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

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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.”

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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15 Responses

  1. yourstruly
    yourstruly on March 7, 2013, 8:30 pm

    calling israel an apartheid state is an example of antisemitic discourse?

    except it’s not antisemitic

    it’s anti-arab racism & anti-islamophobia

    and don’t students openly criticize their own as well as other governments?

    so why should israel get off scot-free?

    because of the holocaust that nazi germany perpetrated on european jews?

    & never mind the holocaust that jewish israelis are perpetrating upon palestinians?

    but what if such criticism makes jewish students on campus uneasy?

    some jewish student, perhaps

    but not jewish members of sjp

    besides, what’s uneasiness compared to the insults that arab/islamic students receive, not to mention their being under fbi surveillance for supporting justice in palestine?

  2. Blownaway
    Blownaway on March 7, 2013, 8:49 pm

    What does one expect from Stanford home of neocons like Condi Rice George Schultz and the Hoover institute

  3. southernobserver
    southernobserver on March 7, 2013, 9:17 pm

    the only country in the Middle East with protection for
    free speech. Except that you may find yourself arrested, exiled or in prison if you take advantage of it.

    free press. Currently 112th/179. this is not a free press as we know it. Lebanon is 101st. Eygpt a military dominated state that is only just starting recover from a dictatorship is currently 158th.

    religious freedom. Except that everybody is labelled by religion. marriage is regulated by religious authorities. Immigration is regulated by religion. Access to land or residence is restricted by religion. Jewish women may not pray in certain places. Christians are spat on with no protection from authority. bah. More simply, there is intense legal and social discrimination by religion that would be correctly denounced as severe abuse if the USA practised it. What religious freedom?

    women’s rights. Women cannot pray in places that they consider significant. Marriage and divorce are widely religiously regulated. hmmm.

    gay rights. Only in Tel Aviv.

  4. annie
    annie on March 7, 2013, 10:58 pm

    This marginalizes the Jewish students on campus and makes them feel unsafe and unwanted

    this is not a nursery school, it is a university. if the students are not mature enough to have political opponents they are not mature enough to attend a state university. what a joke. this isn’t a therapy session.

    • Sycamores
      Sycamores on March 7, 2013, 11:47 pm

      it’s called playing the victim when all counter arguments fail.
      anyway kudos to University of California, Riverside

      • Stephen Shenfield
        Stephen Shenfield on March 8, 2013, 9:56 am

        I don’t think they are necessarily “playing the victim” and they may well feel unsafe. But the responsibility for that lies with those who have indoctrinated them with ideas like “the whole world is against us” and “anti-Zionists are anti-Semites.” They should also be told that their support for Israel makes others feel unsafe.

      • Sycamores
        Sycamores on March 9, 2013, 8:02 am

        you agree that the students are not ‘unsafe’ or ‘unwanted’ but if they feel that way because of indoctrination then they need to applied critical thinking which is been taught at all universities. threading softly rarely works.
        besides if they are so indoctrinated they won’t believe “that their support for Israel makes others feel unsafe”.
        but i will take your opinion on board as another viewpoint.

    • Hostage
      Hostage on March 8, 2013, 7:14 am

      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.”

      Right back atcha. It’s really a question of Israel isolating Palestine with illegal Walls, blockades, and violence. BTW, the only country that is threatening to murder or deport Jewish passengers on aid flotillas is, wait for it, Israel. The isolation of Palestine among all countries of the world greatly disturbs people with consciences, UN treaty bodies, and international humanitarian watchdogs, like the ICRC.

      Palestine is a long-standing member State of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Group of 77 and China, and the Group of Asian States. When high-level representatives of those organizations tried to gather for a conference in the West Bank to endorse Palestine’s bid for UN recognition they were denied entry by, wait for it, the State of Israel. See “West Bank conference scrapped after Israel bars envoys”

      • on March 8, 2013, 4:55 pm

        Better yet, it’s clearly a case of ISreal isolating itself with its colonialist policies, its Apartheid and its crimes against humanity. Nobody is making a pariah out of ISreal, they’re doing that to themselves.

  5. Pamela Olson
    Pamela Olson on March 8, 2013, 1:05 am

    I wrote a letter to the Stanford senate, and the reply I got was deeply disappointing, not to say incredibly stupid. The gist of the letter was, “Reasonable people could take either side, so we can’t responsibly make that decision for the entire student body.”

    As if that weren’t stupid enough, she went on: “Allow me to present an analogy: Many would strongly argue that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a human rights violation, and EQUALLY reasonable people would strongly disagree. We each may believe different things, but it would be colossally unfair for a body that is supposed to represent the opinions of ALL students to take either side.

    We don’t think that we are in the business of taking sides when two reasonable people could disagree as to an argument. In South Africa, there was no doubt that the oppressive regime was in the wrong. In Israel-Palestine, I think there is a grey that we must necessarily acknowledge.”

    Etc. I won’t bore you with the rest. Utterly inane.

