By Riya Bhattacharjee, The Berkeley Daily Planet – 14 April 2010
More than 200 people took part in a silent protest this afternoon outside Sproul Hall to protest a veto of the UC Berkeley Israel divestment bill which urges the university to withdraw funding from two companies providing military weapons to the Israeli Army.
The Associated Students of the University of California senate will vote tonight on whether to override the veto.
Organized by the Berkeley campus group Students for Justice in Palestine, the rally sought to send a direct, pointed message to ASUC President Will Smelko, who vetoed the bill approved by a 16-4 vote last month.
Over the past few weeks, opponents of the bill, including pro-Israel groups, have been lobbying the senators to uphold Smelko’s veto. Even as the protesters gathered outside Sproul to make a statement, J Street, which calls itself “the political home of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” sent out an e-mail blast urging the senators not to overide the veto.
“Our support for the president’s veto is rooted in our belief that the bill does not advance the cause of real peace and security for Palestinians and Israelis. Specifically, the bill fails to express support for Israel’s right to exist as a democratic home for the Jewish people and for a two-state resolution to the conflict,” their letter said. “…In this vein, we oppose, for instance, the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which supports the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and fails to draw a clear distinction between opposition to the post-1967 occupation and opposition to the existence of the state of Israel itself as the democratic home of the Jewish people. Even if it was not the intent of the students who drafted this bill, its passage is now being seized on by the global BDS movement as a victory in its broader campaign.”
Rally participants, however, refused to be unnerved by any kind of pressure. One SJP organizer said that all 200 “Divest from War Crime 4-14-10” rally T-shirts had been used up within minutes of the event starting.
Ashwak Hauter, a SJP member and UC Berkeley senior from Yemen, said she was protesting because “we know for sure that some of the university’s funding goes toward companies who provide military weapons to Israel.”
“I am here to bring awareness because this bill needs to pass,” said Hauter, standing quietly in a row with 20 other supporters. “The senate spoke for the campus, and the students’ voices need to be heard.”
SJP spokesperson and UC Berkeley senior Ali Glenesk said that diverse community groups were taking part in the rally.
“There are faces I don’t even know,” she said. “There’s been a lot of pressure on the senators from pro-Israel groups, but hopefully they will do the right thing.”
ASUC senate candidate Waseem Salahi said that the veto silenced the democratic voice of students.
“Students are outraged” Salahi says, “It’s disappointing because [President Smelko] has never been well versed in the issues, nor does it seem that he has taken any effort to be, but yet he has the audacity to silence the students who worked tirelessly to create this bill. He claims that we need to put the ‘unity’ of campus students ahead of denouncing war crimes, but his veto did not ‘unify’ the campus in any way. He simply alienated the hundreds of supporters who worked tirelessly to put the bill into effect.”
Advance copies of a speech titled “You Will Not Be Alone” expected to be given by Prof Judith Butler at the campus tonight were flying about the Internet hours before the ASUC meeting.
“You will be speaking in unison with others, and you will, actually, be making a step toward the realization of peace—the principles of non-violence and co-habitation that alone can serve as the foundation of peace,” Butler wrote for her speech.
Hauter said Smelko had not been present for the five-hour long senate debate in March. SJP’s formal response to Smelko’s veto is available at www.calsjp.org . In part it says, “We … Are disapointed that Smelko has chosen to be on the wrong side of history, to be remembered as the president who vetoed a bill against war crimes.”