Wednesday, September 18

Activists rally for divestment in colleges nationwide


Student activists across the country are increasingly turning to their undergraduate student governments to pressure their universities to divest from corporations linked to the Israeli government.

The movement is unfurling a new wave of cultural and political activism that has taken root on college campuses around the world, including UCLA.

The scope, efficacy and protesting methods of these student activists have changed over the years, but the goal remains the same: Withdraw funds from companies that activists say profit from human rights abuses.

On Wednesday night, Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside and San Diego State University brought forward resolutions to their student governments, calling for their respective universities to divest from companies that profit from the decadeslong occupation of the West Bank. Students for Justice in Palestine is one of the most prominent student-led organizations leading these divestment calls.

At UC Riverside, the recent divestment resolution passed in an 8-7-0 vote, while similar measures were voted down at UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State University. On Saturday, University of New Mexico’s graduate student government passed a divestment resolution that was previously voted down by the undergraduate student government earlier this month.

These resolutions are similar to one UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association Council voted down in February in front of more than 500 students after a nearly 12-hour meeting.

The USAC resolution called for UCLA and the University of California to divest from Caterpillar, Cemex, Cement Roadstone Holdings, General Electric and Hewlett-Packard because some of these companies’ products are used by the Israeli military at checkpoints in the West Bank or in the creation of settlements within the region.

In 2005, various Palestinian coalitions initiated a global campaign called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, that seeks to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, among other goals, through economic and political means.

Despite various divestment campaigns, which have found significant traction at the UC, the University has no current plans to divest, and movements against BDS have gained momentum and influence.

UC officials issued a statement in 2010, stating that the UC would only divest from companies doing business with a foreign government if “the United States government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide.”

Click on the map to find out major divestment decisions made by student governments on campuses across the nation.
Click on the map to find out major divestment decisions made by student governments on campuses across the nation.

The beginning of a movement

Though advocates of divestment often openly support BDS, the movement for divestment from companies associated with Israel began prior to the start of the global call.

A divestment campaign initiated in 2001 by the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at UC Berkeley asked the UC to pull their funds from any U.S. companies that had holdings in Israel, said Noura Erakat, a UC Berkeley alumna and a former member of the campus’ Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.

Since its launch in 2000, Students for Justice in Palestine has grown to include more than 100 chapters across the nation.

After UC Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter was founded in 2000, various faculty members on campuses around the country initiated divestment petitions, including one created by UC faculty and another jointly spearheaded by professors at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Numerous faculty members had signed onto a petition by August 2002 calling on the UC to divest from any companies that provide Israel with military weapons.

While activism regarding divestment waned in the upcoming years, various factors led to a resurgence of divestment campaigns that took place in the late 2000s, Erakat said.

Tom Pessah, a graduate student in sociology at UC Berkeley and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said that the Gaza War – which he refers to as “the attack on Gaza” – partly prompted their chapter to bring forward a bill to their undergraduate student government in 2010.

Afterward, students at several UCs and colleges in the U.S. followed suit, authoring resolutions that similarly call for their respective universities to divest from companies with ties to the Israeli military.

Despite the various divestment campaigns that have occurred across the country, only one university – Hampshire College in Massachusetts – has financially dissociated from some of the companies that pro-Palestinian organizations have denounced, such as Caterpillar and General Electric.

However, the university issued a statement just after divesting in 2009, maintaining that its actions were “without reference to any country or political movement.”

Countermobilization efforts

While thousands of student activists have called for divestment, many have also lobbied or spoken out against the BDS movement, including university leaders and the heads of influential organizations.

Numerous divestment resolutions brought forward by students have been denounced because of their association with the controversial BDS movement, whose goals divestment opponents claim are anti-Semitic.

It is commonly reported that Omar Barghouti, a leading proponent of the global BDS movement, has said anti-Semitic comments, clouding the purpose of the movement.

Critics of Barghouti and the larger movement say that the launch of the global BDS campaign serves as a front in an effort to delegitimize Israel.

Some Students for Justice in Palestine groups, including UCLA’s chapter, have purposely written resolutions saying that they are not asking student government leaders to endorse the global campaign, just divestment. Students make the distinction in their resolutions, even though many of them support the larger BDS campaign and contend the movement is not anti-Semitic.

Still, many students say they do not believe that any calls for divestment in the West Bank can be completely separated from the BDS movement or the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the divestment council meeting at UCLA in February, numerous Jewish students voiced their concerns that the global BDS campaign has unfairly targeted Israel and neglects alleged human rights abuses that occur in other countries. Additionally, students said that some of the companies that divestment resolutions address ensure the safety of their own families living in the West Bank.

