The student senate at the University of California, Riverside, has reversed itself, rescinding a resolution it passed a few weeks earlier that had targeted companies doing business with Israel in the West Bank.
Inspired by the broader BDS movement — which aims to isolate Israel by advocating boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state — the original resolution urged the campus and the UC system as a whole to divest itself from a handful of companies, citing their complicity with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. It was approved by UC Riverside’s student government on March 6, the last meeting of the winter term, by a vote of 11-5.
Pro-Israel UC Riverside students responded by introducing a measure to rescind the earlier resolution in advance of the student government’s first meeting of the spring term.
The crowded April 3 meeting drew students and other visitors on both sides of the issue. Just as the first hearing was dominated by presentations from the pro-divestment side of the argument, the debate over rescinding the resolution featured three extended presentations from the pro-Israel side. Pro-Palestinian activists were granted only limited time to speak against rescinding the earlier resolution.
After five hours, the motion to undo the earlier resolution passed by a margin of 10-2, with one senator abstaining.
The original resolution was not expected to have an impact on the UC’s investment portfolio; still, pro-Israel student leaders hailed the reversal as a success.
“The UCR campus now holds a neutral position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Jacqueline Zelener, a second-year student at the university who addressed the senators at the hearing. “We hope that this will be another stepping stone toward peaceful dialogue.”
Danny Leserman, who recently stepped down as president of Hillel and co-president of Highlanders for Israel at UC Riverside, also urged the senators to rescind the bill. In an interview the day after the resolution was reversed, Leserman said he spent part of his allotted time trying to assuage any concerns the senators might have had about reversing course.
Leserman urged them to follow the model of Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who in 2009 directed a fact-finding commission in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in the wake of the conflict in Gaza that the Israel Defense Forces called Operation Cast Lead. Goldstone’s initial report accused both Israel and Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, of committing war crimes and possibly even crimes against humanity. In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post in April 2011, Goldstone recanted the most severe claim leveled against Israel, namely, that Israel intentionally targeted civilians.
“If a South African judge appointed by the United Nations can push his pride aside for what is right, I think that UCR can do it, too,” Leserman recalled telling the senators. “And they did.”
Shadi Matar, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Riverside, crafted the original resolution and said he was disappointed at the senate’s vote to rescind it. Nevertheless, he saw the effort as a success, at least in terms of educating people on campus about the conflict.
“This is not the final end-all stage for divestment at UCR,” Matar said. “The fact that the resolution made it as far as it did says something in itself.”
The student government at UC Irvine passed a divestment bill targeting companies doing business with Israel in the West Bank in November 2012. A similar resolution was debated at UC Santa Barbara on April 3; a vote was expected to take place on April 10.
At UC San Diego (UCSD), where the student senate passed its own divestment resolution on March 13, members of the Jewish community on campus are making efforts to rescind that resolution. The student pro-Israel group on campus, Tritons for Israel, has endorsed a slate of candidates for student senate; the window to cast votes in that election closes on April 12.
Harrison Gill, president of the Union of Jewish Students at UCSD, said that while many in the Jewish community and others are hoping to elect a new council that can “seriously consider rescinding the resolution,” the effect of its passage was neutral, at worst.
“There hasn’t actually been an effect of the resolution passing on the way the university works,” Gill said.
In the wake of its passing, Gill added, UCSD administrators had begun considering some “tangible” improvements to the lives of Jewish students on campus.
“They’re beginning a feasibility study on being able to serve hot kosher food in a separate facility,” Gill said. UCSD administrators are also considering steps to make it easier for Jewish students to secure accommodations from professors when classes and exams conflict with religious holiday, he said.
An international studies major from Los Angeles who is set to graduate at the end of the term, Gill said there was another unanticipated benefit to the resolution’s passage: it brought to an end a battle that had consumed the energy of the UCSD Jewish community.
“We’re still going to try to repeal it,” he said, “but it’s no longer the constant fear that they’re going to pass it.”