With pro-Israel groups all but absent, UCLA student government endorses divestment
UPDATE, 3:00 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 19: UCLA Chancellor Gene Block released a statement, which reads in part: “UCLA and the UCLA Foundation share the Board of Regents conviction that divestment decisions should not hold any one organization or country to a different standard than any other. The Board of Regents does not support divestment in companies that engage in business with Israel and UCLA agrees with that position.”
Some students held up posters, others wore t-shirts with pro-divestment slogans and most of the 400 UCLA undergraduates present repeatedly snapped their fingers along in near-unanimous agreement as they packed an auditorium on campus Tuesday night to hear – in the school's second public hearing in 2014 – their student government debate passage of a symbolic resolution that would call on school administrators to divest university funds from American companies that do business in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.
And unlike in the previous attempt in February, which failed by two votes, the student government voted this time for divestment by a decisive 8-2 margin, adding UCLA to a small but growing list of universities where the elected, representative undergraduate body endorsed the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to weaken Israel and promote the Palestinian cause via economic pressure.
Supporters of the resolution, who comprised nearly 100 percent of the audience, saw the move as a protest against American economic support of what they view as Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
And prompted by a new strategy enacted by some of UCLA’s Jewish student groups, including Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U, supporters of Israel effectively boycotted the hearing in an attempt to discredit and delegitimize UCLA’s strengthening pro-BDS movement. Only about 10 student representatives and members from those three organizations sat together during the hearing. While none of them participated in the public comment period that would have given the floor to dozens of divestment opponents in two-minute intervals, four of them made their case against divestment to the student government during a scripted 15-minute speech.
“We are not going to have our community sit through however long a session of bullying and hate speech,” said Tammy Rubin in an interview before the hearing began. Rubin is the president emeritus of Hillel at UCLA. She said that unlike last year, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel and J-Street U will now use the time not spent on opposing symbolic divestment resolutions to “reinvest in our community.”
“We’re not not fighting it [divestment],” Rubin said. “We are just fighting it strategically in a different way.”
Gil Bar-Or, president of the UCLA branch of J-Street U, described an approach that would differ markedly from that of last year’s pro-Israel community, which passionately and publicly opposed divestment actions in a climate of toxic relations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.
“We are trying to present an approach that’s creating positive things for both people that are involved in the conflict and not alienating anybody,” Bar-Or said. “In order to promote one community’s interests you do not have to trample on the other community’s interests.” In place of rallying against the divestment resolution, Hillel at UCLA, Bruins for Israel, and J-Street U hosted an alternate off-site meeting with about 125 pro-Israel students, where they discussed the thinking behind the new tactics and how Jewish UCLA students can strengthen their community.
At Tuesday evening’s hearing, while dozens of divestment supporters from a broad spectrum of various ethnic, national, religious and gender student groups took the podium during the hour they were granted for public comment, not a single pro-Israel student took the podium, even as the few present divestment opponents brought forward a list of 2,000 students who signed a statement opposing divestment.
And while the public comments coming from the pro-divestment side covered an enormously wide array of political grievances—from exploitative capitalism and U.S. drone strikes to discriminatory gender bathroom rules at UCLA and Chicano feminists—each settled on a similar opinion: UCLA should divest from American companies doing business in parts of Israel. Virtually every public comment was met with a sea of approving snaps and the occasional holler.
Some of the commenters included Arab-American UCLA students who described the plight of friends and relatives who live in the Gaza Strip, and two Palestinian students studying at UCLA—but who were not present—recorded an interview that divestment supporters played on a large projector.
During February’s vote, with no time limit and with members of the public permitted to submit public comments, the hearing went until dawn before the student government voted 7-5 against divestment. This year, though, security guards manned every door, only current UCLA students and approved media were allowed inside, and the student government ensured that the evening would end relatively early—this time officials voted just before midnight.
Just before the vote, when it was already clear that the student government would endorse divestment, Avinoam Baral, an Israeli native and the government’s president, emotionally lambasted divestment supporters, accusing them of targeting Jews and Israelis while purporting to be concerned about human rights in general.
“[The resolution] says this language that it’s not meant to target you, but there’s a difference between intention and action and if our intention is to divest from all countries violating human rights and the actual effect is to only divest from Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, it’s hard for me to take it any other way,” Baral said. “It’s hard for me to not feel targeted.” After Baral concluded, student government representatives voted, and as their votes were tallied, the auditorium erupted in applause. About 20 minutes later, around one hundred divestment supporters gathered outdoors and chanted slogans such as, “Free, free Palestine.”
Just moments after the vote, Amber Latif, a UCLA sophomore and member of the campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, was pleased with her side's victory but “unnerved” by Avinoam Baral’s vocal opposition.
“I’m trying to think if there’s anything that we could’ve done to make the Jewish community feel less targeted by this,” Latif said. “But I feel like we did everything to the best of our powers.”
The small and hugely outnumbered pro-Israel group of students that came all sat together and provided some lonely snaps in response to comments by Baral and the other representative who opposed the resolution. Those interviewed reaffirmed their support of the Jewish community’s decision to sit out the divestment vote, but still appeared visibly upset after the council resoundingly endorsed it.
Natalie Charney, the student board president for Hillel at UCLA, led the alternate off-site meeting and, while disturbed by what she saw at the divestment hearing, expressed no regret at Jewish groups’ decisions to avoid it.
“We don’t validate this conversation, not in a space where people are able to spew hatred and anti-Semitism,” Charney said. “We didn’t subject Jewish students, pro-Israel students, to the hate that is in this room.”
Omer Hit, the vice president of Bruins for Israel, said he’s concerned that UCLA may now be perceived as “not a good place for an entire Jewish community.”
“I am thankful that we did not have to bring our entire community to sit through that,” he said. “That would’ve been heartbreaking. Look at it now—it’s already heartbreaking for the six of us that came.”
“I know that this is all a PR thing,” Hit added. “I’m afraid that they were able to dominate that.”