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Resolving to Divest: The History of SJP at UCLA's Divestment Campaign
This article reviews the history of Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA’s campaign to pass a divestment resolution through the Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC). In what follows, we briefly historicize campus Palestine activism, review the history of SJP at UCLA, and then provide a detailed account and analysis of the divestment struggle—from the first discussions of ethical investments in early 2013 to the ultimate passage of divestment in November 2014.
Part 1: SJP's History
A Brief History of Campus Palestine Activism
As Raja Abdulhaq writes in an article reflecting on the legacy and present status of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), “From the very beginning, students have played an active role in the Palestinian national movement.” The Organization of Arab Students (OAS), founded in the United States and Canada in 1952, was the first North American student organization to engage in pro-Palestine activist work, which it carried out within the context of a larger pan-Arab struggle. However, GUPS would soon come to take the helm concerning student Palestine organizing. Founded in Cairo in 1959, GUPS had "more than one hundred . . . branches worldwide." In her lecture, "Historicizing the Palestinian Struggle," Jennifer Mogannam explains how the framing of Palestine as an anti-colonial cause resonated with the internationalist bents of many organizations. North American branches of GUPS forged connections with other causes, a pattern that continued up through the 1980s, with GUPS at San Francisco State University (SFSU) playing a particularly crucial role. These developments occurred in tandem with the redefinition of the campus as a critical setting for political activism that had been initiated by the Free Speech Movement (which began at UC Berkeley) and the student-strikes of the late 1960s and early 1970s that sought to address, among other things, that crucial gaps in educational curricula through the formation of Ethnic Studies programs. Contemporary manifestations of inter-community alliances and accomplishments around the Palestinian cause on campus were made possible by these early legacies of joint struggle.
Over time, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) shifted its focus from an international anti-colonial struggle to its current two-state solution framework. Following the Oslo Peace Accords, all North American branches of GUPS eventually dissolved. The only exception was the SFSU chapter, which remains active to this day. Relatively little is known about the state of campus organizing in the years directly following the decline of GUPS. But in 2001, the first chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was formed at UC Berkeley. In 2002, a new national student coalition known as the Palestine Solidarity Movement was formed, holding successive annual conferences at UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Ohio State University, Duke University, and Georgetown University. Although the organization dissipated, by 2005 students had formed SJP chapters at universities across the country. In 2011, students formed a new organizational framework, the National Students for Justice in Palestine, to continue organizing national conferences and providing support for the roughly one hundred chapters of SJP that now exist across the United States.
Boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) work, primarily in the form of passing resolutions calling on universities to pull funding from companies complicit in the occupation, began to take increasing priority in the efforts of campus groups such as SJP and Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) following Palestinian civil society's call for a formal BDS campaign in 2005. These early political formations (both domestically and abroad) as well as their accompanying ideological shifts remain a living component of the present state of campus Palestine activism.
The Founding and Growth of SJP at UCLA
Although campus activism for Palestine had been taking place at UCLA for many years prior to the foundation of Students for Justice in Palestine, records of this activity are spotty at best. Palestine was certainly an issue on the campus, with the campus paper's editorial board openly endorsing divestment as early as 2002. What is known is that by 2005, students on campus had decided to establish an independent organization to carry out Palestine activism work. Founded in 2005, SJP at UCLA began organizing events in early 2006. The organization's first events included a talk on connecting Native American and Palestinian struggles with Professor Robert Perez of UC Riverside, a hip hop for Palestine event featuring Invincible, the Nomads, and the Philistines, and a speak-out with an IDF refuser. 2006 also saw the start of ten consecutive annual Palestine Awareness Week program at the UCLA campus, like many other campuses.
The early years of the organization were marked by energetic and creative protests and actions, such as mobile mock checkpoints and impressive outreach efforts in classrooms. One shortcoming, however, was a relative lack of focus—the organization's goals shifted depending on the interests and goals of its leadership. This characterization of the organization may have applied between 2005 and 2008. But Operation Cast Lead, and the student reaction to it, marked an important shift in consciousness and strategy.
