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Checkpoint California: BDS Campaign Sweep UC Campuses

Checkpoint California: BDS Campaign Sweep UC Campuses

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Published by SJP at UCLA
The 2012-2013 academic year has seen seven University of California campuses launch campaigns to divest university funds from corporations enabling oppression of Palestinians. This essay outlines the roots of the campaign, its progress, and the pressures facing activists working to support Palestinian rights. For background on the broad BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) movement, see “A BDS Movement that Works” by Barbara Harvey in ATC 161, http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3720.)

Online version of article: http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3930
The 2012-2013 academic year has seen seven University of California campuses launch campaigns to divest university funds from corporations enabling oppression of Palestinians. This essay outlines the roots of the campaign, its progress, and the pressures facing activists working to support Palestinian rights. For background on the broad BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) movement, see “A BDS Movement that Works” by Barbara Harvey in ATC 161, http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3720.)

Online version of article: http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3930

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 AGAINST THE CURRENT
7
r e p o r t
BDS Campaigns Sweeps UC Campuses
Checkpoint California
By Rahim Kurwa
The 2012-2013 academic year has seen sevenUniversity of California campuses launchcampaigns to divest university funds from cor-porations enabling oppression of Palestinians.This essay outlines the roots of the campaign,its progress, and the pressures facing activistsworking to support Palestinian rights. For back- ground on the broad BDS (boycott/divestment/ sanctions) movement, see “A BDS Movementthat Works” by Barbara Harvey in
ATC
161,http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3720.)
WHILE THE FIRST divestment campaign atthe University of California dates back to2001 at UC Berkeley, the current wave of divestment activism has grown significantlyin the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead inthe winter of 2008-2009. This Israeli assaulton the Gaza Strip resulted in roughly 1,400deaths, among whom a majoritywere civil-ians and 308 were minors. Among the civil-ian infrastructure destroyed were eighteenschools, 3,540 housing units, 268 privatebusinesses, mosques, hospitals, and a bevy of United Nations refugee aid projects.Major reports by Human Rights Watch,the UN and Amnesty International revealedserious evidence of war crimes and crimesagainst humanity. Recoiling in horror fromwhat it described as 22 days of death anddestruction, Amnesty International called fora comprehensive arms embargo on Israel, asa response to its ongoing attacks on civiliansand civilian infrastructure, both of whichcontravene international law.Thus Operation Cast Lead marked aturn in the Palestine solidarity movement inthe United States. In addition to the masspublic protests seen around the country,chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine(SJP) grew with new members and workedwith new urgency. Just as it was impossibleto defend Israel’s behavior, it also becameimpossible to ignore the clear and simplecall from Palestinian society for the inter-national community to focus on removingits complicity from immoral acts committedagainst Palestinians.That spring, UC Los Angeles’ studentsenate passed a bill condemning the attacksand UC San Diego students offered a billcalling for divestment from companies prof-iting from the attacks on the Gaza Strip.Although UCSD’s bill did not pass, UCBerkeley students offered a similar bill thenext spring. They focused their campus’attention on the role of American corpora-tions, namely General Electric and UnitedTechnologies, in enabling and profiting fromviolence against Palestinians.In addition to forcing the question of Palestine onto the forefront of student dis-cussions, the campaign elicited the responseof the Israeli government and other “pro-Is-rael” groups in the United States, whoresponded by arguing that divestment fromGeneral Electric and United Technologieswas a form of bigotry against Jewish stu-dents.Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor, whopersonally attended student governmenthearings, ceded the point that Israel wasengaged in human rights abuses againstPalestinians, but argued that Palestiniancasualties were a necessary cost for Israel’ssecurity. To complement this justification, Torrepeatedly insisted that, by singling out Israelfor scrutiny, the divestment vote would beanti-Semitic.Anti-divestment talking points foundin the room after the hearings revealedthat many students had been coached torepeat similar ideas — that divestment wasan attack on them as students, that theywere being silenced by the bill, and thatdivestment made them feel unsafe. Certainlymany anti-divestment students had strongemotions about the bill, but it also appearsthat those emotions became the platformfor systematic talking points used to changethe subject.Although not offering the same ideolog-ical arguments, the UC Regents also soughtto discourage divestment by announcingthat they would not honor a student vote.Rejecting the proud history of UC divest-ment from South Africa, the Regents wrotethat they would now only consider divest-ment in the context of genocide, a standardthat conveniently upheld actions againstSudan but ruled out the same actions asapplied to Israel.In the face of these pressures, the UCBerkeley student senate nonetheless votedto recommend divestment from GeneralElectric and United Technologies by a 16-4margin. Unfortunately, senate president WillSmelko vetoed the bill less than a week later and although they had a clear majority,the student senators could not find thesupermajority required to override his veto.This campaign, now captured in theexcellent documentary “Pressure Points,”brought the issue of Palestinian rights tothe attention of many students who other-wise would be disengaged from the issue. Itrevealed to many students a lopsided debatein which pro-divestment activists argued thefacts while anti-divestment activists cededfacts and argued emotions.The veto of such a widely supported billwas of course in some days disappointing,but proved to be only a temporary setback.By 2012 a new wave of activism wouldreturn divestment to the UC agenda.
A New Year of Activism
Because of the intense repression of student activism on its campus, UC Irvinemight be the last place to expect a divest-ment bill to pass. In 2010, students whohad staged a walkout of Israeli AmbassadorMichael Oren were arrested and chargedby the Orange County District Attorneywith conspiracy to disrupt and disrupting ameeting. Also in retaliation, the UC Irvineadministration temporarily suspended theMuslim Student Union.That students could be pursued soaggressively for using a common protesttactic indicates the double standards appliedto Palestine activism. While the effect of these prosecutions may have been chillingto some extent, the effect was clearly onlytemporary.In November 2012, UC Irvine’s studentsenate became the first to successfully passa divestment resolution (without beingoverturned by veto), voting 16-0 in favorof recommending that the UC systemcease investing in a series of companiesthat enable and profit from every stageof the occupation, supplying Israel not just weapons (e.g. General Electric), butthe mechanics and technology it needs todemolish Palestinian homes in the WestBank (Caterpillar), build illegal settlements intheir place (Cement Roadstones Holdings),and construct and operate the wall andcheckpoint system that strangles Palestinian
Rahim Kurwa is a graduate student in sociology at UCLA.
 
