A Look Beneath the Surface

The passage of the ASUC’s recent divestment bill has, since its inception, engaged this campus in heated and passionate debate. On the night of the vote, hundreds packed into the senate meeting room, many staying until early the next morning to hear the final 11-9 vote. And yet, the proceedings of last Wednesday paint, at most, an incomplete picture of just how the situation unfolded. For, in truth, the actual debate began two nights earlier, during the Monday committee meeting. And during that evening, a much different picture can be seen.

Source: Henry Ascencio, Daily Cal

That night, the External Affairs Committee of the ASUC met to discuss whether three bills would be sent to the Senate floor on Wednesday for a vote. One of those bills was SB160, Senator Kadifa’s Israeli divestment resolution— another, Senator Lurie’s counter bill 158. Beginning late in the evening, beneath the vaulting wood ceilings of the newly renovated Anna Head building, deliberation lasted well into the next morning, spanning over five hours in all. And, at the expense of brevity, below is a collection of the relevant proceedings of that night, with the intent to, hopefully, provide a fuller picture of the ASUC’s handling of divestment this time around.

The evening was composed of incessant and quickly repetitive arguments, heated debates, two cleverly-timed motions to appendage amendments to the already lengthy SB 160, and unbelievably large blocks of time devoted to explaining rules of order to the senators that should already know them. Yes, nothing says Monday night quite like watching senators debate for hours over procedural minutia.

That night, had you been there, you would have heard such gems as a ten minute brouhaha about whether to “vote on whether to vote”; or perhaps you would only have caught the glorious moment when one senator shot down a colleague’s motion, explaining, “you cannot make a motion, because we are in a motion!”

But certainly, that night was no occasion to be taken lightly. For that night, the old specter of divestment that had been looming over Berkeley for three years once again descended. And with it, came all the passions and memories of the last divestment bill.

That night, Senator Bellet chaired the committee meeting, sitting beside his recent political opponent, Senator Lurie: tonight, necessary allies. The first few minutes of the meeting were, as usual, taken up by technical procedures and mingling, but I shall spare you the tiresome specifics.

The first incident of note, however, was Senator Kadifa’s motion to rearrange the committee’s agenda (which ran 158, 160, 165) and address the bills in reverse order (allowing his bill to be formally discussed before Lurie’s anti-divestment alternative). With the new order, a number of lengthy amendments were then proposed to SB 160, coming apparently as quite the surprise to the rest of the senators. Taken aback, Senator Bellet acquiesced to a fifteen minute recess to discuss these unexpected changes to the bill— changes which included an alteration to a major “Be it Resolved” clause. The room was abuzz for every minute.

Upon returning to the session, Senator Bellet (by now visibly frustrated with this last minute push-through) proposed that 160 be tabled for one week.

There is an uproar from the table, murmuring and hissing from the crowd. Hands shoot up from half the present senators, eager to make their objections. Among them, EAVP Abbasi and Senator Vertiz vocally object to the motion. There is not, however, consensus. Senator Hua next chides the room for their disrespect (she cites the hissing), and Senator Deo speaks in favor of tabling “for transparency’s sake.” Senator Lurie, author of 158, naturally agreeing as well, criticizes the 160 amendments for inserting a substantial portion of the text of 158, calling it “not collaborative.”

In the midst of this uproar, Senator Pack— assuming his usual role of procedural referee, a shift which, for him, has become quite the habit— succeeds in calming the tumult by clarifying that, amendment or not, the current discussion and vote is on the originally proposed text of 160. Disgruntled but silenced, the remaining queued senators yield and Bellet rescinds his motion to postpone.

And thus discussion begins on 160. Senator Kadifa, Senator Saifuddin, EAVP Abbasi and others clearly take to the defense of the bill, while— lonely at the end of the table, Senators Lurie and Bellet voice their objections to it. Among the voting members of the committee however, are over half a dozen other non-voting senators whose seemingly unexpected arrival, funnily enough, held up the meeting for a solid ten minutes so that tables could be moved in to accommodate them.

The arguments ran much like this. Kadifa and Saifuddin maintained the theme that divestment was a “neutral” action, and that as a public institution, UC Berkeley should not be investing in companies linked with the Israeli military. “We should not be complicit actors in supporting companies that destroy Palestinian homes,” remarked one senator. To concerns raised about the effect of 160 on the college climate and the possibility of anti-Semitism arising on campus, Abbasi remarked that “social justice has never been a comfortable experience… it was not easy for Martin Luther King…” For indeed, this was a large part of the argument heard from the 160 opposition— that the bill was, in essence, divisive and one-sided, and would create an unwelcoming and uncomfortable environment on campus.

However, it was the bill’s link to a particular anti-Semitic organization— BDS— that comprised the bulk of the anti-160 argument. And Senator Lurie was quick to bring this up, explaining that the bill’s use of BDS as a source within the resolution’s text was an implicit endorsement of its values. For indeed, any ties to BDS (an organization whose founding member Omar Barghouti openly opposes a two-state solution as “immoral”) would certainly affect the nature of the bill and the message it sends, should it pass. Senator Bellet remarked, too, on just what that message would be, saying that regardless of the intentions of the bill, “the headlines” would read “Berkeley Divests from Israel.”

And for a great deal of time, the evening runs on like this. At about 11pm, two hours into 160 deliberation, Senator Gilbertson— now clearly positioned with the pro-160 camp— proposes his own list of several paragraph-long amendments to the bill, an announcement which consumes another near half hour of the night. First the committee, prompted by Senator Pack, argues whether or not to address each amendment individually; and then after yet another ten minute recess, they are adopted all together.