Operation Cast Lead shifted campus activism in two important ways. First, SJP at UCLA engaged with the political process on campus for the first time, working to pass a resolution condemning Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip and its deadly consequences for the Palestinian people. After a long debate, the resolution eventually passed overwhelmingly. It also enjoyed the support of student groups from across campus. It was one of several resolutions of solidarity passed at UCs after Cast Lead. However, despite the resolution's political importance, and the high degree of work involved in getting it passed through the student government, the text did not engage with UCLA's own institutional relationship to Palestine/Israel (namely, investments in companies complicit with the occupation). Second, the post-Cast Lead period of student organizing at UCLA focused on understanding and working to end institutional complicity with Israeli human rights violations. In May 2009, SJP at UCLA held its first event focused on the BDS call. Although subsequent programming in the years after 2009 included a focus on BDS, it took several more years for the debate to return to the arena of student government. In that period, other SJP chapters throughout California were also beginning to pass divestment resolutions. In 2010, UC Berkeley held a highly publicized divestment campaign. The student government presidential ultimately vetoed the resolution. Other campuses, such as UC San Diego, also made multiple attempts to pass divestment. Yet it was in 2012 that UC Irvine became the first SJP chapter to successfully pass a student divestment resolution in California. It was followed by successful campaigns in 2013 by UC San Diego and UC Berkeley, with other campaigns either starting or exadning throughout California.
At that time, SJP at UCLA did not see the orientation of the student government as favorable to a divestment resolution, and chose not to engage in a specific campaign at that point. However, the growing campus interest in divestment campaigns meant that, although SJP was not ready to propose divestment, the issue was coming to the campus regardless. In spring 2013, a coalition of student groups proposed something more broad: an ethical investments framework that would enact criteria in regard to labor rights, environmental justice, and human rights.
Part 2: Momentum Builds for Divestment
The Ethical Investments Resolution
"The USAC Resolution for Ethical Investments" proposed in spring 2013 called for the UC Regents to pull funding from any company found to be complicit in practices harmful to the environment, workers, and human rights. At the time, one student aptly qualified the collective relevance of the resolution as follows: "The USAC Resolution for Ethical Investments is in the interests of all students on campus and is based on widespread public support for policies favoring human rights, workers' rights, and environmental sustainability.”
Although not specific to Palestine/Israel, it was common knowledge among concerned parties that any effort to apply socially responsible criteria to the UC's investments would necessarily touch on the UC's investments in companies aiding Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Unfortunately, a largely conservative student council tabled "The USAC Resolution for Ethical Investments," and later, at a forum dedicated to addressing public concern about the resolution, pro-Israel students demanded a clause saying that Israel would be exempt from the ethical investment framework. This demand revealed that even pro-Israel campus activists knew Israel's actions were in violation of Palestinian human rights. But in a broader sense, pro-Israel opposition to the ethical investments resolution demonstrates the hypocrisy of future anti-divestment tactics: at this point in time, pro-Israel students attacked resolutions for being too broad, whereas later on they would attack resolutions specifically focused on Israel/Palestine as too narrow (usually by asking why Israel was being “singled out” when there were so many other countries perpetrating human rights abuses). According to their stated logic, the broadly construed ethical investments resolution should have been the perfect solution for those who use this line of argumentation to oppose Palestine-related divestment measures. The fact that pro-Israel students nevertheless felt compelled to oppose the resolution shows the artificiality of the argument, suggesting that the “singling out” complaint is merely one out of a slew of often contradictory and disposable rhetorical strategies used to disguise straightforward nationalism as ethical vigilance.
At any rate, pro-Israel groups now knew that the issue of divestment had come to UCLA, and that divestment measures specific to companies aiding Israel's occupation would likely follow shortly. The ethical investment resolution had opened up a debate that garnered the widespread interest of students. In May 2013 the student government passed a fossil fuel divestment resolution, which served as yet another warning sign that more divestment resolutions were to come. This prompted pro-Israel groups to try a new way to head off the passage of divestment—positive investments.
The Anti-BDS Resolution
SJP-UCLA's first divestment-related victory was not the passage of a divestment resolution, but rather the successful countering of an anti-divestment resolution authored by then-USAC Internal Vice President (and later Student Regent) Avi Oved (who would later go on to be one of the central figures in the Adam Milstein funding controversy). Titled, "A Resolution in Support of Positive Steps Towards an Israeli-Palestinian Peace" (sic) the document was presented as a "pro-dialogue" and "pro-peace process" measure that called for the UC to invest in companies employing both Israelis and Palestinians—a concept labelled "positive investments." But buried in the second page of the resolution were several clauses that actually disavowed the tactic of divestment as harmful and counterproductive. The resolution was transparently cynical. As we asked in an article at the time,
How does ending our investments in companies that violate human rights, in Palestine or anywhere else, harm anyone on campus? On the other hand, many Palestinian students at UCLA and on other campuses have expressed great discomfort with the fact that their tuition dollars are being funneled into companies that are harming their own families in Palestine.
