April’s Israel divestment vote at U.C. Berkeley is just the latest unfortunate expression of how hateful an environment the anti-Israel movement can create for Jewish students and supporters of Israel on campus. I witnessed this firsthand during my four years as an undergraduate at Cal from 2007 to 2011.
In 2010, when the last similar initiative was proposed before the ASUC student government body, urging the University of California regents to divest funding from companies doing business with Israel, it was only the culmination of years of hostility against pro-Israel students.
As founding members of Tikvah Students for Israel, the Zionist voice on campus, my colleagues and I were targets for hate. We were spat on. Our signs were blocked and ripped at protests. We were called “Nazis,” “kikes,” “baby killers,” “Christ killers” and “dirty Jews.” Swastikas were scrawled across dormitory walls and signboards. Jewish students were physically assaulted at a pro-Israel concert. Israel was compared to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. The Israeli flag was trampled and used as an ashtray. During lectures, some professors screened films that justified Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
Given this history, I thought I knew what to expect when an Israel divestment measure was again introduced to U.C. Berkeley’s student government this spring. But divestment is never short of nasty surprises.
During the hearing, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Jewish Voice for Peace called on the U.C. Berkeley student senate to disregard the Jewish voices in the crowd that did not support Israel divestment, because she claimed that a majority of Jews had supported slavery, too.
Most commentators at the hearing were Berkeley students. Sadly, their discourse was no less extreme. That same day, hours earlier, anti-Israel protesters and Israel divestment supporters had gathered on the campus’ Sproul Plaza and chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will all be free,” a slogan that calls for erasing Israel from the map and ending self-determination for the Jewish people.
When the president and vice president of Tikvah Students for Israel mentioned the incident and the anti-Israel chant in their speeches before the student senate, many in the audience cheered for the chant. When an alumna mentioned her harrowing experiences of being told by anti-Israel students that her family in Israel deserved to be murdered by terrorists, there were laughs and snaps of approval.
But by far the most ludicrous and horrifying moment was when an Israel divestment advocate insinuated that Israeli soldiers sexually violate Palestinian women with rats. Seriously?
The bill itself was filled with baseless accusations against Israel. No context whatsoever was included as to why Israel needs to take security precautions. An amendment was proposed to recognize the daily hardships caused by the security fence and checkpoints, but also the massive decrease in terrorism that occurred after these measures were put in place. This amendment was voted down.
Also denied were amendments that supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called for recognizing Israel as the homeland and state of the Jewish people.
Ultimately, the Israel divestment measure passed in an 11-9 vote. Such a close margin indicates just how divided the campus was on this bill, which is, at any rate, purely symbolic.
Behind the scenes, the venom from the pro-divestment, anti-Israel crowd was no less corrosive. During the meeting itself, among many other ad hominem attacks, U.C. Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine tweeted “The ZiZis are literally white people crying about their privilege, lol,” a slap in the face to the many students of color who had opposed Israel divestment and expressed their opinions.
In the aftermath of the vote, several senators who had voted against divestment were verbally abused. They were subjected to epithets such as “baby killers,” “accomplices to genocide” and, according to U.C. Berkeley’s student newspaper, even death threats.
Those who advocated for divestment at U.C. Berkeley ought not to be called “pro-Palestinian.” They excuse or justify Palestinian extremists’ terrorism against Israeli civilians and are silent about the appalling crimes committed by the Hamas and Fatah leadership against their own people. They selectively ignore more than a half-century of the degradation of Palestinians, often enshrined in law, by countries across the Middle East.
For those divestment supporters, Israel is the whipping boy, the scapegoat laden with their own sins of bigotry and moral blindness.
Matthew White, U.C. Berkeley class of 2011, is the campus professional for the pro-Israel education group StandWithUs. A version of this piece appeared at jns.org.