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The divestment dilemma

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APRIL 19, 2013

On Wednesday night, members of the UC Berkeley community continued a proud campus tradition of speaking out against injustice. People with diverse opinions about an ASUC Senate bill that calls for divestment from companies tied to human rights violations in Israel agreed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs resolution. Yet, in their quest to find an appropriate response for the UC Berkeley community, they deepened a rift in our already delicate campus climate.

Students have every right to voice concerns about how the university spends their tuition dollars. But the framing of SB 160, which passed with 11 senators supporting it and nine against it, neglected to fully incorporate important perspectives, thereby alienating many Jewish students on campus and effectively worsening campus climate. The bill’s authors should have engaged in more dialogue with leaders of different communities about how to best represent all students on this subject.

While the bill was noble in its efforts to condemn human rights violations, some of its rhetoric and the resulting marginalization of many Jewish students will ultimately produce more harm than good.

A complex issue like this divestment bill necessitates a lengthier discussion. The authors of SB 160 and SB 158,  an alternate bill that suggests investing in support of a two-state resolution instead of divestment, have been working on their respective legislation for a long time, but the issue was only brought to the public last week. Senators should have provided more room for public input to ensure that the authors of the bills would consider the entire spectrum of viewpoints prior to introducing a divisive bill. Instead, SB 160 immediately put students of various perspectives and backgrounds on the defensive. Divestment should not be decided in a sprint.

And therein lies this round of divestment’s main problem: It presented as dichotomous an issue that warrants a more nuanced approach. Almost immediately, Wednesday’s meeting devolved into an us-versus-them mentality, with people on both sides of the room trying to discredit the arguments of those on the other. This is due at least in part to the fact that the campus community was not given sufficient time to attempt to find common ground before pressing forward on divestment. Passing a bill that represents the opinion of UC Berkeley students in an area as divisive as this one deserves more than a week in the public consciousness.

A truly representative process would be more gradual in its approach. First, it would require student leaders from groups that have traditionally opposed each other on divestment to make an effort to come up with an action they could all support. Comments made at Wednesday’s meeting indicate that never happened. And public input should have been solicited much earlier. If that sounds time-consuming, it would be. If it sounds like wishful thinking, it might be. Yet, at the very least, building up the divestment conversation would likely result in a more productive, carefully thought-out version of the divestment bill.

For all of SB 160’s flaws, the other divestment-related bill the senate is considering, SB 158, is not a completely adequate response. One of its major flaws is that it comes off as attempting to speak for the best interests of communities that are not reflected in the bill’s authorship. More than that, though, the bill — which was tabled by the senate this week — is too reactionary to pass. Some of its advocates may argue otherwise, but the bill would certainly not exist were it not for SB 160. A true alternative to the divestment bill is one that could stand on its own. SB 158 served a useful purpose in offering another option aside from SB 160 but did little to substantively address the issues raised by the divestment bill.

Still, SB 158 could provide an opportunity to fully integrate multiple perspectives into the discussion. As they stand right now, the two bills are not compatible with each other, and, as evidenced by the responses they elicited at this week’s meeting, neither bill reflects a balanced view of the issues at hand. But the message behind SB 158 — an emphasis on peace over division — should be one that all senators can agree on.

This ASUC divestment debate is likely to have a similar effect on campus as it did three years ago. In 2010, the senate passed a similar bill, only to see it vetoed by then-ASUC president Will Smelko. After several senate meetings to overturn the veto — an attempt that was unsuccessful — communities on all sides were unsatisfied. This time around, a comparable divide is forming that threatens to undermine efforts to improve campus climate.

Ultimately, the passage of the divestment bill leaves lingering tensions that the ASUC must work to resolve in some way. The impact of SB 160’s passage will be felt most immediately on campus, where many students already feel isolated and unwanted. Moving forward, the ASUC needs to make a proactive attempt to alleviate the ongoing friction among students that this divestment solicits. Until campus communities can find a way to come together, divestment will continue to drive us further and further apart.

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APRIL 18, 2013