January 18, 2019

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.