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.”
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.”
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.