UC President Janet Napolitano issued a statement last December stating that the American Studies Association’s vote for an academic boycott of Israeli universities “goes against the spirit of the University of California, which has long championed open dialogue and collaboration with international scholars.”

Additionally, former UC President Mark Yudof denounced the boycott movement in January during a panel discussion at Hillel at UCLA, labeling it “disgraceful.”

At the forefront of efforts against the larger BDS movement are several powerful U.S. lobbying organizations – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and StandWithUs, among others.

StandWithUs currently has a $1 million budget available to help fund campus programs in North America, some of which goes toward combating the BDS movement, said Brett Cohen, the national campus program director of the organization.

The pro-Israel advocacy group launched a $1,000 fellowship program this year to exclusively mobilize against BDS, which would include writing articles for local and campus media.

Additionally, some members of the companies that are typically targeted by the BDS movement say that these corporations abide by a strong human rights policy.

Movement going forward

Though their collective aim is to have universities pull investments from these corporations, various Students for Justice in Palestine chapters have individually tailored the end goals of their divestment campaigns.

Earlier this month at the University of New Mexico, Students for Justice in Palestine brought forward a measure calling for divestment from companies involved in the Israeli occupation as well as the deportation of Mexican men and women across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine launched their first national conference in 2011 and have held several since.

Through these conferences, students have been able to interact with other Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, build connections with these students and share divestment tactics, said Danya Mustafa, a fourth-year women studies and multimedia journalism student and co-founder of the University of New Mexico’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.

“If it were just so easy to pass divestment and move on, we would’ve done it already and not had all these years and years of discussion,” said Rahim Kurwa, a UCLA graduate student in sociology and board member of Students for Justice in Palestine. “We’re using these discussions to help teach about Palestine in and of itself.”

Dana Saifan, a fourth-year psychology student and president for UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine, said that UCLA’s chapter will continue to rally support for divestment through educational means, such as inviting speakers to lecture and creating social media campaigns.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.

  • kendra

    Of all human rights abuses going on in the world today, it is strange that Israel, the middle-eastern country with the most respect for human rights, is targeted. Something is fishy.

    • Alkhawaja

      So you don’t deny the human rights abuses? Why should we stand up in defense of ANY country or corporation profiting off war crimes and human rights abuses!? The occupation is as unsustainable to Israel as it is damaging to the Palestinians, and for the sake of everyone involved, action needs to be taken to ensure Palestinians are given the human rights they deserve, regardless of how our own nationalistic and patriotic sentiments are effected. But if you want to continue to defend a country which has clearly and consistently violated international law in their decades long military occupation of Palestine through its use of systematic terror and ethnic cleansing by means of both laws and violence. If your defense consists of solely pointing fingers at other violators of human rights in an effort to avert public attention, then I hope the screams of millions of Palestinians who have died, because of policies people like you help maintain, allows you to sleep at night.

      • kendra

        I was not commenting on the veracity of accusations against Israel, but rather the fact that the aggression shown by people like you to Israel is not based on genuine concern over human rights but rather a sinister hatred of Israel. If human rights were your ilk’s concern, you’d find obvious and massive bloody abuses happening all over the world that are dimensions worse than even the most exaggerated and confabulated accusations (see your own post) you can create against Israel.

        Israel is not being singled out because it is a human rights violator. It is being singled out because it is Jewish. If it were a Muslim nation, it’d be used by Muslims to show how democratic, tolerant, and advanced a Muslim country could be.

        • Jodutt

          2 wrongs do not make a right. If Israel shall prove itself to be the advanced nation it wants to be, then all of the rhetoric you are writing would not exist. We would have no occupation, no retaliation, and no conflict. Better yet, we would have no incidences in which a deserving population (the Jewish people) takes native lands (Palestinians) without permission. That’s what it all comes down to; a tomato farm was taken without permission by individuals who were facing hatred in other corners of the world.

          UCLA is not invested in companies within Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the like that are perpetuating human rights abuses. Unfortunately, it happens that Israel, which is occupying land without people’s permission, is involved with corporations that benefit their occupation with full transparency. As a global citizen, I stand for divestment. As a Saudi Arabian who is fully aware of my own human rights abuses at home, I am fully aware that my tuition dollars are not going to support Saudi Arabian institutions that degrade women’s rights and the rights to pursuit of happiness.

          • Mr. Facts

            Do you condemn Hamas, which is a terrorist group?

          • Jodutt

            I condemn Hamas to certain degrees. Do I condemn the violence and loss of lives they have caused? Do I condemn them for indoctrination and perpetuation of the conflict? Yes, of course. I label them as a terrorist group in that regard. Do you, however, in the name of being a person of awareness, know the history of Hamas and its incentive to be created? Do you know that they’ve somehow, as a terrorist group, supplied more civilian services to individuals than did all other Palestinian political entities in the past few decades? Just look at numbers; I am expressing no ideology or bias. Blankets, potatoes, and medicine win a lot of people over, which is why my answer may seem ambiguous.

