California BDS debate heats up: Riverside campus passes divestment measure as Stanford rejects the same

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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Supporters of divestment at Stanford. While a divestment resolution failed to pass at Stanford, the Riverside campus of the University of California did successfully pass a divestment bill. (Photo: Stanford Students for Palestinian Equal Rights)

The battle over the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses heated up again over the past week, with California universities as the focal point.

While a pro-divestment measure failed to pass at Stanford University, a similar call won out last night at the University of California (UC), Riverside. And for the second week in a row, UC San Diego debated divesting from companies implicated in Israeli apartheid, as the bill put it, though the vote was tabled until next week. The UC San Diego debate has prompted Congressional representatives from the area to weigh in against divestment.

The Stanford vote in front of the Associated Students of Stanford University Undergraduate Senate was the result of nearly two years of organizing work. The campaign garnered the support of luminaries such as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maired Maguire. The bill called for divestment from a number of companies profiting from the Israeli occupation.

But the final student Senate vote, which was preceded by weeks of discussion, had seven Senators in opposition, one in favor and five abstaining. The Stanford Daily, a student newspaper, reported that the discussion was “tense,” with students yelling and interrupting each other.

Stanford’s Students for Palestinian Equal Rights group noted that while their bill did not pass, “the Associated Students of Stanford University Undergraduate Senate passed a separate resolution expressing its firm stance against investment in companies that cause ‘substantial social injury.’” That bill also called for “the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing to review the University’s investments to ensure compliance with the University’s Statement on Investment Responsibility.”

The loss for Stanford BDS advocates, though, was followed by a win at UC Riverside. Last night, the Associated Students at that school voted 11-5 in favor of a divestment measure. The news first came in on Twitter:

In an interview, Amal Aly, a board member at Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Riverside, said that the divestment bill targeted Caterpillar and Hewlett Packard (HP); the campus invests in both companies, according to Aly. Caterpillar bulldozers sold to the Israeli army are used to demolish Palestinian homes, while HP provides a number of technological services that help Israel maintain the occupation and blockade of Gaza.

Aly said that the meeting was calm, though the campus Hillel group showed up to oppose the bill. She said that the SJP group had been organizing for about a month and a half, and that two members of SJP were members of the student government at Riverside. “I honestly wasn’t sure it was going to pass,” said Aly, who noted that her campus was mostly apathetic when it comes to politics. “We’re taking a stand as far as our investments…We’ve made a little bit of noise,” Aly added. “I hope other schools across the country” look to Riverside and push for divestment, she said.

The win at UC Riverside is the second recent divestment victory for BDS advocates in California. In November 2012, the UC Irvine student government unanimously passed a bill calling for divestment from a number of companies that assist the Israeli military and help build the separation barrier and illegal West Bank settlements. The successful vote prompted the Irvine administration to say that “such divestment is not the policy of this campus, nor is it the policy of the University of California. The UC Board of Regents‘ policy requires this action only when the U.S. government deems it necessary. No such declaration has been made regarding Israel.” Local Jewish groups also weighed in and blasted the student resolution at UC Irvine.

UC President Mark Yudof, who is stepping down from his post in August, has similarly disavowed divestment, saying that “the isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.”

Next week, it will be UC San Diego’s turn to vote on divestment. Their bill targets a number of companies and decries Israeli apartheid and “the continued human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.” Last night, UC San Diego’s Associated Students met for another marathon debate session that was supposed to end in a vote, though a mix-up with security prevented the vote from taking place, according to the school newspaper. 200 students attended the meeting last night, with both SJP and Tritons for Israel giving public presentations on the topic.

“This marginalizes the Jewish students on campus and makes them feel unsafe and unwanted — passing a resolution that will have no actual effect besides making Jewish students on campus feel like they don’t belong is not okay,” one student in opposition to divestment said, according to a report in the school newspaper. An SJP member said that “it’s a common misconception that divestment is too harsh and that we should just invest in Palestine instead. But Palestine’s economy is tightly controlled by Israel and heavily dependent on humanitarian aid, making it an unlikely candidate for growth through investment.”

The SJP members at UC San Diego are also going up against the opposition of elected officials, as the East County Magazine reports. Susan Davis and Juan Vargas, both California-area members of the House of Representatives, have sent bills to the UC San Diego Associated Students president in opposition to the bill. “As a member of Congress who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, there has been no credible proof that defines Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state,” wrote Vargas. “In fact, Israel is the only country in the Middle East with protection for free speech, free press, religious freedom, women’s rights and gay rights.”

The strident opposition from elected officials to the UC San Diego divestment push is the latest example of politicians condemning the BDS movement. The California state legislature passed a bill last year that said that the movement seeks to “demonize” Israel and “harm” the Jewish state. The bill, HR 35, also said that calling Israel an apartheid state was an example of “anti-Semitic discourse.”

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