Berkeley commission rejects Israel divestment resolution

Berkeley’s Human Welfare and Community Action Commission – which advises the city council regarding social welfare needs – voted Oct. 21 to reject a resolution urging Berkeley to divest from “companies that profit from Israeli occupation” of Palestinian territories.

Titled “Divestment from the Israeli Occupation,” the measure was defeated 5-2, with one abstention, following four hours of impassioned public comment and tense debate among commissioners. Had it passed, the resolution would have gone on to the city council for consideration.

A slightly different version of the proposal came before the commission last month but was tabled. A day before that Sept. 16 meeting, Cheryl Davila, a member of the commission who introduced the resolution, reportedly was removed by council member Darryl Moore because she refused to withdraw the measure.

Davila sat among an overflow crowd that filled the Berkeley Senior Center on Oct. 21; scores of pro-divestment and anti-divestment activists held signs and lined up to address the commission.

A concerted effort on the part of local synagogues, the Jewish Community Relations Council and pro-Israel activists to generate a high turnout paid off, with opponents of divestment outnumbering proponents – whereas the vote that was scheduled for Sept. 16 caught the Jewish community almost totally unaware.

Nearly 100 people spoke during 150 minutes of public comment, with some 36 supporting the measure and nearly 60 urging its defeat.

“If George Orwell were in this room, he would have put down his pen in utter amazement at what we are seeing here,” said Berkeley resident Bea Lieberman, who opposed the resolution. “This commission, a body concerned with the very real needs of Berkeley residents, is actually considering a resolution of divestment from Israel, one of the most progressive and democratic countries in the entire world.”

Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, urged a no vote, saying, “The one-sided resolution does not reflect the spirit of Berkeley to be a safe and welcoming city that embraces diversity and multiple views.”

Divestment at the municipal level is making limited headway around the country.

Earlier this month, the Human Rights Commission of Portland, Ore., voted unanimously to recommend the city’s Socially Responsible Investments Committee add several companies, including Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard, to a “Do Not Buy” list, though no action has yet been taken. In St. Louis, MO, BDS activists succeeded in getting Veolia, a French water projects company that has done major work in Israel, to withdraw a consulting bid with the city.

Many of those arguing against the proposal in Berkeley claimed Israeli divestment was beyond the purview of the commission, which, according to its charter, is supposed to “identify “social welfare needs of the community” and “encourage the development of programs designed to improve the social welfare of the community.” In city paperwork, members of the commission are referred to “representatives of the poor.”

“I wish the city of Berkeley would focus on problems here at home,” Laura Klein said. “We are not the United Nations.”

Divestment proponents used harsh language to describe Israel – a “fascist apartheid regime worse than South Africa ever was,” said one person; “Why would we want to support a Palestinian Holocaust?” asked another.

That remark triggered a storm of hisses. StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel activist Dr. Michael Harris angrily replied, telling the commission, “We don’t engage in trivialization of the Holocaust.”

He was followed by a Palestinian American woman who said, “I support nonviolent means of resistance as the only way to end apartheid colonization and theft of land. Israel must not be allowed to continue business as usual.”

One speaker pointed out that divestment from companies doing business with Israel would cause stock prices to drop, which would then trigger a buying spree. “It will not hurt them,” he theorized. “It will not hurt Israel. Israel is a First World economy and would adjust [to divestment]. The only people hurt would be Palestinians, who are deeply dependent on Israel.”

Another said, “You are being asked to vote for the delegitimization of Israel. For the sake of your souls you should reject this resolution.”

Berkeley resident Jane Falk opened her remarks with, “BDS: Oy vey.”

Following public comments, the members of the commission debated the resolution. A vote to approve consideration of an alternate proposal – which blamed the Middle East conflict on both parties and yet did not exclude Israel divestment as an option – failed.

That left only the original divestment resolution on the table.

In addressing it, commissioner Denah Bookstein said, “This singles out Israel as the bad guy, and I don’t think that’s fair. It won’t help the situation. We’re supposed to be using all our energies for the poor people in this city.”

Praveen Sood, the commission’s chair, dismissed the notion that the subject was beyond the scope of the commission. “This is clearly a topic people want to talk about. If this has become the forum, so be it,” he said.

Accepting the contention that the companies targeted for divestment had engaged in what she called “criminal activity,” commissioner Krystel Olivieri wondered, “Why are we not backing this?”

Conceding she was not an economist or expert on Middle East affairs, commissioner Belen Trigueros said she thought the commission should pass the resolution and let the city council debate the merits of divestment.

In the end, the commission rejected the resolution – as the room erupted in cheers from divestment opponents.

Dalit Baum, director of economic activism for the American friends Service Committee, which supports BDS, said afterwards, “I thought the discussion reflected people’s commitment and deep caring about justice and equality. I was deeply moved by people’s testimonies and I was grateful to Commissioner Cheryl Davila, who made that happen. I was disappointed by the back door dealings leading to the rigged vote, as I learned that two new commissioners were sent in to vote without sitting in any of the discussions in the previous months, while [Davila] got fired for introducing the resolution. Despite this, I do believe democracy will prevail, both in Berkeley and eventually also in Israel.”

“BDS activists attempted to hijack the commission to further their narrow, political, extremist agenda,” Johanna Wilder, Northern California associate director of StandWithUs, said after the vote. “But the commissioners refused to succumb to this pressure.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.