            The same thing has occurred with Hezbollah, who have been successful in providing civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. However, I am Syrian as well and I condemn their support for the Assad Regime. Better yet, they already have boots on the ground fighting my people. International categorizations of terrorism are indeed a lot more standard, but individual classifications are a lot more ambiguous, especially if it is someone who is aware of the history of such groups or possesses a divergent perspective.

          • Mr. Facts

            Just because it does charity work, means nothing. Charity work done for a noble cause is good. Charity work done for the purpose of controlling people or with an ulterior motive is reprehensible. Lakshar-e-Taiba (the terrorist group in Pakistan that slaughtered hundreds on 26/11 in India) does charity work in Pakistan. It also recruits innocent young adults to strap a C4 to themselves and blow themselves up. Who gives a jack how much charity work these terrorist groups do. If you don’t know, there are plenty of people in this world who are willing to do charity work because they actually care, not because they have some ulterior motive, like Hamas.

          • Jodutt

            Israel has more resources than Hamas. Why doesn’t Israel provide the charity work to the individuals that Hamas is treating? Better yet, why didn’t they do so before the genesis of Hamas?

            If Israel is to prove itself as a noble nation, Hamas would not exist. There would be no people for Hamas to, as you state, provide charity work with an ulterior motive. Hamas provides one strawberry to all of its residents, and Israel has the capability to provide meals to those same people. Better yet, they had the capability of providing those meals before the beginnings of Hamas.

            Put yourself in the shoes of a resident under the control of a terrorist group. There are too many variables to think of. You’re given food, a mediocre education (which is better than no education), and, unfortunately, because you are indebted to this terrorist group, their actions do not seem as terrible as others see.

            I condemn Hamas for their violence and misrepresentations. I do, however, support divestment because I have high expectations of Israel. It needs to prove itself noble rather than point out the flaws of others.

    • Davey Wavey

      “most respect” provided one is Jewish. If not, you don’t even exist.

  • Masada

    This article grossly distorts the situation by portraying the pro-divestment side as purely student driven, while placing “powerful U.S. lobbying organizations” at the forefront of the anti-divestment side. The fact is that many divestment activists are trained, funded, and actively supported by many outside organizations including American Muslims for Palestine, the US Campaign to End the Occupation, the American Friends Service Committee, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, the National Lawyers Guild, and others. Any reporting on this issue should include these facts.

    In addition, there’s a mistake in the map – divestment was defeated at Arizona State University this year. Tabled at the main student government, and voted down at the smaller downtown campus:

    http://www.jewishaz.com/families_lifestyle/education/divestment-bill-tabled-at-asu/article_0ecb5c6a-b47a-11e3-97ec-0017a43b2370.html

    https://twitter.com/USGDowntown/status/457285287400337408

    • David

      Excellent points; groups pushing for divestment receive extensive training and funding from a variety of organizations. In addition, it’s important to note that Students for Justice in Palestine is a national organization, and far from the “grassroots” movement it pretends to be.

      It’s also interesting to note the role graduate students seem to play in nearly every school’s divestment campaign, where divestment resolutions are brought to undergraduate student governments.

  • Mr. Facts

    No surprise here. Our “universities” receive tons of Saudi money. Academics are some of the slimiest bunch of people you will ever meet, far more evil than those Wall St corporations. Why aren’t academics speaking out against the 1971 Pakistan genocide which killed 3 million Hindus and secular Muslims? Answer: It wouldn’t give the academics enough money nor would it advance their standing.

    • Jodutt

      Saudi Arabia receives tons of warplanes from the US. Saudi Arabian and American currency rates are kept static to ease the buying and selling of oil. Academics do speak out against things like 1971 Pakistan.

      • Mr. Facts

        Academics do not speak out against things like 1971, and if they do they only do it in fleeting mention, not actual concern.

        • Jodutt

          I will research that at another time. Thank you for pointing that out.

  • Darashgah

    To be honest do not trust an Israeli or Jewish….All the evil things that happen on earth are due to Israeli people…Scenarios, Dramas, Propaganda, mischief of legendary Israeli terrorists harassing and killing the innocents to promote hatred against Islam and bring more Jewish people to Israel, to accommodate for them Killing more and more Palestinians and stealing their land, Not only this, killing all the Muslims in neighboring countries so that they expand their borders and convert their land as occupied and controlled by Israeli ….they also provide opportunity for the oil traders to get oil mixed with Muslims blood….and in return of this oil they get Arms and special support…..