Will Smelko, the 22-year-old president of the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, became a hero among pro-Israel advocates last month when he risked campus outrage by vetoing a divest-from-Israel bill passed by the student senate. The bill accused Israel of war crimes and called for the UC Regents and student government to divest from General Electric and United Technologies, who supply Israel with aviation materials. The bill had gained widespread campus support and passed with a 16-4 senate majority when it arrived on Smelko’s desk. He said he had seven days to educate himself on Middle East politics before making his decision. The Southern California native talks about why he vetoed the bill, the role of the Jewish community in his decision, and why he believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really doesn’t belong on a college campus.
Jewish Journal: Some people might find it surprising that a non-Jewish student leader on a famously left-leaning campus stuck his neck out for Israel. Why did you veto the divestment bill?
Will Smelko: First, I examined the effect it had on campus and how a lot of students felt uncomfortable about it — I’d even go so far as to say they felt unsafe and targeted, the Jewish students on our campus. I ultimately decided it was a one-sided attack on Israel and that it didn’t make sense to start with Israel as a primary country to divest from when so many other countries in the world commit violations of human rights. That was an indication that there was another motive behind the bill.
JJ: Why do you think it enjoyed such overwhelming support?
WS: On the surface, the proponents of the bill did a good job of portraying the bill as something it wasn’t — they basically disguised it and masked it broadly as a whole campaign to divest from war crimes around the world. But in reality, the bill was only about Israel. They got well-meaning students to vote against war crimes without realizing that they were singling out Israel in a harmful way.
JJ: Did you experience pressure from campus Jewish groups to veto the bill?
WS: I received easily around tens of thousands of e-mails and letters, but to be honest, it was predominantly on the side supporting the bill, asking me not to veto. The response I got from the other [Jewish] side was pale in comparison. I remember seeing an e-mail from a pro-Israel student urging fellow students not to contact me because they didn’t think I was going to consider vetoing. It said something like, “Don’t e-mail him; it’s not going to help.”
JJ: Do you think the bill’s initial support came in part because pro-Israel groups were disorganized and ineffectual?
WS: Yeah, I would say there’s no doubt about that. When you only hear the effect it’s going to have on Palestinian students, and you don’t hear the other side as often, it’s compelling and it’s hard to go against. It’s human nature that whoever is in our ear the most usually wins.
JJ: How did you go about educating yourself on this issue?
WS: After reflecting for a couple of days, I called different people on both sides and researched and read up online. I decided to selectively reach out and seek advice from faculty experts about the history and context. I took 10 pages of notes, front and back.
JJ: Are you religious?
WS: I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school for a lot of my life.
JJ: What was your experience of Jews when you were growing up?
WS: I had Jewish friends. I went to a lot of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs; I even speak a little bit of Hebrew from what I remember.
JJ: As someone who is elected to serve a constituency, how did you find the courage to defy popular opinion?
WS: It sounds funny, but I don’t feel like I had courage or any sort of exceptional behavior. I decided what was right and what was wrong and how to go with it. While I know my decision upset a lot of people, it’s not worth sacrificing even one prospective student or making students want to transfer because our student government decided to get involved in such a messy issue and take a stand that alienates people. You wouldn’t have that type of atmosphere if you said, “We condemn the genocide in Rwanda” or “We condemn the genocide in Sudan.” This issue isn’t as clear-cut as those.
JJ: So you would say that your decision was solely the result of your own conscience and not tied to any diplomacy on your part?
WS: Absolutely. I really tried to look at the bigger picture. The level of discussion over such a complicated issue was talked about [in the senate] for four to five hours in one night, and that was it. I guarantee you — I absolutely guarantee you — that at the time they passed the bill, over 10 of the senators probably couldn’t find Palestine on a map. And when you’re not an expert on something like this, and you make such a bold statement, the only thing it can be based on is emotion, rather than actual facts.
JJ: After you vetoed the bill, there was a movement in the senate to override your veto. Why didn’t that happen?
WS: There were a couple meetings. At the first one, 800 people showed up, and the deliberation went on until 7 a.m., but they decided to table the discussion. There was another meeting with a large audience a few weeks ago, and they finally decided to sustain the veto. A couple of people ended up changing their minds on the way they originally voted — [the bill] was sustained by a difference of one vote.
JJ: Do you think campus divestment campaigns are useful?
WS: When people come up and say, “Oh Israel did something wrong, therefore we should divest,” I wouldn’t support anyone saying the same thing of the United States — “Oh, because of Abu Ghraib, we don’t want to fund the U.S. military anymore.”
JJ: Do you consider yourself pro-Israel?
WS: You know, at this point, I would say yes. I believe from a personal standpoint that Israel has every right to exist and that the state itself is necessary in this world. Though I do sympathize with people on the other side. I know that in a war both sides are going to do things that are harmful. It’s bad, it’s a conflict, and that’s what happens in a conflict.
JJ: Do you plan to go into politics?
WS: I considered applying to a joint law-public policy program, but I may want to study abroad for a while after I graduate. I’m really interested in the business end of the sports and entertainment industries, so I don’t know why law school makes any sense. I had a really cool internship working for Jerry Bruckheimer a few years ago, and it was just awesome.