In the first two weeks of March, student governments at two University of California campuses — UC Riverside and UC San Diego (UCSD) — voted to approve resolutions urging their campus administrations and the University of California as a whole to divest from companies doing business in the West Bank.
The resolutions, both of which passed by significant margins, came just a few months after the student government at UC Irvine voted unanimously to approve a similar measure. And, according to pro-Israel activists, divestment measures are in the works at two other public universities in Southern California.
The approved resolutions urge the University of California, and the administrations of each of the individual campuses, to divest from companies with business interests that either assist in or profit from Israel’s presence in the West Bank. The measures are unlikely to force the individual campuses or the UC to take any action because of a UC policy limiting such action, but their passage has nonetheless proved disconcerting for pro-Israel students on those campuses.
“As a result of this bill, Jews, Israelis and their friends have been alienated from the rest of the student population,” Jacqueline Zelener, co-president of Highlanders for Israel, the pro-Israel student group at UC Riverside, wrote in an e-mail.
The BDS movement — the initials stand for advocacy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel — has become well known in recent years, and resolutions urging divestment from companies doing business with Israel have come before student governments at California universities before.
In 2010, UC Berkeley’s student government approved a resolution urging divestment from two companies that supply Israel with war materials, however the UC Berkeley student body president later vetoed the resolution. Earlier this month, Stanford University’s undergraduate student government voted against a divestment bill that targeted companies doing business with Israel.
Unlike at Stanford, where debate over the divestment bill lasted for multiple weeks before a vote was taken, pro-Israel students at UC Riverside only learned about the proposed resolution on their campus the night before the Associated Students of UC Riverside (ASUCR) voted on it.
They [the resolution’s backers] kept it very secret from anyone who might have even been the slightest bit neutral or in the opposition,” said Danny Leserman, a business economics major at UC Riverside, who serves as president of Hillel and co-president of Highlanders for Israel.
StandWithUs sent a staff member to UC Riverside on the day of the divestment resolution vote to help students advocate against the measure, but the arguments in favor of divestment proved to be more convincing.
“Senators were worried about getting involved in something political, and not being neutral,” Amal Ali, one of the backers of the resolution at UC Riverside, told Electronic Intifada, a Web-based publication co-founded by a prominent Palestinian-American activist.
“Being neutral is divestment,” Ali continued. “Because right now, we currently invest in only one side of this apparently two-sided conflict ... and the solution was either to begin investing in Palestinian companies, which is obviously not feasible, or to disinvest from both sides and stay completely out of it.”
Leserman said the argument did have sway over the student senators, but called it misleading.
“They took advantage of the fact that most senators — and most people — don’t know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
The resolution was approved 11-5. Leserman said he and other students are preparing to push for the resolution’s revocation.
The UCSD student-body resolution was given far more attention in advance. More than 150 people packed into an auditorium for a debate on March 6 that was cut off after eight hours, according to a report from the UCSD campus newspaper. The vote had to be postponed until the following week.
Two members of Congress representing districts in San Diego sent letters to the UCSD student council president, urging a vote against divestment; the final vote went in favor of the resolution, 20-12, with one abstention.
Local campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UC Irvine, UC Riverside and UCSD sponsored the divestment measures. Indeed, at UCSD, this was the fourth straight year that SJP submitted a divestment resolution.
“We should not be surprised that this is coming up,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, an education nonprofit that works with students to present pro-Israel messages on campus. Pro-Palestinian and Muslim student groups on multiple campuses coordinate their efforts, Rothstsein said, adding that StandWithUs has heard reports about divestment resolutions being prepared at California State University, Long Beach, and UC Santa Barbara.
Shadi Matar, the president of SJP at UC Riverside, said that fellow activists at UC Irvine encouraged him to introduce the measure on his campus.
In late January, about 75 members of SJP chapters from across Southern California gathered at UC Irvine for a day of workshops. That day, someone suggested to Matar, a third-year political science major, that he should consider advancing a divestment resolution at UC Riverside.
And when it came time to put together the text of the resolution, Matar said, the SJP members from UC Irvine offered him their text as a model.
“We guided them through the creation of their resolution and constantly encouraged them to continue organizing toward divestment from companies that profit from apartheid,” Sabreen Shalabi, a fourth-year UC Irvine student, wrote in an e-mail. Shalabi is a member of SJP at UC Irvine and was the lead author of the divestment measure approved by that campus’ student government in November.
The pro-Israel side appears to be just as well-coordinated.
The Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), based in Washington, D.C., strategically counters BDS efforts on campus, but that’s only one part of its mission. The key to successful advocacy, ICC Executive Director Stephen Kuperberg said, is advance preparation, before a crisis hits. To that end, ICC communicates with contacts on more than 100 campuses and more than 30 national organizations every month, all in an effort to “create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus.”
“These votes are not a single event,” Kuperberg said. “Just as the pro-Israel community on a national level doesn’t hope to influence Congress on the day of a vote — we work to nurture relationships with members of Congress year over year — the same is true of the campus environment.”
Ultimately, the resolutions will likely have no impact on the UC’s investment portfolio. In its May 2010 “Statement on Divestment,” the UC declared that it would “divest from a foreign government or companies doing business with a foreign government only when the United States government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide.” The federal government has made no such declaration about Israel.
In the wake of the vote at UC Riverside, Interim Chancellor Jane Close Conoley released a statement reiterating the UC policy.
Matar, who sponsored the divestment resolution at UC Riverside, called Conoley’s response “a slap in the face to student representatives asll across the UC system.”
“Students are the ones who end systematic oppression, racism, wars, and 18,000 [UC Riverside] students collectively said we want to take our funding out of companies that profit from apartheid,” Matar said. “She [Conoley] basically said, ‘We can’t do anything about it; thanks for the resolution anyway.’ ”
What impact the resolution will have on the climate at UC Riverside remains to be seen. During the debate over the resolution on March 6, Leserman, the pro-Israel activist at UC Riverside, pled with those in attendance, urging them to reject divestment on the grounds that it would do damage to the campus atmosphere, particularly for Jewish students.
UC Riverside has seen its share of incendiary demonstrations and heated debates in recent years, but since fall 2011, Leserman, whose mother is Israeli, has been working with other students to foster a more civil environment for debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus.
Leserman had previously worked with Matar, whose parents are Christians from Bethlehem, and they have been collaborating under the umbrella of UC Riverside’s Middle Eastern Student Center. The two organized an evening of interfaith comedy for UC Riverside students in February 2012, and in interviews, Matar and Leserman each described the other as a friend.
But when Leserman spoke at the ASUCR meeting, he said he couldn’t look Matar in the eye, and he painted an ominous picture of what the campus climate would be like if the senators voted for divestment.
“If this happens, then all that’s for nothing,” Leserman recalled saying. “It will set us back longer than the time we’d actually been working together.”
Leserman said he feels “pretty betrayed,” by the actions his Palestinian friend has taken, but Matar, in an interview with the Journal, remained resolute.
“I don’t apologize for what I did,” Matar said. “I’m not going to stop my activism because of hurt feelings or anything like that.”