The University of California, Riverside is a rather sleepy suburban campus, known more for its commuter students anxious to get home or to jobs after class than for bold political statements.
So the student senate’s passage of a lightning resolution supporting the University of California system’s divestment from companies that it charged with profiting from “the Apartheid occupation of the Palestinians,” surprised many.
Pro-Israel Jewish students, perhaps more surprised than anyone, scrambled to block the resolution less than a day after hearing it was on the agenda.
“The news was a shock to the Jewish community on campus; no one had expected their ‘friends’ to deceive them and keep their plans a secret,”wrote Jacqueline Zelener, a member of the campus group Highlanders for Israel in a letter to the university newspaper for members of Students for Justice in Palestine, the group behind the resolution, which Zelener said had been in dialogue with Jewish groups on campus.
Amal Ali, the president of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Riverside, said keeping the resolution under wraps was the only way to “level the playing field,” noting that similar resolutions on other campuses had been quashed by well-funded major Jewish or pro-Israel organizations.
“We are aware that the Jewish lobby is very powerful and know BDS is something they fight against,” said Ali, the daughter of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank. “We knew national figures would have come in … and that students could be swayed by someone from AIPAC or Congress. We wanted to focus on student impact.”
A growing movement?
A week later and some 100 miles down the California coast, the University of California, San Diego student senate approved a similar, but more conservatively worded resolution. The vote, again advocating the University of California’s divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, came after 21 hours of debate among student leaders and a very public four-year battle.
On both campuses, students said the resolutions received a boost from allies that included Mexican, black and LGBT student organizations, which see the Palestinian struggle as mirroring the histories of their own communities.
The two resolutions bring to three the number of University of California schools – of which there are ten – that have voted in favor of divestment, a pillar of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement known as BDS. Proponents say the resolutions prove that the divestment campaign is gaining momentum and speaking to a new generation of students who identify with the Palestinian cause and do not want to see their tuition money invested in companies they see as abating the Israeli occupation.
Those lobbying against the resolutions see them as a threat to Israel’s legitimacy and as a way to marginalize pro-Israel Jewish students on their own campuses.
The resolutions have no real power and the University of California president has said they will not bring a recommendation to the university board to divest from companies doing business with Israel. But they do carry symbolic weight.
As Ali from UC Riverdale’s Students for Justice in Palestine puts it, “The University of California has always been at forefront of social protests movements, so when any campus here makes a statement, the rest of the country listens.”
This is what has Meggie Le, the president of Associated Students, the student government body at UC San Diego, so distressed. She was among the minority that came out against her student senate’s resolution and worked hard to tone down its initial language.
“We did not want our school tied to the BDS movement, but at the end of the day, most people don’t pay attention to the language,” she said. “I believe divestment is horrible for the campus climate … it divides people based on cultural identities and I don’t think that’s okay.”
The 21-year-old daughter of Vietnamese immigrants had no investment in either side of the debate and was taken aback by the emotions it stirs. She said she has been verbally harassed by members of the pro-divestment camp since the vote in the early hours of Thursday morning. During the heavy campaigning of the past month, she has received some 11,000 emails from Congress members, faculty, students and members of the local community, to name a few.
Payton Carrol, a first-year-student and senator at UC San Diego is among those who voted in favor of the resolution after trying to find compromise language and focus on the corporate responsibility part of its message.
“Not until after the vote did I realize what I had done,” she said. “We are not about aligning ourselves with political propaganda that alienates students. I feel like I let a lot of people down.”
But Sydney Levy, director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace, a progressive Jewish group that is pro-divestment said the messaging of pro-Israel groups that divestment is divisive has clearly not resonated.
“Students for Justice in Palestine are talking about what is happening in Israel and Palestine, and Israel groups are trying to direct attention to what is happening on campus, not what is happening over there and student senates are not buying the argument,” he said, noting that some causes, like the American civil rights movement, are worth creating divisions over.
“What we are talking about is freedom of speech for students and about students being able to use non-violent means, and divestment is a non-violent means to end an injustice in which they are complicit, as it is their money, it is university money, being spent,” he said. “I believe there are going to be many more divestment resolutions not only in California, but the rest of country.”
Keri Copans, the director Hillel at UC San Diego said her group, which worked hard lobbying student senators against the bill all year, had a different take.
“We’ve been saying this is a movement going around to all the UCs, but this does not define the Jewish student experience on campus. BDS does not define their experience,” she said. “We have a vibrant community.”
Copans said her group had responded to the calls for divestment with a plan for investment, helping to create a university scholarship to send students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to visit Israel.
Meanwhile, Ali sees the divestment campaign taking off. “This is not the end, but the beginning,” she said.
Some eyes are now focused on the University of California-Berkeley where a divestment bill was struck down in 2010. The recently passed resolutions at the Riverside, San Diego and Irvine campuses appears to be prompting some to consider revisiting the topic.