8
JULY / AUGUST 2013
life (Cemex, Hewlett Packard).The vote reignited the spirit of 2010, andin the months following it we have seen aseries of divestment attempts across theUniversity of California. Although they hadsubmitted a bill every year since 2009, thisyear’s divestment hearings at UC-San Diegolasted three weeks.The process became extended when,during the original senate decision, senatorswho opposed divestment employed a strate-gy of extending discussion until the buildingwas forced to close at 2 am, so that the billcould not come to a vote.Other forms of pressure included asenator threatening to resign over thebill, and letters of opposition sent byRepresentatives Juan Vargas and SusanDavis, as well as the University’s mostprominent donor, Irwin Jacobs. Reflectingon the hearings, an SJP board member atUCSD noted that while her group’s earlierefforts were met with justifications of Israelistate policies as security necessities, morerecent opposition to divestment focusedon emotional issues and attempts to makedivestment appear opposed to peace orundermining a two-state solution.When the vote was finally taken, how-ever, the extensions had proven to onlyincrease the clarity of the issue, and UC SanDiego’s government voted for divestmentby a much larger margin than activists orig-inally hoped for. They were supported by16 student organizations, ranging from theMexican and Chicano Students Associationto Asian Pacific Student Alliance, the localchapter of the graduate union, the Black Student Union, and the Coalition of SouthAsian Peoples.In response to this tapestry of support,anti-divestment activists reached out forlocal government figures to send letters of opposition to student senators.Stanford, Riverside, Santa Barbara,Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz alsolaunched divestment campaigns this spring.Week after week bills were being intro-duced, debated and voted on at schoolsacross California. The high rate of activismup and down the state has quickly educatedand mobilized large numbers of studentsand has given activists a new sense of whatis possible to achieve on campuses.Although Stanford’s bill was unsuccessful,it received enough support to attract hastyresponses from J-Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami and prominent congressmen such asHouse Whip Eric Cantor and DemocraticCongressman Charles Rangel, who record-ed videos urging Stanford not to divest.Riverside’s bill originally passed, but weeksof pressure over the spring break resultedin the senate eventually rescinding the bill.At Santa Barbara, the process of orga-nizing around the bill produced a list of 30 endorsing groups and beautiful expres-sions of solidarity across struggles. Movingstatements were read by students of color,whose experiences of colonialism, displace-ment, imperialism and racism were knittogether in solidarity with the Palestiniancall for divestment.Support from the UCSB chapter of MEChA and a group of undocumentedstudents was so strong that an undocument-ed student was appointed to be the solespeaker in favor of the bill at one of its finalhearings. It was also reported that after theCampus Democrats voted to endorse thebill in their executive council, alumni issuedthreats to investigate and possibly strip thechapter of national membership.Other pressure tactics included theanti-divestment groups claiming to be “Pro-Palestine, Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace, and Anti-Divestment,” an attempt to delegitimize abill that at the core seeks to remove tuitionfunds from corporation-supported violence.The bill failed by a small margin on its firstvote, partially due to the influence of anti-di-vestment speakers who employed similartactics, but was re-introduced twice in May.At the first re-hearing, anti-divestmentsenators used procedural loopholes toremove it from the legislative agenda beforethe meeting officially started. At the sec-ond