Following a lengthy public comment portion (during which many student organizations came out in support of SJP and against the resolution), as well as an extended editing session on the part of the student representatives, the resolution was ultimately voted down by a five-to-seven margin. The resolution lost its momentum once the clauses banning the student government from considering divestment were highlighted, and once council members realized how inappropriate it was to have excluded Palestinians from a resolution that claimed to speak on their behalf. Further, many found it hard to believe Oved’s claims about having written it by himself in good faith, having equally excluded pro-Israel groups and pro-Palestinian groups from involvement. Momentum against the bill also shifted as the student body and many council members defended the university's time-honored ability to use divestment as a tool to promote social justice, and saw the anti-divestment clause in the bill as threatening that history. But after these clauses were removed, there was no longer any impetus to pass the resolution, and Oved and the resolution's sponsors made no effort to bring it back. This behavior suggested that the other vague language around dialogue and promoting peace was less important than the language around stopping divestment.
What came out of the discussion was the news that one of the resolution's sponsors had taken a free trip to Israel provided to him by the Anti-Defamation League. Sunny Singh, the student in question, denied that the free trip could in any way have inappropriately influenced his views on the subject, but nevertheless continued to cultivate a relationship with the ADL, including giving a speech at its annual gala. This revelation foreshadowed much extended debate over the appropriateness of free trips offered to student government members by lobbying groups.
SJP at UCLA Launches Its First Divestment Campaign
By the end of 2013, the alternatives to a direct debate over the university's financial involvement in Israeli violations of human rights were exhausted. Perhaps scoring an own-goal, the pro-Israel community had sunk the broader student attempt to ensure ethical investments. It then failed to misdirect the student government through the positive investment/anti-BDS resolution. All that remained was for SJP to construct its own divestment campaign.
Starting in December 2013, SJP at UCLA began its first divestment campaign, drafting a resolution calling on the UC Regents to pull funding from five companies complicit in the occupation: Caterpillar, Cemex, Cement Roadstone Holdings (CRH), General Electric (GE), and Hewlett-Packard (HP). SJP also made sure to prioritize outreach with other student organizations. Significantly, SJP did not limit our outreach to organizations that would automatically agree with divestment or SJP's politics more broadly, but at the time believed that it was important also to convey our position to student organizations with opposing viewpoints, including pro-Israel groups. These groups stated that they did not object to the text of the resolution, but would nevertheless oppose divestment anyways, even if further clauses that they wished to see were added. As we described in another article, however, an atmosphere of intense normalization led to such outreach being deemed insufficient, and everyone from pro-Israel groups to student politicians who would later vote on the measure voiced the opinion that mere outreach was not enough and that SJP should have actually allowed pro-Israel groups to co-author the resolution. This is, of course, a double standard to which no other group would have been held. However it also promoted an idea that simply was not true. In private, these groups admitted that they had no problems with the text of the resolution, but that they still could not cooperate with SJP in any way, shape, or form. However in public, they claimed that their non-cooperation was a product of a lack of outreach by SJP. This was finally made public in a radio interview in which a pro-Israel leader admitted that the most her group would be willing to cooperate on was a statement that the parties would agree to disagree.
This is an important issue to reflect on because it represents another challenge commonly encountered by students who organize around Palestine: the misconception that Palestine solidarity work is inherently divisive, and so campuses should emphasize collaboration and partnership with pro-Israel groups rather than allowing students interested in Palestine activism to pursue their cause with full autonomy. Such attitudes are also connected, more broadly, to the post-Oslo shift in official and popular discursive framings of Palestine/Israel away from an issue of anti-colonial liberation to a simple "conflict" best remedied by universal emphases on the need for "peace," collaboration, and co-existence. Joseph Massad neatly outlines this shift.
On 5 February 2014, another divestment campaign came to the UCLA student government—this time centered on private prisons which the UC system was invested in. The campaign, led by the Afrikan Student Union, was extremely successful, and quickly earned an overwhelming majority of votes on the council. At the discussion of the resolution, one of the non-voting administrative assistants who sits on the council extolled the campaign for presenting human narratives and stories that powerfully conveyed the need to divest from private prisons as a strike against the broader system of mass incarceration which affects communities of color in the United States and at UCLA as well.
