Dear SAMMI, I have been an activist since I was a teenager, and yet, the night of April 28 in the Pauley Ballroom of UC Berkeley will surely stand out as one of the most remarkable activist achievements I have ever witnessed. And I am grateful that you were there, represented by thousand of green stickers: each with a name, a place, an identity. While the senate at UC San Diego sent a similar proposal to a committee for further study, divestment proponents at Berkeley failed by just one vote to reverse a presidential veto of their original overwhelming vote to divest. The members of Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine wanted UC to divest from 2 companies that profit from killing and harming of civilians as part of Israel’s occupation. Yes, companies that make money from death. From control. From destruction. They needed 14 votes out of 20 to overturn the veto. Despite truly heroic efforts on the part of countless students, including such impressive student senators, in the end they had 13 votes. The 14th abstained. And yet, if you ask the question, after weeks of multiple hearings and votes, Who really won here?, the numbers speak for themselves:
Nearly 30 hours of hearings and testimony with standing room only audiences and in some cases, people flying in from other parts of the country to testify, others sending video or being Skyped in from Palestine and Gaza. The support of some 100 professors, over 40 student groups, 5 Nobel Laureates, 9 Israeli peace groups, 263 community Jews in one ad plus 40 pages and growing of notable Jewish endorsements, some 8,000 JVP supporters like you from around the globe who in just 5 days created a sea of visible support.
At this last and final hearing alone, there were 500 people, standing room only.
A speaker asked the supporters of divestment to stand up: nearly 80% stood.
A senator announced that 62% of that night’s registered speakers were pro-divest, while 38% were against. After everything, 13 of 20 senators at one of the United States’ leading academic institutions stood clearly on the side of divestment.
And that’s why so many left with a feeling of both anger and jubilation. But more than anything, determination.
If the theme of the all-night hearing in mid April-at which a final vote was tabled- was that there was every bit as much, if not more Jewish support for divestment as against it on the UC campus, the narrative running through April 28th’s all-night session was that this is about the Palestinian story, Palestinian resilience, Palestinian humanity and one day, in their quest for justice and full equality, Palestinian victory.
Imagine hours and hours of testimony from Palestinian and Arab student after student, each standing in front of a microphone and hundreds to tell their story- stories of broken bones, destroyed homes, arbitrary imprisonment and torture. Stories of bombs through living room windows, and strips searches at checkpoints. Stories of not being able to learn because schools are closed down for years at a time. Stories that until now seemed to have been banished from the public square because the mere fact of their telling, and in so doing asserting the full beauty and humanity of the teller, has been taken as a threat.
But not on this night. Not for these hours. Not in this room. Above: Sea of bright green: supporters before and during the epic all-night hearing on divesting from Israel’s occupation at UC Berkeley.
Unless they physically plugged their ears and closed their eyes, there was not one person in that room who was not forever changed by hearing those students. Not the 80% who supported divestment. And not the 20% who didn’t.
Many of you personally helped make the room a sea of green of support. In just 5 days, over 8,000 people from all over the country, many from all over the world, said, “we stand with you.” We printed out thousands of stickers and they became like trading cards as people poured over your names and statements. “Oh look, David is a rabbinical student from Philadelphia. Dina is a Muslim teacher from New York. Let me wear Izak, a Quaker from Boston. No, wait, I’m wearing the Zeyde (grandfather) from Atlanta.” I saw more than one Palestinian student wearing a green sticker on her heart as she stood at the microphone, showing the most remarkable kind of courage. The kind required to tell your most painful family story, a story of death and heartbreak, without knowing it would actually be heard by those in front of you. But I know she was supported in telling her story by the massive visible support you showed her. We all felt it.
There are so many lessons to be learned from these past weeks, from what started as a nonviolent call for Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) from Palestinians in 2005, moved to US campuses like Hampshire and University of Michigan at Dearborn, and is now just beginning to spread across the country.
Divestment is a tactic meant to build a movement for justice and equality, not an end unto itself. The outcome of the vote became far less important than the way the fight for the bill electrified the campus, the community, and thousands of people all over the world. It’s impossible to convey the life changing and movement-building impact of this experience.
Take Emily Carlton, an ASUC senator who sponsored the bill. She spoke eloquently of starting out as a “privileged white, mainstream” sorority member who first became educated about the issue when SJP students came to lobby her, but who then found an entirely new community of friends in a world she never before knew existed. One in which Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Christian, and other students blend easily as classmates, as friends, as activists. Her life, she said, will never be the same- and she is just one person.
In the coming weeks, we will share the lessons learned, some in our own words, many in the words of UC students, staff and alum. But first let me tell you how the night ended.
By the final vote, it was close to 5am. Still dark out.
When the vote was announced, the room silently received the news. Supporters placed the green stickers on our mouths to protest the fact that in the end, just a few votes had blocked the will of the majority of students. A student senator stood up and told everyone to put one hand on their heart on the other in the air, symbolically holding seeds in their fist with which we would all spread the movement outside and across the community, the country, the world.
So here is one seed.
The supporters silently filed out to Sproul Plaza, where the original Free Speech movement began.
Hundred remained outside, talking, chanting, singing, laughing, hugging, crying.
Yes, students were angry, but they were exhilarated. They understood they had done something remarkable. That in so many ways, life would never be the same. It was the end of a long year, but the beginning of a new stage of the movement. And I am so grateful that you were all there in the room with us. It’s clear now. It is only a matter of time until we are all able to recognize each other’s full humanity, and thereby reclaim our own. Cecilie Surasky, Jewish Voice for Peace