On Tuesday November 13, just days before Israeli missiles began to pelt Gaza, a motley group of students, one after another, made the case for why the Associated Students at the University of California, Irvine should urge the school administration to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Thousands of miles and dozens of checkpoints removed from the region, the students at UCI spoke passionately about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, comparing the situation with South Africa’s Apartheid.
In the end, the Associated Students voted unanimously, 16-0 with no abstentions, to pass the resolution. The room that had reverberated with tense anxiety while the board of students were deliberating, erupted in cheer at the verdict. For UCI, this small victory was monumental. Traci Ishigo, president of UCI’s Associated Students, addressed the room, capturing the students’ conviction saying, “We are agents of change in this world.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has roused heated discussions on college campuses across the country for about as long as the conflict itself has endured. In this regard however, UCI has historically been a unique case, to put it mildly. Protests and debates have snowballed into disciplinary suspension of a student group, criminal convictions of students, and a nationwide media spectacle, transforming the otherwise sleepy Southern California campus into a free-speech battleground.
Despite a well-deserved reputation for sidestepping student rights and suppressing free speech on the issue of Israel, UCI is the first California campus whose student body passed the resolution for divestment. Both UC Berkeley and UCSD made similar attempts to push for divestment through their legislative student bodies, but were unsuccessful. “The decision made by ASUCI’s Legislative Council clearly shows the strength and integrity of students utilizing their collective power to protect human rights on a global scale,” Ishigo said in a press release. While the overwhelming consensus on the resolution was a historic step for the student body, the UCI administration delivered a swift response in rejecting the resolution the very next day. The administrators released a statement saying 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 US government deems it necessary. No such declaration has been made regarding Israel.”
The administration turning a cold shoulder to the resolution comes as no surprise to anyone. UC leaders had addressed the divestment campaign at UC Berkeley in 2010, sharply turning it down by claiming that it unfairly targets Israel and said in a statement, “This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.”
And at UCI, in February of the same year, the administration sternly punished the Muslim Student Union for its alleged involvement in planning a disruptive protest of Israeli Ambassador, Michael Oren. Many remained convinced the administration operated at the behest of external pro-Israel groups, who have elbowed their way into campus politics, pressuring the school to take a strong stance on student dissent against Israel. The 11 students who had interrupted Oren while speaking were charged and convicted with misdemeanors, an unprecedented and decidedly harsh punishment for students involved in a campus protest.
So, while ASUCI’s resolution to divest has no teeth in repealing financial support from Israel, it is an impressive victory for pro-Palestinian students on campus, who have honed their strategy in reigniting the Israel-Palestine debate on campus by steering clear of affiliating with certain student groups (namely the Muslim Student Union) and garnering diversified support through passing the resolution through the Associated Students governing body. In fact, with the exception of the Asian Pacific Student Association and Jewish Voice for Peace, students spoke only as individuals and represented no groups on campus.
Most importantly however, the passing of the resolution in a climate of intimidation by school administration and off-campus interest groups is a testament to the resilience of the students who have not let the school’s thorny past quiet their voices of opposition to Israel’s policies in the Occupied territories. ASUCI’s historic move created little stir on campus between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel student groups, but has caught the eye of those off-campus organizations who have a demonstrated interest in the campus proceedings, and are skeptical that this development isn’t indicative of friction between student groups. “It’s upsetting when so many people have watched that campus and feel that that campus is making progress, to see something like this happen,” saidRabbi Aaron Heir of the Simon Weisenthal Center. “Disconcerting is a nice way of putting it. Some people feel this is egregious, and it harkens back to that same menacing spirit that dominated campus during the Oren episode.”
While the students who had brought forth the resolution had been working on it for three years, external pro-Israel groups are looking to undermine the students’ efforts by denigrating the resolution as a rash and ill-informed strategy to fan the flames of tension on campus. “The resolution indicates that the students really don’t understand the situation very well at all. It’s so misguided,” said Roberta Seid, Education/Research Director of Stand With Us and lecturer at UCI. “Its real goal is not so much to get divestment implemented as much as it is to force debate, so that they can spread these canards against Israel, and make them seem normal or even familiar to students- it’s a way to turn people against Israel.”
Regardless of the students’ motives, they have unintentionally invited these external groups to meddle on campus once again. “We’re certainly monitoring the situation, it’s disappointing,” said Heir. “I think the University should condemn it and if there is any more instances of these kinds of anti-Israel measures I would expect the university to take a more active role.” As was the case with the Irvine 11 incident however, many UCI students do not feel threatened in the face of pressure from the administration or its influential friends. “The resolution has nothing to do with campus climate, and is not on the basis of a campus conflict,” said Sabreen Shalabi, a UCI student and a co-author of the resolution. “I think University students have always been on the frontlines for fighting for social justice, especially in the UC system, and they will continue to be on the frontlines of social justice.”