Twenty days later, Students for Justice in Palestine presented its resolution to the same student government that had just voted to divest from private prisons. In favor of the resolution were several progressive and independent council members, joined by nineteen student groups. Given the size of the turnout (estimated at roughly five hundred students), the hearing was moved to the campus' largest public venue—Ackerman Grand Ballroom. The debate lasted over ten hours and went until six in the morning the following day. Of note was the intrusion of individuals from the anti-Palestinian organization StandWithUs, who filmed pro-Palestinian speakers without first securing permission until they were eventually kicked out. The atmosphere of intimidation created by StandWithUs was compounded by the presence of IDF soldiers speaking out against divestment and a string of violent and Islamophobic comments made by anti-divestment speakers. Intimidation also reached council members. As Daily Bruin columnist Eitan Arom wrote in March of 2014,
Three separate unsigned emails to USAC Student Wellness Commissioner Savannah Badalich, who was seen as a swing vote on the divestment issue, made that comparison [of support for divestment being anti-Semitic], with one saying "if you as a council member vote for this you are undoubtedly anti-Semitic." Another wrote that those pushing for divestment should "watch your backs."
Although the leaders of the anti-divestment side claimed to reject Islamophobia, their official presentations to student government were riddled with the same racist tropes they claimed to eschew. However putting aside the racism and intimidation present in the debate, the core issues were relatively clear, and even the campus paper, shy to explicitly endorse divestment, could not help but editorialize in favor of the resolution. In its editorial calling for a broader student referendum, the editorial board wrote, "the moral core of the resolution is on point–the University of California should not invest in companies complicit in human rights abuse" and later added,
UC investments in companies that support the military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and provide for the building of illegal Israeli settlements in the region are deeply problematic and contribute to a status quo that threatens the ongoing peace process . . . .
Despite the outpouring of support and the fact that the large majority of public comment was in favor of the resolution and came from a diverse cross section of the student body, the student government narrowly defeated the resolution. Organizers in SJP were humbled by the solidarity shown by a diverse array of student groups, activists and faculty who showed their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, coming out for public comment, and issuing official statements in defense of the measure. However, in addition to the fact that every divestment campaign, regardless of the outcome, is a victory in that it allows for coalition building and outreach and forces student politicians to discuss the plight of the Palestinian people at the hearing, the results of the night in question also illuminated two starkly different world-views.
On one hand, there was a wonderful outpouring of support of a wide swath of the UCLA community. From groups with a deep history of cross-movement solidarity, to organizations whose members quickly came to support the position of SJP, there was an outpouring of support based on the commitment to human rights and desire not to contribute to the degradation of Palestinians through our own university investments. A post-divestment meeting held just after the resolution failed was a particularly remarkable moment, as tearful students explained how the divestment debate had catalyzed them to action and strengthened their resolve to pass divestment on the next attempt. In the weeks following the vote, students began a “second class Bruins” campaign to highlight how the lack of respect for human rights affected Palestinian students. Some Jewish students composed a statement encouraging more progressive views than were present in their community’s discourse, prompting a response by SJP as well. On the other hand, the leadership of the pro-Israel community saw the events in a different light. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller wrote the following in a message to the Hillel community after the vote:
I look at it all and view it as a periodic ritual that different minority groups have had to enact in order to legitimate their claim to victimhood. The ritual involves making the case that your oppression was caused by the world's most recognized victims—the Jews. And the goal is to establish that the ‘Victims’ are actually the most egregious victimizers. Last night the Palestinians took the stage to attempt to gain their bona fides; and they failed ...The initiative and others like it thus had little to do with Israel and the Palestinians. Rather, it was about one community at UCLA ‘getting' and outing another community as racists and bigots, part of the oppressor class in America. This is a sick remnant of the identity politics of the 90s.
Seidler-Feller's view of pro-divestment Jewish students was just as hostile. He wrote,
[There were]... a host of Jews and Israelis who marched up to the mike [sic] in order to announce that they were really moral human beings because they had the ‘courage’ to publicly denounce Israel and distance themselves from their own community.
