Finding the silver lining in another BDS loss

Although pro-Israel groups roundly condemned the most recent passage of an Israel divestment resolution in California — this time by UAW 2865, a union that represents 13,000 University of California graduate students — the actual results may depict a student body that tends less for or against Israel, and more toward a general apathy over the divestment debate that has played out on UC campuses over the last few years.

In the Dec. 4 vote among UC graduate students, 65 percent of the 2,168 students who voted at nine campuses voted to call on UC administrators to divest the system’s financial investments from Israeli government institutions and from companies that assist the Israeli government in what some call its oppression of Palestinians. Of the 1,411 students who endorsed the resolution, 1,136 pledged not to “take part in any research, conferences, events, exchange programs, or other activities that are sponsored by Israeli universities complicit in the occupation of Palestine.” 

The vote made UAW 2865 the country’s first union to join the global anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

Although the act is only symbolic — UC administrators repeatedly have rebuffed calls to divest — the vote still marks another success for the BDS movement in the country’s largest university system. Undergraduate student governments at six of the system’s nine universities have endorsed divestment from Israel, with UCLA’s being the most recent, having voted 8-2 on Nov. 18 in favor of divestment.

At UC Berkeley, 70 percent of the 721 graduate students who cast ballots endorsed divestment. At UCLA, the margin was narrower; of the 525 graduate students who voted, 58 percent supported divestment.

But in a university system with 50,000 graduate and post-graduate students, less than 3 percent actually voted to endorse divestment, with 83 percent of the union’s 13,000 represented students sitting out the vote altogether. And at two campuses, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine, more graduate students opposed divestment than supported it. 

At UC Santa Barbara, the undergraduate student government rejected a divestment resolution in April by a 16-to-8 margin. The Dec. 4 results for graduate students represented by UAW 2865 were 95 against divestment and 84 in support.

And at UC Irvine, which is known for its pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activism, only 141 students voted, with 86 opposing divestment and 55 supporting. This may come as a surprise, considering how some UC Irvine students have made the news in recent years. In 2010, for example, the school was the site of the incident involving the so-called Irvine 11, in which 11 Muslim students were arrested for disrupting the speech of then-Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. UC Irvine also has previously played host to mock die-ins and Israeli apartheid week (termed Israel Hate Week by Israel supporters).

Lisa Armony, who previously reported on the Irvine 11 case for the Journal and is now the director of the Rose Project at Jewish Federation and Family Services in Orange County, said the political climate at UC Irvine, when it comes to Israel, has undergone major changes since the Irvine 11 incident. The Rose Project was created in 2008 as a response to over-the-top anti-Israel activism at UC Irvine and was tasked with working with administrators and student leaders to find a way to improve the climate for Israel supporters.

“The [UC Irvine] that people sort of think about is not the [UC Irvine] of today,” Armony said. “It’s a very different campus climate. I don’t think it’s correct to call  [UC Irvine] a pro-Palestinian university.” 

She also said that, in recent years, UC Irvine’s administration has worked to make sure that anti-Israel activism is “in line with campus codes of conduct.”

Moshe Lichman, a 29-year-old computer scientist pursuing a doctorate at UC Irvine, is an officer in UAW 2865 and was the lead graduate student in organizing opposition to the divestment resolution. 

“Not a lot of people campaigned for one side or the other,” Lichman said, echoing Armony’s point that Irvine is not the hotbed of anti-Israel activism that it once was. 

UCI rejects divestment

A resolution passed by the UC Irvine undergraduate student council calling on the university to divest from companies that “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine” has been rejected by the UCI administration.

At the same time, leaders of the Orange County Jewish community denounced “the nonbinding resolution, drafted and introduced with no forewarning by a small group of students with a personal agenda and deliberated in the absence of students with opposing views.”

The Nov. 13 student council resolution, titled “Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid” and passed unanimously 16 to 0, asked the UCI administration, and the UC system as a whole, to divest specifically from Caterpillar, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Raytheon and other companies.

In a news release, the student council described the resolution, introduced by council members Sabreen Shalabi and Shadi Jafari, as “a historic move that could initiate a domino effect across American campuses.”

In response, the UCI administration released a statement on Nov. 14 on the resolution stating that “such divestment is not the policy of this campus, nor is it the policy of the University of California. The UC Board of Regents’ policy requires this action only when the U.S. government deems it necessary. No such declaration has been made regarding Israel.”

Shalom C. Elcott, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation & Family Services of Orange County, lauded the strong ties between UCI and Israeli universities and promised that this work “will not be undermined by divisive efforts … that are contrary to the interests of students.”

In past years, the UCI campus has been the scene of numerous incidents between Muslim and Jewish students, with some Jewish groups criticizing the administration for its failure to take remedial action.

However, earlier this year, UCI Chancellor Michael Drake led a faculty delegation to Israel, which signed cooperation agreements with Ben-Gurion University, Hebrew University, Technion and Tel Aviv University.

UC-Irvine student senate approves non-binding divestment resolution on Israel

[UPDATE, NOV. 15] A resolution passed by the UC Irvine undergraduate student council calling on the university to divest from companies that “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” has been rejected by the UCI administration. More.

[NOV. 14] The student senate of the University of California, Irvine unanimously passed a non-binding resolution calling on the school to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

All 16 members of the legislative council of the Associated Students of UCI voted for the resolution on Tuesday that calls on the university to divest from companies that “have promoted and been complicit” in “ongoing human rights violations systematically committed by the Israeli government.”

The companies are Caterpillar, Cement Roadstones Holding, Cemex, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Raytheon, Sodastream and L-3 Communications.

The measure also calls for a further examination of university assets” for investments in companies that profit from human rights abuses anywhere in the world.” It refers to what it calls “Israel's system of apartheid,” saying that “as the example of South Africa shows, it is imperative for students to stand unequivocally against all forms of racism and bigotry globally and on campus.”

The student government’s executive board must pass the resolution before it advances for consideration by the Irvine administration.

Irvine would become the first California university to divest from companies doing business with Israel.

“Our work today stands tall in the noble tradition of students advocating for justice, joining the ranks of those brave and visionary students who demanded that our Universities divest from the terrible crimes of South African apartheid,” said Sabreen Shalabi, a co-author of the legislation, in a statement issued by the council.