it. One side is pushing for something that is recognized as a universal value, and the other side, because they are “x” type of person and they feel divestment is attacking who they are, feel the need to dissent to it.

What harms do you feel were committed towards you or your organization?

There are too many to name. There was one instance in which members of Tikvah went around Sproul tearing down SJP flyers. Someone caught one of them doing it on video and confronted him about it. The person denied it, until he was asked to empty his pockets, where there were several crumpled up posters. He claimed he was “saving them for later.” When the issue was brought to administration, they ordered Tikvah members to help flyer SJP’s next event. They still haven’t gotten back to us on that. There was another instance last semester (leading up to the divestment vote) in which an SJP member was flyering on Sproul Plaza when he was approached by a man who asked him, “Do you believe Israel is an apartheid state?” When he replied in the affirmative he was punched in the face and knocked to the ground. The assailant still hasn’t been identified, and there was almost no media coverage on the incident. Also, we no longer have a board at Sather Tower (the campus entrance where student groups advertise themselves) as it was vandalized two years ago with swastikas and islamophobic remarks. Another thing is that pro-Palestinian Jewish students don’t feel comfortable being a part of JSU (Jewish Student Union). Jewish senators claim to represent Jewish students but do not represent pro-Palestinian Jewish students. JSU in many cases actually doesn’t allow pro-Palestinian students to be a part of their club. People are also afraid to put on their resumes that they worked with SJP. One graduate student at Berkeley said that his advisor told him to say goodbye to being a professor if he decided to put SJP on his resume. People are generally more afraid to speak up or associate themselves with pro-Palestinian groups.

Describe the environment you would like to see on campus with regards to this issue.

I want to see a movement that pushes for divestment that is a combination of the South Africa anti-apartheid movement and the Free Speech Movement at Cal. I want to go to a campus that proudly divests from the prison industrial complex, the Israeli military, and all other vehicles of oppression. I want campus to be an open and active space for intellectual discussion on the importance of standing against oppression regardless of who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed.

Nathan Wexler, undergraduate student with the Olive Tree Initiative (views do not represent OTI as a whole):

Describe the environment surrounding divestment from your perspective.

I felt very early on that there weren’t major disagreements about what was going on. I felt it had more to do with social divides and less to do with political differences. In terms of the actual bill, nobody in the room supported occupation or violence against Palestinians. What the Jewish students wanted to hear was that they weren’t being singled out or ostracized. One way to accomplish that would be to say in the bill that we’re divesting from all unethical companies with this criteria, but the Jewish student groups didn’t want to hear this idea, even though it was a big sacrifice for the pro-divestment side.

What harms do you feel were committed towards you or your organization?

The Chancellor’s letter after the vote, in which he singled out OTI and praised us, was not appreciated. Many groups on campus wanted us to come out in support or against the divestment movement, but we refused. We don’t have a party line. That was definitely difficult to deal with.

Describe the environment you would like to see on campus with regards to this issue.

What I thought was missing from the whole process was this idea that all sides involved could co-author the bill. Why not have a bill co-written by SJP, ASU (Arab Student Union), JSU, Hillel, and Tikvah? I  thought divestment corners Israel which it shouldn’t. The Jewish community is definitely secure on campus, but they do feel isolated.

Anonymous Jewish undergraduate student (chose to be unaffiliated with any group):

Describe the environment surrounding divestment from your perspective.

I approached this by reading a lot of different perspectives. I wasn’t extremely involved, but I did go to the divestment vote and I felt like there was a lot of racism. The room was divided, it felt weird being around others that didn’t like you. I don’t think anyone really cared about divestment outside of Jewish students and SJP, I don’t think it affects the general student body who don’t want to get involved and choose a side. Divestment doesn’t really affect me because it’s essentially an empty threat, it doesn’t actually do much. It only scapegoats the Israeli military, it doesn’t actually serve to solve anything; dialogue and compromise are what needs to occur to make any kind of real change. I don’t support divestment because I don’t see checkpoints as vehicles of oppression, I see them as granters of security. I see it from that perspective.

What harms do you feel were committed towards you or your organization?

Personally I didn’t feel that weird, because I’m not easily identified as Jewish. But people that are easily identified as Jewish were discriminated and judged. Tikvah members were judged based on the opinion of the group, but at the same time people wanted a group mentality, so it’s a double edged sword. I have a friend in a class where the professor and most of the students are anti-Israel. She feels alienated in the Near-Eastern Studies department, she feels like every time she voices her opinion she gets shut down. People generally feel uncomfortable sharing their views on the topic.

Describe the environment you would like to see on campus with regards to this issue.

People just need to calm down. The hippie in me wants people to talk about it more rather than demonstrate. The divestment vote was hard but it was useful in that I heard a lot of personal stories, everyone got their voices heard and I was exposed to different perspectives. But there has to be less drama and more actual talking about it. Two completely different ideas make dialogue almost impossible, it’s very hard to distinguish facts. More education would be valuable but also controversial, it’s not easy to educate.

It is clear after reading these responses that there is a vast diversity of opinions, even within groups, on the issue of divestment. Reconciling these opinions and approaching the discussion constructively and effectively is a very difficult task, but not an impossible one. There are several similarities in these responses, and it may be useful to build on this common ground.

Respondents called for administration to be actively involved in the process. As of now, there is a general sense that the administration is patronizing the efforts of the students, and that there isn’t enough being done by the administration to support an environment of dialogue, not just among students but among faculty as well.

Respondents also agreed that there should be a stronger push towards education on the topic. Presenting the facts to those willing to listen could go a long way towards promoting awareness and understanding.

Respondents also made it clear that an active and open campus environment was necessary to move forward. People should not feel uncomfortable with their views, and no one should be made to feel afraid to take a stance on the issue. All opinions must be respected and approached with open minds.

The Restorative Justice Center can certainly contribute its resources to this issue, by providing a space where all of these demands can be met. Collaboration, education, and an active and open space where people are free and comfortable to express their thoughts, are all aspects of community building that the RJ Center works to provide. This can start by encouraging administration to participate in an RJ Center facilitated community building circle with various campus groups, in order to work together to find solutions to the problem of lack of communication and collaboration with students. It can also include harm circles, in which groups come together to discuss any harms they feel were committed and discuss strategies of moving forward. It can also include circles in which participants share their experiences regarding the topic and how it personally relates to them, in hopes of promoting education and understanding of different perspectives. These circles provide an open and organized  space designed to encourage dialogue and insight among its participants, while at the same time discouraging tension and animosity. The Restorative Justice Center is wonderfully equipped to deal with the concerns surrounding the divestment vote, and with the participation and support of the campus community, it plans on utilizing these restorative practices in the near future to help cope with this ubiquitous matter.