Those students later went on to found the UCLA chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
The Influence of Outside Anti-Palestinian Groups on the Campus Debate
Free Trips as a Means of Gaining Influence
The divestment campaign also provided students with the incentive to begin looking into the role of the Israeli lobby in student government. SJP uncovered a shocking pattern whereby anti-divestment lobbying groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee would actively recruit student politicians and provide them with free "educational" trips to Israel with the expectation that these politicians would return to their respective campuses to "apply what they learned.” Two of the USAC members who voted against SJP's resolution had received such trips, a circumstance that provided the material for a subsequent Judicial Board complaint filed by SJP against the two USAC members in question. The logic of the complaint was that large gifts made in advance of a vote could sway elected leaders of student government to consider the position of their beneficiary rather than the student body. The Judicial Board ultimately ruled in favor of the two USAC councilmembers, maintaining that there could be no conflict of interest when benefits were received prior to (rather than after) voting. The narrow reading of the concept of conflict of interest was disappointing, but the case was nevertheless crucial in calling attention to what had been a hitherto silent pattern of lobbying groups trading benefits of an exorbitant financial value for political favors, primarily votes against divestment resolutions. Exposing the extensive intervention of off-campus pro-Israel forces in student political affairs became a pivotal component of SJP UCLA's work well into the summer of 2014
Funding Student Elections to Create an anti-BDS Bulwark
In the summer of 2014, leaked emails from the campus group Bruins United revealed that an anti-Palestinian real estate mogul named Adam Milstein had been funneling off campus funds from pro-Israel sources to Bruins United candidates for student government in an effort to ensure that these students would be elected and not allow divestment to pass. Milstein, it should be noted, had also been funding the AJC trips to Israel given to council members for free. What we know of the system is as follows: some members of Bruins United emailed Milstein making general pitches for contributions to the Bruins United campaign. The pitches explicitly stated that the election of pro-Israel candidates through Bruins United was the only thing standing in the way of SJP. Milstein then turned around and sent these solicitations to other donors, directing them to make tax-deductible contributions to Hillel at UCLA, which would then funnel the money to Bruins United. Those involved in the project were clearly aware of how inappropriate it was. In an email to Milstein, Avinoam Baral wrote,
I can not stress enough how discrete (sic) this initiative must be. If this letter or any evidence of outside organizations involvement in these student government elections were to be found by our opponents it would compromise our campaign, Bruins United and all student government pro-Israel activism across America.
Milstein, for his part, lied to the press about his donations, stating that he did not give funds to candidates. Another student government member, Avi Oved, who was being considered as Student Regent at the time the emails became public, also issued contradictory statements to the campus press. His claims that he did not know who was donating to his campaign were contradicted by evidence that he personally solicited funding and was copied on emails in which Milstein himself confirmed his own one thousand dollar donation. Finally, the Bruins United party lied by omission, telling the public that it received funds from corporate sponsorships and from candidates themselves, but omitting its pro-Israel funding sources. When these documents became public, four of the five council members from Bruins United claimed no knowledge of this funding scheme, and one disaffiliated from the party. Apparently aware of how unsustainable their position was, Bruins United leaders slated a pro-divestment student to run in special campus elections in fall 2014.
Part 3: Passing Divestment
After Operation Protective Edge, Divestment Passes
Following the return to campus after Israel's latest assault on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, SJP UCLA again undertook a divestment campaign, drafting a new resolution that added Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and United Technologies for these companies' role in servicing the IDF with the weapons and technologies used in Protective Edge. As before, outreaching to student groups was a priority. SJP at UCLA reached out to over fifty groups and made roughly that many presentations. Sometimes, those presentations redounded to endorsements of divestment. Other times, those presentations helped decrease the level of opposition of other student groups. One example was the Bruin Democrats, which openly opposed divestment the first time, but decided to remain neutral the second time. This shift might be attributed to ongoing engagement with the group, even though it ostensibly shared little in common with SJP's core principles. In addition, SJP held regular teach-ins, showing Roadmap to Apartheid regularly, as well as explaining the principles of divestment and walking students through the arguments for and against the campaign.
One change from the first campaign bears examination, however. Although SJP’s first divestment campaign was transparent and open, the second effort was significantly more so, and particularly because of a growing public interest in the issue from students across campus who had little formal contact or membership in SJP. In other words, once the debate had been brought to the forefront of campus, a much larger subset of the student body became invested in it. Students from around campus engaged in the debate about Palestine with their peers without prompting by SJP or its members. This flowering of public discourse was remarkable, and included the creation of student initiated projects to demonstrate support for divestment, from a creative YouTube video counteracting pinkwashing to a campaign highlighting the international support for Palestinian freedom through the creation of divestment-flag icons for use on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
To support and keep up with this dynamic, SJP made the process more inclusive by providing an online forum for students to give feedback about what they would like to see in a divestment resolution and hosting a Town Hall attended by roughly one hundred students designed to consolidate the feedback and allow any and all interested students to voice their opinions of the resolution and help shape it to fit their interests and concerns. While during the first campaign, SJP reached out to the pro-Israel community to discuss the resolution in private, this time the entire process was conducted publicly, with pro-Israel students included in the larger cross-section of students providing their input and feedback. Ultimately, these efforts helped to demonstrate the strength of the ideas undergirding divestment and allowed other students to participate and take ownership of the resolution. It also put the lie to the claims that SJP was not open to talking to pro-Israel groups. SJP also moved its annual Palestine Awareness Week up in the yearly calendar, using it as a teaching week to build education and momentum for divestment. The week highlighted featured talks by Sherene Seikalay and Nasser Barghouti about the history of Palestine/Israel, the current facts on the ground, and, most importantly, students' responsibility to address the issue through campus BDS work.
