BDS and Hopelessness: Response to Moshe Yaroni

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May 13, 2010

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 Street and 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?


Open Letter to Akiva Tor from an Educated Palestinian American:

Dear Consul General Tor:

Your response to Moshe Yaroni’s essay about the Berkeley divestment discussion is manipulative and threatening. It repeats many distortions that have been thoroughly refuted by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UC Berkeley. Worst of all, however, it relies on a paradigm of separation and division in which Jews and Arabs are eternally afraid and suspicious of one another. You say that anti-Semitic statements were made at two of the three senate meetings, which called into question whether or not UC Berkeley should divest from United Technologies and General Electric. Such companies manufacture F-16 jets and Apache helicopters, weapons sold to the Israeli military and used against civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

You ignore the fact that those alleged remarks were vigorously denounced by those of us who spoke in favor of the bill. You wrongfully assume that “these were the opinions and feelings of American Palestinians educated at a great Western university,” and that those who gathered outside the senate meeting were “Muslim.” Yet there were a half- dozen clergy members present and over a hundred people who were neither Muslim nor Arab. Such assumptions, which form the basis of your perceptions, are extremely ignorant. When coupled with your power as the Israeli Consul General, those assumptions are preventing you from seeing me, an educated Palestinian American woman, as an equal human being who deserves justice and peace.

Your insistence that divestment is “against the peace process” would be laughable if it wasn’t reckless. When one says that Palestinians are against the “peace process” what they do not understand is that the “peace process” is against the Palestinians. The Israeli Peace process relegates Palestinians to the sidelines of history and tells us to shut up and lie down for bulldozers to run over us—say nothing except cry like civilized people for journalists to take pictures and tell a story. Palestinians don’t just want peace; they want a just peace, a peace that recognizes that they are equal to Israelis and Jews. This is what divestment strives to achieve and why I supported UC Berkeley’s divestment from Israeli war crimes and the companies that benefit from them.

Moreover, your statements egregiously misplace responsibility, as Israel’s occupation and violence against the Palestinians have left little of the peace process to salvage. It is not divestment that is against peace; it is the 500 mile wall caging civilians in the occupied West Bank that encages Palestinians, limits mobility with hundreds of checkpoints and seizes Palestinian farmland and water resources. The siege of Gaza is against peace. The indiscriminate killing of civilians in Operation “Cast Lead”—over 400 of them children—along with the targeting of civilian infrastructure like UN schools, universities and hospitals is against peace. Collective punishment, home demolitions, torture in Israeli prisons, illegal settlements in the West Bank, settlers throwing buckets of urine at Palestinians in Hebron’s old city— these are all against peace.

Your version of the “peace process” is against me and my humanity. While you and other representative of your government talk about “peace” and “negotiations,” your actions and policies require Palestinians to surrender any semblance of human dignity. They must accept being imprisoned, threatened, treated like cattle, humiliated and ignored. When we participate in that kind of “peace process” we are participating in our own suicide.

You stated that you cannot be blind to the “blatant hatred expressed against your own people, right before your eyes” that you say renders our “devotion to victims ten thousand miles away… suspect.” The abstract and over sensationalized fear of Jewish students on campus becomes suspect when I have endured racism, hatred and erasure every single day of my life, born and raised in a society that does not recognize Palestinian personhood. It is hard to ignore your silence about very clear acts of violence committed against Palestinian students on campus; about a society that vilifies brilliant thinkers such as the late Palestinian scholar Edward W. Said, when Zionist American high school students claim that Palestinian names should not appear on Advanced Placement exams because it offends them. What in a name could be so offensive? Or so frightening? Being Palestinian in America is watching white phosphorous eat away at the skin of Palestinian girls on TV and still only hearing about the need for Israeli security.

Please tell me, Mr. Tor, what does white phosphorous eating away at a baby do for Israeli security?

Being Palestinian is seeing graffiti that says “we rape all Arab women” on an alley wall in Hebron. Being Palestinian is feeling physically afraid when you see Israeli Occupation Forces wear t-shirts with an image of a pregnant Palestinian woman on the front with a rifle target surrounding the image, the caption saying, “one bullet, two kills.”

The blatant hatred expressed toward “my people” is my every day experience.

But I refuse to engage in the victimhood game. It is not a competition to be the most hated or most victimized. That game is manipulative and implies one person can claim a monopoly over victim-hood, as if Indigenous Native Americans, Jews, Armenians, Blacks, and other peoples have never endured what the Palestinians and those in solidarity endure today. I will not engage in that game because it is both dehumanizing and humiliating to publicly display my stories and scars and the stories of Palestinians undergoing unspeakable acts of violence.

I will especially not display these stories and scars to people like yourself who justify our wounds and manipulate the truth, who exploit your power to threaten us into silence. I will not play that game because it does not matter how egregious, violent, horrific or brutal the experiences of the Palestinians and those in solidarity endure at the hands of Zionists and the Israeli Occupation Forces—people like yourself will still call anyone who speaks the truth, criticizing Israeli aggression, a “Jew hater” or an anti-Semite to bully them into silence.

I wonder if you think about what it feels like to be called an anti-Semite when some of my closest friends, people I consider family, people who are part of the SJP divestment campaign and the BDS movement as a whole, are Jews and Israelis themselves. These Jews and Israelis, whose lives I care for as dearly as my own—they are “my people.” Therefore Mr. Tor, with all due respect, when you say “your own people,” we in Students for Justice in Palestine, and me in particular as an educated Palestinian American, refuse to subscribe to such binaries. In my world there is no “your people” and “my people”—we are the same people disposed and exiled, and as so long as you and everyone else who thinks their “own people” are exceptional or more deserving of human dignity and respect than “other people”—you will always be met with opposition, not just by educated Palestinian Americans, but by compassionate people everywhere who refuse to see the world through an “us” vs. “them” binary.


Dina Omar

Dina Omar recently graduated from UC Berkeley; she is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. Dina also organizes in the Palestine Youth Network and will be starting her graduate studies in Anthropology at Columbia University in September.


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