December 15, 2018

Cliffhanger divestment vote at UC Santa Barbara

A 13-hour marathon meeting at the UC Santa Barbara student senate lasted through the night of April 10-11, culminating in a cliffhanger vote to deny an anti-Israel divestment resolution.

I was among the 400 students — Jews and other Israel supporters on one side of the issue, and Muslims and other pro-Palestinian students on the other — who stayed the course from 7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, when the meeting started, to 8 the next morning, when the final vote was announced.

The pro-divestment resolution was proposed by Associated Students Sens. Miya Sommers and Genesis Herrera and was sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), mimicking similar resolutions made by Palestinian groups on college campuses in recent months. It urges the university to divest from all American companies that provide technology, weapons and other such products to the Israeli military for use in the Palestinian territories.

The SJP portrayed the issue as a “human rights problem,” and after the same resolution passed in recent weeks in student governments on other UC campuses — including Irvine, San Diego and Riverside, the last of which subsequently rescinded the resolution — many pro-Israel students urged the UCSB student senate to reject the resolution, stressing that its adoption would marginalize Jewish students on campus.

The students streaming into Corwin Pavilion, an events hall on the UCSB campus, probably did not expect the emotional night that they were about to witness. Inside, pro-Israel, anti-divestment supporters sat on the right, while pro-Palestinian, pro-divestment backers were to the left, immediately setting the tone of the meeting.

Pro-Israel students stand together during hearing.  Photo by Maya Richmond

The meeting’s ground rules allowed students and other speakers from the community to express their opinions in front of the senate board during a public forum, with a five-minute limit for each speaker, including any additional questions.

By 9:15 p.m., there were still 58 speakers to be heard, with no conclusion to the meeting in sight. Additional meeting rules had been agreed upon by the senate, such as no clapping or yelling, remaining seated at all times and being respectful throughout the meeting.

In an increasingly tense atmosphere, students seated on both sides rolled their eyes and exchanged abrasive glares. The chair allowed a couple of brief breaks, but there were no official meal intermissions, except for hummus, pita chips and handmade challah for everyone, sponsored by the Hillel and Chabad on campus.

As the meeting progressed into the night, students on both sides refused to go home, instead dispersing to the corners of the room, using backpacks as pillows and sweatshirts as blankets.

Senate members remained attentive throughout the meeting, despite their exhaustion, expressing fears of letting the student body down and leaving one side or the other unhappy.  It was clear that this issue was bigger than just a student-body proposal, and that it was personal on all sides of the debate —  and no one could argue with those emotions. 

Frustrations flared as the debate became progressively more heated. Speakers began to use loud, angry tones, making for a more hostile atmosphere as dusk was approaching. Students told personal stories of their own families and friends who had experienced the dangers and tensions in the Middle East, emphasizing the commonality among those in the room.

The pro-Israel students stressed that they are pro-peace and were quite aware of the impact that this debate would have on our college campus and the rest of the community. Danielle Dankner, a junior political science and English double major, had been involved in the efforts against the resolution from the very start.

UCSB  senators listen to comments by students.  Photo by Maya Richmond

“As a proxy for a senator, I was given the opportunity to actually cast a vote and deliberate with the senate,” she said. “Sitting on the stage and looking out onto the audience, it saddened me to see this great divide in our university community. We did not come to this meeting to take an anti-Palestinian approach, but rather to stand up against marginalization of any students because of their identity or beliefs.

“We offered discussion rather than debate to express our peaceful motivations,” Dankner added. “While I am incredibly proud of the dialogue and immense work put in by both sides of the discussion, my hope for the future is that as students, but more importantly human beings, we can work together toward a safer and more peaceful future.”

The UCSB student paper, The Nexus, cited two student voices, both Jewish, but on opposite sides of the debate.

Rand Clark of the Santa Barbara chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace is quoted as saying, “A vote in favor of divestment says nothing about one’s attitude toward Jews. … A little bit of discomfort is a small price to pay on the path to justice.” He added, “To be Jewish does not automatically make one a blind supporter of Israel — right or wrong.”

However, the newspaper quoted John Lebo, a UCSB student, countering that the resolution would not enforce any peaceful acts among the community and would not end the long conflict between the Jews and Palestinians.

“The real [impact] of this bill is to deny the people of Israel the right to their homeland. … The charges against Israel make no mention of the dire circumstances Israel faces,” Lebo told The Nexus.

After 13 hours of discussion, all the speakers had spoken, and the senators were ready to cast their votes. Students on each side joined hands while waiting for the outcome. As the secret ballots were being counted, we prayed and crossed our fingers. By a vote of 11 to 10, with one abstention, the UCSB Senate rejected the boycott and divestment resolution.

As supporters of Israel, we could finally stop holding our breaths, and tears of relief rolled down our exhausted, but smiling, faces. We were proud that we had stood together, proud to have represented Israel and proud to be members of the UC Santa Barbara community. 

Maya Raymond is a Sherman Oaks resident, a graduate of Milken Community High School and currently a junior at UC Santa Barbara.