As with the previous campaign, there was no shortage of challenges to our efforts: it was eventually revealed that UCLA Hillel staff had hired an outside PR firm, 30 Point Strategies, for advice on how to combat the prospect of divestment passing on the UCLA campus. Interestingly, and in contrast to previous anti-divestment efforts, the “advice” consisted of urging anti-divestment students to refuse to engage SJP or those in solidarity with SJP directly, instead dismissing SJP and its allies as a collective of "isolated graduate students" and asking all third parties who would listen to consider why SJP "does not condemn ISIS." Regardless of these tactics, SJP made a serious effort to engage with pro-Israel students on the question of divestment.
These tactics represented the crumbling of a cohesive and compelling anti-BDS narrative. Despite narrowly defeating divestment the first time around, it had become clear that their earlier tactics, which included appeals to authority such as a statement of opposition to BDS from Samantha Power, had little effect on free-thinking students. The strategy the second time around had changed in an obvious manner—if you cannot win the debate, attack your opponents. But this strategy of attack was not only reserved for SJP: pro-Israel students also applied it to the entire student council. The pro-Israel group "Bruins Against BDS" created a cynical campaign called "Students First" that argued that by debating divestment the student government had put other interests above the interests of its own students. This strategy backfired as many on campus noted that Palestinian students were affected by the Israeli occupation and that students themselves had initiated and brought forward the divestment campaign. To erase divestment as a student concern was to erase Palestinian students. On the night of the divestment hearing, pro-Israel students did not show up, holding an alternative meeting instead. Instead, they sent four representatives from "Bruins Against BDS" to make a public statement denouncing the council as "unrepresentative" of UCLA students for voting on a measure that was so "irrelevant" to student life and well-being, despite the fact that a much more diverse and numerous crowd of students had mobilized in support of the resolution. One representative from J-Street protested that the resolution for divestment was insufficiently deferential to the two-state solution because the divestment logo used the historic map of Palestine, rather than one that delineated only the Occupied Territories. Nevertheless, having failed to convince the student government, they declared that they would reject student government. These tactics left greater space for the pro-divestment side to make its case, including one important moment when a video appeal by Palestinian students from Birzeit University was played for student government members at the hearing.
In the end, all these strategies proved ineffective, as the new divestment resolution was successfully passed by an 8-2 margin, making UCLA at the time the sixth out of nine UC campuses to have passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of UC funds from companies profiting off of the oppression of the Palestinian people. To be sure, myriad factors contributed to this result, chief among which is, as always, the staggering displays of solidarity on the part of scores of student groups and individuals of conscience. As SJP wrote in its year in review,
The overwhelming show of support from the students who came out to provide public comment as well as the fact that thirty-two student organizations endorsed our resolution and fifteen co-sponsored it as equal partners was a definitive blow to the tired myth of divestment being ‘divisive.’ It's impossible to even count how many students contributed to divestment's success in some way—through educating their peers, sharing information, attending the town hall, talking to council members, presenting to student groups, and so on. Tellingly, groups opposed to divestment failed to make a case against the substance of the resolution itself, resorting instead to attacking the process and organizations supporting this cause.
To this primary factor, one might also add moral indignation at Israel's actions in Protective Edge; the general shift rightward of the Israeli political scene; increasing skepticism and criticism of third-party involvement in student political life; the overall transparency of SJP's campaign; the failure of “dialogue” and “positive investments" as compelling alternatives to divestment; and the comprehensively stronger set of arguments on the pro-divestment side as key components that facilitated the passage of the resolution. To wit, the eight votes for divestment included both independent council members and one member of Bruins United. In his statement preceding his vote in favor, this particular council member (Carlos Quintanilla) noted that he had been conflicted on his position up until the start of the hearing—having been torn between the claims and pressures of both sides. But hearing the case presented by students giving public comment, seeing the broad support for the resolution from groups across campus, and finding no error or fault in the resolution's text, he felt compelled to vote yes. This was a particularly poignant moment as SJP had no expectation that he would vote to support the resolution, assuming that his position as a leader of Bruins United would outweigh other factors of social justice and moral concern. Indeed, when he made the announcement, the public in the room reacted in stunned shock.
