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.
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.
An overflow crowd filled the North Berkeley Senior Center for the meeting, with scores of pro-divestment and anti-divestment activists holding signs and lining 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: Nearly 60 people spoke against the resolution, versus 36 in support of it, during 150 minutes of public comment.
“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.
In Oregon earlier this month, Portland’s Human Rights Commission 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 two years ago, activists succeeded in getting Veolia, a French company that had contracts with Israel, to withdraw a proposal to work on a city water project.
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 to “identify social welfare needs of the community” and “encourage the development of programs” to help 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,” one person said; “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.”
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?”
Commissioner Belen Trigueros said 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 the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, said afterward, “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.”
Councilmember Darryl Moore reportedly removed Davila from the commission last month because she refused to withdraw the resolution, which she had introduced.
“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.”