meeting, the bill earned 12 votes to11 against and 1 abstention. Although the12-11 result indicated a simple majority,anti-divestment senators argued that the billneeded a majority of the total senate body,and that 12 of 24 total senators failed topass that mark. The Internal Vice Presidentat first ruled in favor of divestment, butreversed her ruling after being shouted at byan anti-divestment senator until she cameto tears.Other aspects of hostility manifestedby anti-divestment activists included sexistspeech and threats to students, and a stu-dent who punched a wall during the finalhearing. While UCSB’s SJP began arrangingfor carpools to escort pro-Palestine stu-dents safely across campus, the administra-tion remained silent about the intense cli-mate of intimidation they faced. The bill nowstands in judicial council awaiting review of the final vote.
Building the Debate
At Davis, the bill was prevented fromcoming to a vote before the full senate,but the campaign itself has created stron-ger bonds among activists involved insocial struggles. Although UC Santa Cruz’sdivestment campaign fell a few votes shyof passage (the vote was 17-19-3), studentscelebrated the remarkable change in campusdiscourse, evidenced by the fact that thesenate’s pro-divestment caucus more thandoubled (from 7 to 17 votes) during thethree-week deliberation process.In all, losses in the student senate havenot deterred students from continuing tooffer bills, because as debates occur acrosscampuses the consensus for Palestinianhuman rights only continues to grow, andthe moral case for divestment becomesmore and more clear. Support from alliedcampus groups, international luminaries(such as Roger Waters, Alice Walker andAngela Davis), and Palestinian studentsand graduates in the Occupied PalestinianTerritory have also been major sources of encouragement for activists.At UC Berkeley, the re-introduction of a divestment bill carried additional symbolicweight. As at other schools, the years since2010 debate have been marked by increasedpressure against SJP activism and a doublingdown on the idea that Jewish students areuniformly “pro-Israel.A second setback at Berkeley might haveput an indefinite halt to BDS efforts, but ina drawn out senate session that lasted until5am the next morning, Berkeley’s SJP andallied groups, along with several supportivesenators, made eloquent arguments andwithstood a series of tactics designed to dis-tract and confuse moderate senators.These tactics included attempting toinsert language into the bill that, if rejected,would make pro-Palestinian activists look unreasonable. One example was the attemptto insert language calling for a two-statesolution into the bill. Although “pro-Israel”senators hoped the rejection of this lan-guage would show moderates that BDSwas truly a one-state movement at its core,the language was voted down and did notachieve the intended result because a broadmajority of senators recognized how irrele-vant the statehood question is to the issueof Palestinian rights.Another strategy has been to introduceparallel bills calling for “positive investment,”which have also been seen as efforts toprovide centrist senators with a face-savingalternative to voting against divestment. Asthese efforts to delay and confuse issueswere exhausted, the wide array of pro-di-vestment student voices continued to holdmoral sway.As the Organization of African Studentswrote in the
Daily Cal 
, “The decision tosupport divestment is a result of our con-cerns about the continued marginalizationof Palestinians. As a people with a history of colonization, occupation and human rightsviolations, we can directly sympathize withthe Palestinian people. Some of us havedirectly experienced such marginalization,and others learned of them from parents orsecondary sources. Knowledge of this histo-ry makes us opposed to the mistreatmentof any group based on physical characteris-tics, ethnicity or creed.”
 