This moment made concrete an understanding held by many on campus: the anti-divestment side of this public debate had no credible case to make. This fact, implicitly acknowledged by opponents of divestment, is likely what drove individuals to solicit Milstein’s funding to capture seats on USAC; to rely heavily on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments in their public appeals; to solicit outside PR agencies’ support; and what drove them to ultimately abandon the cause and fail to show up at the second divestment hearing. For all the advantages that this well-funded effort might have had, it could only hold back the tide of public opinion for so long. Summarizing the meaning of the campaign, James Mroz wrote the following:
The victory of this resolution is not just important for what it means to Palestinian students and those who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. It is not just important for what it means to human rights and the responsibility of all nations to preserve the human rights of all people. This resolution proves that the students at UCLA are powerful. It shows that groups cannot simply rely on money or the influence of outsiders to achieve their goals. Only students can decide the fate of their university, and that makes me proud to be a Bruin.
Part 4: Looking to the Future
In the University of California, eight out of nine campuses in the UC system have passed resolutions calling for divestment from companies that supply arms to Israel and/or profit from the occupation. In early February of 2015 the University of California Students Association, the statewide body representing the 240,000 students of the UC system, passed a similar resolution calling for the Regents to divest from these companies. In December 2014, in response to a call from Palestinian labor organizations, local UAW 2865, the local union representing over 14,000 student workers, presented a resolution calling on the UC and the UAW International to divest from the occupation and weapons manufacturers that passed by a sixty-five percent majority with a higher-than-usual voter turnout. Fifty-two percent of voting members also signed on to a personal, non-binding pledge to uphold the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. At the time, this made UAW 2865 the first major US labor union to back BDS, though the UAW International Executive Board, responding to an appeal filed by an anti-BDS rank-and-file UAW member, opted to nullify the vote in December 2015. Though this nullification has since been upheld by the UAW 2865 Public Review Board, scores of organizations and individuals have expressed their support for UAW 2865's vote. Across the country, more than twenty-five campuses have passed divestment motions through their undergraduate student governments, and major student coalitions such as Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan (MECHA), and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) have endorsed BDS.
In January 2016, one of the UC’s corporate divestment targets, the Irish cement firm CRH, revealed that it was officially ending its relationship with Israeli cement companies. CRH had been a divestment target because of its work with the Israeli cement industry to provide cement used to construct the wall and settlements in the occupied West Bank. CRH’s departure was hailed as a major victory for both Irish and international divestment campaigners.
UCLA's divestment victory was an incremental outcome, the result of years of cumulative student activist efforts. It is also part of a current, wider momentum driving BDS campaigns forward, even as official instances of repression on all levels become more pronounced. But it is also clear that there is much more work to be done. In the case of South Africa, it took myriad forms of organizing, including inside and outside the university's political structures and at several levels of university activity (including undergraduate, graduate, and faculty votes for divestment) to build enough pressure on the Regents to divest. Indeed the organizing around South Africa, and the contemporary work of groups working for fossil fuel and private prison divestment show the pathway forward for Palestine solidarity campaigners. The passage of divestment actions against major coal polluters and private prisons have shown that consistent and persistent advocacy can result in victories for contemporary student divestment movements (Fossil Free UC and Afrikan Black Coalition). It seems clear that campaigners at UCLA and across the UC system will need to continue expanding the range of divestment advocacy to bring a comparable level of pressure to bear on the university before it too divests. But what is also clear from the experiences of this campaign and the lessons gleaned from past movements is that the process of engaging in this organizing is itself tremendously important. It was through the divestment campaigns that SJP organizers were able to reach and educate the most students on campus, to activate its largest numbers of students into contributors in some form or another, and to move the debate about Palestine forward in a significant manner.
It must be said that SJP's campaign worked hard to center Palestinian voices in numerous ways. Presentations to student groups, meetings with student senators, and presentations during divestment hearings were all led by Palestinian students, deliberately. The experiences of Palestinian students vis-à-vis the occupation were also instrumental to explaining to the campus why the issue of Palestine mattered in their local context. These efforts put into practice the idea of resituating Palestinians in the United States as a group with claims that should be heard alongside the claims of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza strip, and 1948 territories. Moreover, the success of this campaign rested in large part on the support of other groups on campus. This pattern highlights a framework of organizing that Loubna Qutami has called the Palestine analytic: a philosophy that recognizes the liberation of Palestine as inextricably bound up in the liberation of all oppressed peoples.
