Veto throws divest-from-Israel measure into question

The fate of a divest-from-Israel resolution passed by the U.C. Berkeley student senate hung in the balance this week after being vetoed by ASUC’s president.

Will Smelko, president of the Associated Students of University of California, vetoed a resolution last week that urged U.C. divestment from two U.S. companies that supply war materials to Israel.

Julie Bernstein

“The act of singling out Israel, a sovereign nation involved in an incredibly complex, intense and historic conflict over land and borders, without providing adequate context, creates an array of questions and issues that compel the ASUC senate to thoroughly examine and reconsider features of the bill,” Smelko said in a veto statement. 

With the veto, pro-Israel groups around the Bay Area began urging their constituents to help sustain the veto. A possible senate vote to override the veto will likely take place during the April 14 student senate meeting. A two-thirds majority vote is needed to overturn the veto. 

In the early hours of March 18, the ASUC student senate approved the advisory resolution — deemed “anti-Israel” by many on campus, in the local Jewish community and beyond.

Smelko was not present at the meeting, which began the evening of March 17.

“I was very surprised when it passed because it was so obviously biased, so I really didn’t have high hopes for the veto,” said Julie Bernstein, director of campus and community programs for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. “I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the veto and did feel that all of our hard work paid off.”

In essence, the resolution targets the university’s reported investments of $135 million in General Electric and United Technologies that, according to the resolution, provide Israel with the technology used to attack civilian populations in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The measure pinpoints Israel as a perpetrator of war crimes throughout its 12 paragraphs. A one-sentence amendment tacked onto the end of the document notes that “this committee will recommend additional divestment policies” in places where companies are “aiding war crimes,” citing Morocco and the Congo as two examples.

In his statement, Smelko said that in an effort to maintain campus unity and peace, “the perception of the bill as a symbolic attack on a specific community of our fellow students and/or fears of the bill being used a tool to delegitimize Israel cannot be understated.”

He also stated that the resolution failed to list effective divestment strategies for the university and the U.C. Board of Regents, nor did it examine the possible financial effects on U.C. and ASUC. Coming up with recommended divestment strategies would call for “substantial scrutiny and deliberation,” Smelko said. 

Student senator Emily Carlton told the Daily Californian, U.C. Berkeley’s student-run campus newspaper, that passing the resolution was “some of the best work” the ASUC has done this year, adding that senators had adequate opportunity to discuss the bill.

“President Smelko was not in attendance [at the March 17-18 meeting],” Carlton was quoted as saying. “In this case, it is not democratic for one voice to silence the 16 who were better informed.”

Some senators said the additional input might lead them to vote against overturning the veto, according to the Daily Californian.

“I really thought I was doing the right thing … but in hindsight I think we should have talked about it more,” Nhu Nhu Nguyen, a student senator who voted for the bill, told the Daily Californian.

Tom Pessah, who co-authored the resolution but is not a member of the student senate, declined to comment specifically about the veto, although he did say in an e-mail “we’d like to overturn it.”

“Even with no veto, this was only a first step with little practical implication in itself,” Pessah, a native of Tel Aviv, added. “We didn’t think it would be over in one evening — this is only one stage in a longer campaign.”

In the wake of the veto, proponents and opponents of the resolution, which has gained national attention, flooded Smelko’s and the student senators’ in-boxes daily with hundreds of e-mails.

StandWithUs/Voice For Israel sent out an action alert reminding its followers that the “work is not over,” and plans to send representatives to the student senate meeting when the veto is discussed.

Bernstein, who works directly with Hillel and other campus groups that support of Israel, said if the students want the pro-Israel community to come out in a formal way, JCRC will be there.

Yet, getting in touch with students hasn’t been easy, she noted, given U.C. Berkeley’s recent spring break and the Passover holiday. She said many Jewish students probably weren’t returning to campus until April 1.     

Whether it’s a town hall meeting, an ad in the Daily Californian or a big rally on campus, “We’re waiting on the students.” Bernstein said. “It’s challenging right now.”