 AGAINST THE CURRENT
 
9
By passing the bill, UC Berkeley’s sena-tors affirmed these sentiments and markedthe movement’s most significant victory todate.
Confronting Repression
This organizing, however, has not comewithout facing significant barriers. Therepression of Palestine solidarity work atthe University of California generally fallsinto three categories: lawsuits and Title VIcomplaints made to the Department of Education, attacks on professors and aca-demic programs, and efforts to persuadethe University administration to restrictPalestine solidarity work on behalf of “pro-Israel” students. Among these runsthe common thread of an argument — thatbeing critical of Israel is the equivalent of being anti-Semitic.In 2011 one student, Jessica Felber,sued the University of California Berkeley,claiming that its failure to suppress pro-Pal-estinian activism on campus created a dis-criminatory environment by denying Jewishstudents (assumed to all be pro-Israel) equalaccess to education. On the same theory,UC Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin filed a complaint against UCSanta Cruz with the U.S. Department of Education.Both Felber’s lawsuit and Benjamin’scomplaint rely on the false theory thatcriticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. It is alsoworth noting that both Felber’s lawsuit andBenjamin’s complaint employ, to varyingdegrees, bigotry against pro-Palestinian stu-dents and rank Islamophobia.Rossman-Benjamin is also implicat-ed, through her organization “AMCHAInitiative,” in attacks on professors who dareto mention Palestine in their work. In 2012,she filed a complaint with the AcademicSenate of the University of California, LosAngeles, over Professor David Shorter’sinclusion of Palestine in a course on indige-nous movements. Like other administratorswho have received her letters, the senatecaved to her pressure and reprimandedShorter, before a follow-up investigationrevealed he had done nothing wrong andthat Rossman-Benjamin’s group furthermorehad no standing to file a complaint.Last year, AMCHA’s pressure on the UCadministration produced a UC-wide letterdisingenuously condemning SJP at UC Davisover behavior for which it was not respon-sible. More recently, video of Rossman-Benjamin using hate speech to describe hercampus’ Muslim Stiuent Association and SJPstudents has led to a new wave of attentionon her organization and its role in the cam-pus discourse.As students protested her remarks,Rossman-Benjamin responded by calling onthe UC president to investigate and de-au-thorize all SJPs and MSAs across the UCsystem for having ties to terrorist organiza-tions.Perhaps the most overarching threatto SJP activism and free speech at theUniversity of California has come in theform of the Campus Climate Report pro-cess.In 2010, UC President Mark Yudof commissioned two reports, one for Jewishstudents and one for Muslim students, whichwere aimed at addressing each community’sconcerns about student experiences.Yudof’s selection of a politicized leaderfor the Jewish student report, and his useof Muslims (rather than SJPs) as the parallelreport, led to a Jewish report that recom-mended censorship of Palestine work, whilethe Muslim report focused on prayer spacesand halal food options and remained largelyoblivious to issues relevant to Palestineactivists.The head of the Jewish students’ report,Richard Barton, is the education chair of the Anti-Defamation League, an organiza-tion that lobbied against the 2010 Berkeleydivestment bill. Shortly after the reportswere released, Barton was accused of know-ingly excluding testimony of Jewish studentscritical of Israeli policy and supportive of divestment in order to shape a report thatcould recommend broad and sweepingrestrictions on SJP speech.Preeminent among Barton’s recommen-dations is empowering the administration toreview and approve or disapprove of SJP’sspeakers and events. The report even sug-gests giving the administration the power toenforce “balance” at these discussions. Thereports were met with waves of criticismfrom Jewish community groups opposed tothe report’s methods and conclusions, fromscholarly and activist academic organizations,from Jewish students at the University of California, and from free speech groups.Yet shortly after these recommendationswere released, the California state assemblypassed HR35, a bill that endorsed the reportand its recommendations, going even furtherby labeling terms like “apartheid” indica-tors of anti-Semitic speech that should bebanned at the University of California.Reporting by Alex Kane of Mondoweisslater revealed that the UC administrationhad been consulted throughout the bill’swriting and endorsed its contents until thevery last minute, when disagreements overthe constitutionality of its final clauses madethe administration step back from the bill.Although UC President Yudof’s endorse-ment of such a far right wing bill mightsound far-fetched, the pattern of his priorbehavior — which included openness topressure from the AMCHA initiative andmaking statements endorsing the admin-istrative intimidation of students at UCIrvine — goes a long way to explaining thisposition.Not long after the bill was passed, the
Students at the University of California San Diego attend divestment hearings.
UCSD MSA twitter 

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