Berkeley students celebrate victory
London – Tom Rollins
The 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for a global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) solidarity movement has hit the headlines recently after Stephen Hawking refused to attend an Israeli conference because of the country’s policies in the Occupied Territories.
A series of key victories in academic, cultural and political circles has pushed BDS from a groundswell to an internationally recognised movement that – for better and for worse – promotes debate and dialogue surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.
So the 2013 London Palestine Film Festival’s decision to screen Anne Paxton’s documentary Pressure Points: Israel, Berkeley And The Divestment Resolution came at an opportune moment.
The film follows the University of California at Berkeley’s struggle to pass a divestment resolution targeting two companies – General Electric and United Technologies – which provide jobs, arms and electronics to Israel.
Paxton builds the documentary around the testimonies of activists, students and lobbyists to tell the narrative of the resolution itself as well as some of the meta-narratives we see in BDS today.
At the time, the student body’s 16-4 vote to divest from GE and United Technologies (which was then vetoed by student president Will Smelko) became so controversial AIPAC and local Jewish organisations pushed for the highest-ranking Jewish figure in the area to speak at Berkeley.
Paxton also frames the story within the history of US social justice movements, including the Free Speech Movement and anti-apartheid campaigns, to place pro-Palestinian politics on the famously progressive setting of Berkeley campus.
After a sustained campaign involving leading academics and political figures – among them Desmond Tutu and Noam Chomsky – the student body successfully overturns Smelko’s veto 16 votes to none.
The audience can feel as if it’s over without one realising but the fact Berkeley students passed another BDS resolution in April this year – divesting more than $14m in university assets from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings – serves as an encouraging footnote.