    For all the good it did, I wrote back:

    I realize that right now, especially with the US media reporting the way it is, the issue looks very grey, rather than black and white. And of course there are shades of grey, just as there were with South African Apartheid, and just as there are in any conflict that goes on this long and involves this many human beings. But that does not mean inaction is necessarily an acceptable course of action.

    It may seem self-evident now that Apartheid was 100% wrong, but for decades there were arguments on both sides just as vehement as the ones we have today between those who support Israel whether it commits human rights violations or not, and those who would only choose to support Israel if it conformed to international laws and norms. In fact, for many years both the US and Israeli governments supported Apartheid.

    See this article, for example:

    Here is the ANC chair saying Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza are worse than Apartheid:

    Here is an Israeli saying in the Israeli press that Israel’s occupation policies are worse than Apartheid:

    Here’s another Israeli comparing occupation to slavery:

    [In any case] the ASSU bill does not actually divest from Israel. The bill only divests from corporations that have been shown to carry out Israeli policies that violate international law. In fact, the bill does not ask you to take a side. Instead, it asks you to STOP taking the side of companies that violate international law by investing your money in them.

    Why not, you ask, invest in Palestine at the same time you continue to invest in the oppression of Palestinians? I think the question answers itself. Palestinians do not want “investment” under occupation. They do not want to continue to build businesses, homes, and lives that can be destroyed at the whim of their occupier. They want human rights, just like anyone else. They are the ones who have called on the world to divest from the occupation and illegal destruction of their lands.

    You may believe this conflict has more shades of grey than it does. But your current understanding shouldn’t necessarily be mistaken for “fairness” and “balance.” The facts speak for themselves, if only you will take an honest look.

    As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

    The ASSU bill is, in fact, only asking you to be more neutral by not investing money in companies that commit violations by one side against the other. One day I believe you will understand that this is actually not going nearly far enough. But it is an important step in the right direction.

    I just want to reiterate my main point, which is that *** investment in companies that commit well-documented human rights violations is a political act. *** Divesting from these corporations is, in fact, removing yourself from taking one side over the other.

    Educate yourself as well as you can, search your conscience, and hope your children will be able to look back and see that you were, if not on the right side of history, at least not adding your weight to the wrong side.

    I know these are weighty considerations. But as they say: With great power comes great responsibility. As a Stanford student, and especially as a student representative, you wield tremendous power in this world. Probably more than you realize.

    Very respectfully,

    • Citizen
      Citizen on March 8, 2013, 12:12 pm

      @ Pamela Olson
      Please keep MW readers informed of the response you get from the Stanford Senate
      . The ivy league is notorious from once supporting WASP agenda, and now, AIPAC agenda. Once jews had no power, now they have the power. Time for some literary novels showing the switch in equal impetus to what hit American literature after WW2. Good luck to that.I don’t see anything in current US literature–fine arts variety, that comes close to what American Jewish writers did, not the least of whom is Philip Roth. Today, you can’t get any criticism of American jewish support of Israel uber alles in any novel published in America. You can’t get a novel published that portrays the power of Jews in America.

  6. amigo
    amigo on March 8, 2013, 6:22 am

    In Israel-Palestine, I think there is a grey that we must necessarily acknowledge.”


  7. amigo
    amigo on March 8, 2013, 6:24 am

    I put this on another thread —before I saw this one which is far more apt.

    Netherlands calls on stores to label products from Israeli settlements
    Dutch follow British lead, but emphasize it is not illegal to import goods from territories. Other European countries expected to follow suit in coming weeks.


  8. kma
    kma on March 8, 2013, 3:50 pm

    Congressman Vargas tells San Diego residents what to do and think because he’s their “representative”? I see. the “greatest democracy” in the middle east is the one whose citizens tell OUR congress what to do and think and then our congress tells US what to do and think… !
    that’s not democracy. I hope someone gives him crap for that.
    congress really does represent Israel and not us. someday we’ll learn not to vote for them.

  9. on March 8, 2013, 4:53 pm

    While California takes a step towards the right side of history, Ohio does the complete opposite:

    In historic move, Ohio buys $42 million in Israel Bonds

    March 7, 2013

    (JTA) — Ohio has bought $42 million in Israel Bonds, reportedly the largest single government purchase of Israel Bonds in U.S. history.

    The Mach 1 purchase increases the total amount of Israel Bonds in the state’s treasury portfolio to more than $80 million; the Cleveland Jewish News reported it as the largest such buy in U.S. history.

    “We believe this is a sound investment for the taxpayers of Ohio and consistent with our strategy of investing in safe and strong securities,” Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who is Jewish, told the newspaper.

    The Ohio Revised Code was amended in 1993 to allow the state to invest in foreign bonds. In 2010, the Ohio State Senate passed a bill allowing the state treasury to increase debt earnings in foreign nations from 1/2 a percent to 1 percent of the state’s portfolio, according to the newspaper.

    The previous highest single purchase of Israel Bonds in U.S. history was $25 million, made by several states, Thomas Lockshin, executive director for Israel Bonds in Ohio and Kentucky, told the Cleveland Jewish News.

    Where’s Dennis Kucinich when you need him?

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