Now nearing 11:30 pm, two and a half hours after deliberation began, only pro-divestment 160 has been discussed, with no apparent end in sight. A number of audience members have since left, senators are growing fatigued, and the true strategy of Senator Kadifa’s seemingly innocent reordering of the agenda is becoming clear…

And finally, Senator Bellet seems to have had enough.  In a slight breach of procedure, Bellet, citing the “unprecedented situation,” calls Joey Freeman to deliver his formal argument for the alternative anti-divestment bill, SB158, to give at least a taste of the other side’s view before the exhausted senators ultimately doze off into unconsciousness.

And, refreshingly, Freeman’s arguments are not all rehashings of what we had been hearing over the last two and a half hours. Arguing that SB160 “places the burden entirely on Israel,” Freeman also maintained the accusation that the bill is “inextricably linked to the BDS movement.”

But this brief deviation is quickly ended, for much of the senate present still objects to Bellet’s allowing Freeman to present his argument while still on 160. Senator Vertiz, among others, complains that it “broke the consistency” of the evening, while Senator Bellet maintains that his only intention was to keep the discussion “balanced.”

Discussion on SB160 continued with Lurie’s lamenting that “there is a narrative that is not mentioned in this bill;” and, in response to attacks on Israel’s construction of a wall, he maintained that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”

To this, Senator Majd, rather reserved in her remarks until now, proceeds to call the wall “the essence of Apartheid.”

At 11:45 pm, Senator Bellet once again voices his concerns over the supposed neutrality of the bill, asserting that “divestment in and of itself takes a stand.” Senator Lieu, visibly agitated for some time now, addresses Bellet’s remarks, calling it “disingenuous” for a sitting chairman to be engaging so frequently in discussion and suggests that he step down for the evening.

As he does, EVP Justin Sayarath— however hesitantly— assumes the chair. And by this time in the evening, we see a more pensive, more emotionally fatigued Jason Bellet, stark in contrast to the upbeat and seemingly tireless candidate campaigning on Sproul.

Approaching midnight, Senator Kadifa— however begrudgingly— proposes that in order to assuage the concerns of his bill’s link to the BDS movement, the citations mentioning the organization be removed from the bill.

It is midnight and, long silent for some time now, Senator Deo, calls out both bills 160 and 158 as “symbolic,” both deserving of the “right to make it to the floor.” Arguing that as symbolic bills, arguments come down to the message they send, we hear a relatively fresh contribution to the conversation by an assumedly undecided senator. For many, this was the first hint that the Deo would side, as indeed he did, with anti-divestment on Wednesday.

By midnight, half the audience has gone home, many have gone and returned with food, and senators are being delivered coffee. By midnight, the room is tired and the air is thick. And by midnight, SB158 has yet to be formally discussed and no single vote has been taken on either.

At 12:20 am, Senator Bellet proposes a vote on 160, and, with a 6-0-0 vote, it is placed upon the agenda for Wednesday.

And here is the absurdity of Monday night. Because, for all the debate and all passions flared, the hours of wide-sweeping remarks and umbrella statements, of procedural nitpicking and ego-fueled grandstanding, at the end of the day (or perhaps morning?), the purpose of this committee was merely to decide on whether or not 160 and 158 should be debated on the senate floor on Wednesday. But instead, it would have seemed to anyone present that this evening was itself the night of the final decision.

Ultimately, Lurie’s SB158, too, was voted to make it to the floor. And yet, I left the Anna Head building just the slightest bit perturbed. For what I saw was this: Two competing bills were brought to the committee for discussion — two bills, representing the opposing views of vast swaths of the student population; and yet, due to a shrewd re-ordering of the agenda, superfluously drawn out proceedings and excessive recesses, one side consumed the majority of the night — one side had a veritable monopoly on the discussion. And without passing judgment on the merits or flaws of either bill, something was awry that night. And Wednesday was in many ways just the same.

For, by the end of the five hour long committee meeting Monday night, Lurie’s 158 bill had been amended over and over— changed, re-worded and watered down— as anti-divestment senators made concession after concession in the attempt to compromise with those supporting divestment.

However, their trust in the sponsors of 160 to likewise afford them the same cooperative courtesy proved soon to be ill-placed come Wednesday. For, halfway into SB160 deliberations, the pro-divestment camp— undoubtedly adhering closely to a predetermined strategy settled just the night before— stonewalled any additional amendment to their own bill, time and time again asserting that such additions “diverged from [its] original intent”.

When Bellet proposed that 160 include endorsement of a two-state solution, the amendment was shot down. When he proposed 160 recognize the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist, the amendment was shot down. When appeal after appeal was made to better account for the entirely absent Jewish narrative in the bill, even while still acquiescing to the final resolution to divest, Senators Kadifa, Saidfuddin, and Pack shot them down.

And why? Because such provisions “diverged” from the bill’s “original intent”. And yet, on Monday, this principle did not seem to stop these same senators from tearing apart the opposition’s bill, SB158. On Monday, this did not stop the endless slew of amendments being forced upon the competition, in the supposed spirit of cooperation. Bellet and Lurie stood by, allowing these same senators to amend and attach concessions onto their bill, and, come Wednesday, this cruel trick was played upon them.

And that is what the full story of SB160 depicts. Two competing bills, each supported by passionate and well-meaning young students. But when touched by the ruthless game that is ASUC politics, nothing emerges unstained.

Image Source: Henry Ascencio, Daily Cal