To Divest or Not? Click Here. 

Israel cyber-petitions battle for hearts and minds of UC system.

On one side is the Palestinian liberation struggle -- via suicide bomber. On the other is the Israeli government's right of self-defense -- using advanced military hardware and bulldozers in civilian neighborhoods.

This past spring, the conflict's East Bay factions faced off on UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in a battle of opinions that has evolved into battling online petitions. The University of California Faculty Petition for Divestment from Israel (www.ucdivest.org) is urging the university to pull its money out of Israel and firms that supply the country's weapons. The UC Justice Campaign (www.ucjustice.org) thinks those investments should stay put.

The cyberfeud started after Students for Justice in Palestine, whose April 9 demonstration ended in 79 arrests at Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium, was approached by faculty supporters who wanted an online version of the group's divestment petition. The faculty-targeted petition went online June 4, with a declaration that the undersigned were "appalled by the human rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government, the continual occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory."

As of August 9, 193 UC faculty, 540 staff and alumni, and 167 community members had signed the petition. The emphasis is on faculty, said Webmaster Christopher Cantor. "Because of the weight given to faculty as learned and informed individuals, those signatures are given priority and clearly verified," he said. Similar petitions, he added, are circulating at Princeton, Cornell, New York University, Yale, and the University of Illinois in Chicago; MIT and Harvard have a joint petition.

The drive is modeled on successful student efforts in the late '70s and early '80s to force UC divestment from South Africa. A banner atop the pro-divestment site displays the following quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "I am a black South African, and if I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa."

Cantor, who is Jewish, was reached during a personal fact-finding mission in the Middle East. "Right now I am in the Gaza Strip," he said through cell-phone static. "I have seen soldiers playing cat-and-mouse with children in which the children are armed with stones and the soldiers are armed with M-16s. I have seen soldiers trying to lure children out into the streets and shooting at them with live ammunition."

Berkeley sophomore David Weinberg, who leads the UC Justice Campaign, views things differently. His petition is designed to attract faculty, staff, students, and alums who "support peace in the Middle East, [and] oppose the misguided divestment petition calling for punitive actions by the US government and our university against the State of Israel."

Weinberg vehemently rejects his rival's apartheid comparisons and characterization of Israel as a colonial state. "Apartheid South Africa benefited from racist laws; those practices are illegal under Israeli law," says Weinberg. "There's a twenty percent Arab minority in Israel proper, which means there is no separation like apartheid. There are countless other countries whose human-rights violations are worse than Israel. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive."

Divestment, Weinberg adds, would damage Israel's economy, hurting both Jews and Palestinians: "Disengagement and abandonment at this critical time is a very dangerous idea to all parties involved and [to] peace." Instead he urges what sounds like a policy of constructive engagement. "We urge the best way to make a difference is humanitarian aid. ... General support is what is needed. That is a very positive way that people can get involved."

Weinberg allows that his Web site was a direct response to the SJP divestment campaign, which he calls "a vocal partisan minority" and "unrepresentative of the community."

"Our petition started in the beginning of July, and we gathered four and a half times as many signatures as the other petition in substantially less time," he says.

Indeed, the anti-divestment site on August 9 had 4,038 signatures, including 523 faculty members, and 2,083 students, staff, and alumni. Weinberg says a mirror campaign to oppose the divestment petition at Harvard and MIT has collected "roughly" 5,000 or 6,000 signatures, "twelve times the number of signatures on their side."

While the rivals find little to agree upon, they do share a strong belief in their right to exist. The university does not -- its trademark-protection attorneys would like both Web sites to go away. To date, it has sent the pro-divestment campaign two cease-and-desist orders, which the group has ignored. And while the anti-divestment group has not yet received any such letters, that, said UC counsel Mary MacDonald, is because she wasn't aware of the site until the Express asked about it. "Our objection has nothing to do with content," insisted MacDonald. "The cease-and-desist letter we sent in this instance was a typical letter we need to send in a variety of contexts."

When his letter arrives, Weinberg, like Cantor, plans to stick to his guns. "They can see that our effort is representative of the community and it is a basic right," he says "We are concerned citizens and we are letting the university know how we feel."

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