May 7, 2013
The Berkeley Boycott Exchange, Part 1: Berkeley Showed BDS the Door
Last week, associate professor of political science Ron Hassner of Berkeley University published an article about Berkeley's ASUC Senate vote to divest from companies affiliated with Israel’s military. Hassner believes that this was "a momentous resolution". The resolution and its aftermath will be the topic of this exchange.
Dear Prof. Hassner,
An article you published last week deals with an event which many people within the Jewish community were watching with alarm: "the University of California Berkeley student government passed a momentous resolution calling upon the university to divest from three companies that help Israel defend itself against Palestinian terrorism". Interestingly, though, while most observers would consider this bad news (bad for Israel, for Jews, even for the US), you seem to think differently: the Berkeley decision, you say, "killed BDS".
It is a counter intuitive argument that I want you to briefly explain, and then please tell me this: while it "killed" the BDS movement, did it not help the cause of BDS? In other words: Are we not cheating ourselves by trying to interpret this vote positively by confusing a positive technicality (the "movement") with a negative trend (boycott)?
Thank you for your thoughts,
Thanks for initiating this exchange. First of all, there is absolutely no justification for "alarm". There is no Berkeley divestment. There was merely a call to divest that was immediately rejected by the U.C. Berkeley leadership. The default response should be to dismiss this as yet another one of those mishigas that Berkeley students are famous for.
Unless, that is, one decides to take the symbolic value of this bill seriously, in which case one ought to read it carefully. It contains much anti-Israel language, aping similar BDS language from parallel bills (that have also failed to affect policy). What sets this bill apart, however, is wording introduced during the debate over the bill, not by its pro-BDS sponsors nor by their pro-Israeli opponents but by unaffiliated students. Their language criticizes BDS five times over, rejects its principles and objectives (and explains why), denounces its founder and seeks to distance the bill and the campus from the BDS movement. It's worth noting that, even with this wording included, the bill barely passed (11-9) and its passing was summarily criticized by editorials in the student newspaper, by the president of the student union, by the chancellor of the university, etc.
So you are right to distinguish "technicality" from "trend" but I'd propose applying them in reverse. The technicality is that a call for divestment passed. That's a technicality, not only because it has no effect on university policy whatsoever but also because such calls for divestment are destined to return, regardless of success or failure, until the broader trend (the BDS movement) is eliminated. Berkeley students struck the first blow by humiliating the movement on the one campus on which it expected to meet no resistance at all.