The scene inside the student government meeting at UC Irvine, which voted to divest from companies assisting the Israeli military and the construction of settlements (Photo: IrvineDivest/Instagram)
The University of California, Irvine’s (UC Irvine) student government has voted unanimously to divest from companies doing business with the Israeli military and Israeli settlements. The November 13 vote required a two-thirds majority to pass; the vote was 16-0 in the student legislative council.
“I am very proud of my fellow council members and of the students at our University,” said Sabreen Shalabi, a member of the council and the co-author of the resolution, in a statement released after the vote. ”Our work today stands tall in the noble tradition of students advocating for justice, joining the ranks of those brave and visionary students who demanded that our Universities divest from the terrible crimes of South African apartheid.”
While the bill’s passing does not mean that UC Irvine or the UC system will divest, it is an important step on the way to full divestment, which is what student activists have been pushing for. The Irvine bill is the first such legislation to be passed at the UC system. A divestment bill in 2010 at UC Berkeley sparked international attention, though it was ultimately vetoed.
UC President Mark Yudof has vowed in the past that “UC will not bring a recommendation before the Board to divest from companies doing business with the State of Israel.”
“The decision made by ASUCI’s legislative council tonight clearly shows the strength and integrity of students utilizing their collective power to protect human rights on a global scale,” Traci Ishigo, president of the Associated Students of UCI, said in a statement. “And I stand firmly by the students who believe it is their responsibility to have a voice on matters that urge the UC to be an institution that treasures human dignity.” Ishigo is also a member of the UC Irvine Foundation, according to a press release, which is identified in the bill as having holdings in companies that do business with the Israeli military and settlements.
The Irvine bill specifically calls out companies that assist the Israeli military and help build the separation barrier and illegal West Bank settlements. The companies mentioned in the legislation include Caterpillar, which sells vehicles to the Israeli military that are used to demolish Palestinian homes; Cemex, a cement company used to help construct settlements; L-3 Communications, a company that provides equipment used at checkpoints; and more.
“Our university invests in, and thereby profits from companies, which have an active role in the human rights abuse and institutionalized structural violence against the Palestinian people, thereby making it a complicit third-party,” reads part of the bill. “We, the students, call upon our university to dissociate itself from groups or companies that promote systematic prejudiced oppression, whether this system targets people based on their religion, gender, race or orientation, by divesting from companies that participate in or profit from human rights violations.”
Ironically, the vote comes about a week after YNet, the website of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, published a story crowing about how “Irvine University in California has become a hotbed of pro-Israel activity, only two years after an anti-Israeli attack on former envoy Michael Oren during a speech on campus.” The article reports that the Israeli consul in California’s activities “included bringing Irvine University President Michael Drake on a formal visit to Israel, where he met with academic leaders and agreed on future collaboration with the Israel Institute of Technology, as well as the Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Hebrew universities.”
But it is indeed significant that the bill was passed at the same campus where a group of students were arrested after repeatedly interrupting Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren’s talk at the university. 10 of the students arrested were charged and eventually convicted of “conspiring” to disrupt the speech. The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine was also suspended by the school for a year, though the union denied organizing the protest. The president of the MSU was one of the protesters though.
The UC Irvine bill also comes in the midst of what many Palestine solidarity activists on California campuses call a hostile atmosphere for organizing. A UC “campus climate” report on Jewish student life released over the summer was criticized by student activists for recommending restrictions on speech related to Palestine. A bill passed by the California state assembly in September praised the “campus climate” report, and urged UC campuses to combat alleged anti-Semitism. But the bill, HR 35, conflated anti-Semitism with Palestine solidarity work like calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And Israel advocacy groups like the AMCHA Initiative have tried to get academic and legal investigations opened into various professors in California who are critical of Israel.