Students demand divestment, this time targeting Israel
When the University of California at Berkeley sponsored a conference entitled "The Free Speech Movement and the Legacy of Social Protest" last spring, the impressive roster of veteran activists included Bob Moses, Bettina Aptheker, and Jack Weinberg. But as they talked about the movements born during Berkeley's famous decade, something disconcerting kept coming to the surface: Virtually none of the conference participants was under the age of 50.Skip to next paragraph
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"Where are the students?" people asked repeatedly.
Berkeley English professor and antiwar veteran Peter Dale Scott pointed out how quickly the campaign against South African apartheid took hold on campuses in 1984 after a lengthy period in which activism was absent. "Things are quiet now," he concluded, "but you never know when something's going to happen."
Professor Scott was more on target than he could have known. Less than two weeks later, the building housing Scott's department was taken over in a symbolic act of occupation by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The activists demanded a response by the UC regents to their call for the university to withdraw its investments in Israel. University police made 32 arrests and kept the students from blocking entrances.
Many movements have come and gone since Berkeley students of the 1960s set the standards of protest. The past several years have seen an upswing in antiglobalization activism, but relatively few groups have been audacious or ambitious enough to try to affect directly specific policies of the United States.
The SJP, by contrast, has emerged out of the new Palestinian intifada like an angry hornet. And it is willing to use direct action and civil disobedience to bring back the days when the State Department felt the sting of student activism.
Since the Vietnam antiwar movement, in which students were able to interfere directly by resisting the draft, only one campaign targeting US foreign policy has achieved similar success: the 1980s efforts against apartheid.
Universities led the rest of the country in removing investments from companies that did business with the apartheid government. The divestment in 1986 of the University of California's $3 billion in stock holdings was particularly important because at that point it was the largest public institution to take a stand. Nelson Mandela, during a visit to the area after his release from prison, pointed to this event as a catalyst that ultimately helped end white-minority rule in South Africa.
Snehal Shingavi, a member of SJP, estimates that $6.4 billion of the current UC portfolio is invested in companies that do substantial business in Israel (defined by the group as transactions worth $5 million or more annually, or having branches or subsidiaries), often directly in the Israeli military-industrial complex.
The names are well known: General Electric, which manufactures the propulsion systems for attack helicopters used in the occupied territories; Hewlett-Packard, which provides the electronics; Raytheon, which makes the missiles; Cisco Systems, Texas Instruments, AOL Time Warner, and Microsoft.
"The people who run our universities are not just tacitly supporting but are actually benefiting from the exploitation of Palestinians," Mr. Shingavi says.
Fellow SJP member Sarah Weir says she hasn't been involved with activist causes until now, because "other issues never motivated me like this one does."
SJP has attracted attention at Berkeley with its unique brand of demonstrations. The group uses symbolism and street theater to bring students eye-to-eye with what it sees as an unjust Israeli occupation.
In its first demonstration, the group blocked off Sathar Gate a major point of entry onto campus and turned it into an Israeli checkpoint. On one side of the gate, marked "Jews only," there was free access. But on the other, marked "Palestinians," group members dressed as Israeli soldiers toted cardboard guns and demanded to know people's destinations and to see ID cards.