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USAC Elections 2024SJP and UC Divest Coalition Demonstrations at UCLA

USAC passes resolution endorsing Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement

A sign reading “THE UC FUNDS GENOCIDE DIVEST FROM BLACKROCK!” is pictured. The Undergraduate Students Association Council voted to endorse a resolution calling on the UC to divest from and boycott Israel and its institutions following a heated public comment period and debate among officers. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Shaanth Kodialam

Feb. 21, 2024 11:22 p.m.

A Tuesday night move by the Undergraduate Students Association Council to vote on a resolution endorsing the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel quickly turned into a tense standoff, reflecting rising campus tensions over the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip.

The 10-3 vote to pass the resolution was conducted by secret ballot amid privacy and security concerns, given that hundreds of emails from non-UCLA students had flooded council members’ emails, said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Alicia Verdugo, the resolution’s sponsor, who is facing calls for impeachment due to allegations of antisemitism from pro-Israel groups and Jewish students. The resolution follows similar BDS resolutions proposed at other California institutions, with UC Davis’ student government and the UCLA Graduate Student Association voting to support BDS resolutions Thursday.

The resolution requires USAC to maintain a list of corporations that reportedly fund violations of human rights and international laws that is accessible by student groups and departments. It will include companies targeted by the Palestinian BDS National Committee, such as Hewlett-Packard, Chevron and PUMA.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli villages by militant group and Palestinian political party Hamas, Israel launched an ongoing siege on the Gaza Strip that has collectively killed more than 29,000 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press.

“Please vote on what your conscience rests on and not what will potentially lead to backlash for you or what will reflect negatively on you,” said Syaal Sharifzad, a third-year civil engineering student representing the Muslim Student Association, during public comment. “I’m just asking you to vote in the name of justice, in the name of divesting from companies that provide weapons to kill children, innocent children, innocent women, innocent families.”

The document condemns antisemitism and Islamophobia, alleges that Israel is engaging in “apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide,” and cites human rights organizations and scholars of political violence. Although the resolution does not contain any enforcement measures, it says the council is “committed to encouraging financial allocations not be used” to support businesses that provide “material assistance” to such violations. It also calls upon the UC Board of Regents – which has been criticized for investing in companies associated with Israeli weapons manufacturing – to follow suit and divest.

The decision came after a passionate debate during public comment and among council members that stretched on for almost three hours, with officials allocating equal speaking time for students on both sides of the issue.

Some student advocates cited parallels between BDS and the successful campaign by students in the 1980s calling for the UC to divest from companies doing business with the South African government, which was enforcing a system of apartheid. The resolution’s supporters included Palestinian students, anti-Zionist Jewish students and Muslim students, who said the UC is complicit in the violence against Palestinians and urged the body to take a stand on a matter of deep importance to them.

The BDS movement supports economic, cultural and academic boycotts against the state of Israel and its institutions, according to Vox. BDS activists call for Israel to end its control over Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank, which the United Nations has called unlawful. They also argue for improved conditions for Palestinian citizens of Israel and allowing displaced Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Leaders from multiple Jewish groups at UCLA, alongside other Jewish and Israeli students, argued that the measure risked heightening division. Opponents on campus have said BDS fuels antisemitism by singling out Israel for criticism, with the ultimate goal of ending the world’s only Jewish state.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” said Mikayla Weinhouse, a second-year psychobiology student and co-president of Hillel at UCLA. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

Such a move at a time of high emotions prompted several questions among council members, such as whether the resolution’s mandate to take advice from the BDS movement placed USAC in murky legal territory. Others wondered if it was USAC’s role to take positions on violence outside the United States. Members were also at odds over whether anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism and if council members had enough knowledge about the BDS movement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is no record of the votes, but the majority of members appeared to dismiss several of the concerns raised by General Representatives Katie Pool and Gabby Lasry and Financial Supports Commissioner Sara Broukhim. The three also charged that the resolution has inaccuracies, risks isolating Jewish students on campus and takes time away from more effective measures, such as a current proposal in the works by Student Wellness Commissioner Jennis Kang advocating for academic leniency to students whose families have been harmed in the war.

“This resolution will do very little … to help Palestinians on the ground but will have very real implications for students on campus,” Broukhim said. “Our No. 1 priority as council members is to make sure that we’re putting forward actionable solutions to make sure that, one, students are feeling heard, but also that we’re not jeopardizing an entire student group.”

Broukhim, who is Jewish, also condemned one public comment criticizing BDS-targeted companies for “lining their pockets with blood money,” a phrase that appeared to reference tropes about blood libel and Jewish people.

Lasry also suggested that several council members have not thoroughly educated themselves about the conflict before Oct. 7, which was met with pushback from the supporters on the council – including General Representative Jonathan Valenzuela Mejia, a co-sponsor of the resolution.

“The idea of not being educated is inherently classist, and, frankly, it feels a little coded in particular, as someone coming in from a low-income background, that I’m being told by a council member and peer that I may not be educated,” Valenzuela Mejia said. “As a Guatemalan, … my country went through genocide. My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Lasry later denied that she was attacking anyone in particular and said her overall message was the need for more education on the issue.

The council members went back and forth on several other issues, including whether the resolution contained enough context about antisemitism and Hamas. External Vice President Eva Jussim said that as an anti-Zionist Jewish student, she did not find the resolution offensive, and she believes the council has a responsibility to advise its stakeholders on how to spend funds ethically.

USAC has commented on international issues before, and some council members argued that they were considering a wide variety of perspectives when making their vote.

“My decision tonight is going to be a very well-educated, very carefully thought out decision,” said Academic Affairs Commissioner Sujana Sridhar. “I have been aware of this my whole life, … as it has existed for decades, and it’s not one that I would make lightly.”

USAC has also considered resolutions on the BDS movement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before. The body voted down a 2013 resolution that promoted peace efforts in the region and rejected a resolution supporting some divestment efforts in February 2014. Another 2014 resolution calling upon UCLA to divest passed months later in November. In 2021, USAC passed another resolution with similar language.

The resolution also alleges that Israeli academic institutions, companies and unions “profit from Israel’s settler colonial genocide,” and that Chancellor Gene Block profits and benefits from these organizations’ practices. Block had previously signed on to a statement opposing academic boycotts of Israeli universities, a move faculty leadership criticized for chilling academic freedom.

In response to the resolution, a UCLA spokesperson pointed to a Wednesday statement condemning the resolutions and academic boycotts of Israel for running counter to the mission of academic freedom.

Other co-sponsors of the measure included Kang, Campus Events Commissioner Mason Miller and International Student Representative Adam Tfayli. Around 40 campus organizations, several of them from historically underrepresented communities, also signed on to the resolution.

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Shaanth Kodialam | News senior staff
Kodialam is a News senior staff reporter for the Bruin. They were previously the 2022-2023 features and student life editor and a 2021-2022 News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a third-year communication and geography student.
Kodialam is a News senior staff reporter for the Bruin. They were previously the 2022-2023 features and student life editor and a 2021-2022 News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a third-year communication and geography student.
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