While the growing number of adherents to the cause for Palestinian freedom and self-determination, as well as the attendant surge of BDS victories are cause for celebration, the possibility for the student solidarity movement to translate these gains into effective pressure on Israel rests on the ability to continue this organizing work and build upon it. Divestment campaigning both moves public opinion and translates that opinion into institutional pressure to end the occupation. By continuing to push divestment at the graduate and faculty level on campuses, and by working to translate those votes into changes in UC investments, campaigners can do exactly that. That is a long and difficult road, and one that will continue to present many challenges, but the progress made in the past several years indicates that significant change can be accomplished on campuses in a relatively short period of time, and that more progress is indeed possible.
“In the first iteration of #UCLADivest, the resolution did not pass. In the hour that followed the vote, I remember stepping outside to meet the sunrise, numb equally with shock and grief. It was all too easy to feel as though our countless hours had gone to waste. But I will never forget what my friend told me. He said "if I had known at the beginning of the year that by the end of this, we would have gotten dozens of student group endorsements, hundreds of new members to our list-serve, and every corner of this campus talking about Palestinian human rights, I would have done it over and over again—regardless of the vote."
"In my four years at UCLA, the biggest achievement of SJP was not the passage of divestment, but the shift in political conversation on Palestine. When I got to UCLA, I would presume that besides SJP and organizations advocating for minorities and communities of color, no one really knew much about Palestine at all. Many people might have had a very skewed perception that was dictated by a biased media or were merely ignorant. Through the divestment campaign, and the events and efforts of SJP, the atrocities in Palestine were brought to the forefront of our campus. You could even say a regular UCLA student now had something of an understanding about the violation of Palestinian human rights and how UCLA has a role to play. This is huge. I could not have dreamed of this...The resolution failing for the first time was a blessing in disguise. It gave us the opportunity to educate the campus and raise awareness about why Palestine deserved attention; why it deserved justice. The shift in campus conversations and awareness on Palestine was SJP's biggest achievement and I could not have been prouder to have been there to watch it happen."
"I would walk on Bruin-walk during fall quarter of 2014 and hear people I had never met before talking about what divestment was, which to us might be a simple or obvious topic but to a regular college student is a complex issue of human rights advocacy. For the first time, thousands of people—people I never knew and who were not in any social justice organizations—were critically thinking about Palestine. Students in my microbiology classes were discussing if the military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank was illegal. Students I met for the first time in a coffee house would see my ‘UCLA divest’ shirt and approach me and ask me questions about how UCLA was complicit in human rights violations. Even students who I knew were very polar right on the topic before, and unwilling to hear about the Palestinian struggle were finally moving more towards the center."
"When we first started organizing our divestment campaign in 2012, we were advised to give ourselves ten years to get a divestment resolution passed. That is about how long it took to pass resolutions on divesting from South Africa at the UCs, so it seemed like a realistic goal. It did not take UCLA ten years to pass a resolution on divesting from companies that violate Palestinian human rights. And to say passing divestment, in such a short time-frame, was the biggest victory of our campaign would be a lie. We educated students and faculty about the realities of Israeli apartheid, built a community on campus, and saw individuals from all walks of life join the movement for Palestinian rights. In my opinion, that was the biggest victory."
"Last lesson. Do not be complacent. Even though I was never super vocal, in my first year in SJP I gained the confidence to speak up about issues and speak about what I know is right. And I think that in a university a lot of people want to blend in and just get by. You want to not be too controversial, and just have fun, not be serious. SJP changed my life and I am so grateful for it, because I learned to not be complacent and to speak up. I never thought I would learn about Palestine as an engineering student. And SJP changed that. And I am so grateful for it."
“Watching our first divestment resolution not pass the first time we proposed it was incredibly draining, both mentally and emotionally. We had worked tirelessly building a strong base within SJP, strengthening connections with other communities on campus, and meeting with student council members across the political spectrum. We had dedicated so much time and energy to shifting the conversations on Palestine around campus, and though the resolution did not pass that first time, I deeply believe it was a huge and necessary success. I will never forget sitting in Ackerman Grand Ballroom, the largest space on campus, watching hundreds of students gathering to discuss Palestine for twelve hours straight. Hundreds of students from so many diverse communities came to support our efforts, and not just a surface support—people were incredibly passionate and well-educated on the issue. That night, we saw the fruits of our efforts, and we witnessed a shift on campus, one we would be unable to predict, even a year earlier. Everyone was talking about Palestine. Random students in classes, in campus elevators, on Bruin Walk, were talking about Palestine and the divestment vote. I had never experienced anything like that, and I knew that we would only continue building on that awareness.
After the resolution first failed, I was overwhelmed with emotion and exhaustion. As a Palestinian student, I could not come to terms with the fact that a council of students, after being educated on the issue for months, would actively choose to continue investing in an occupation that my family lived under. To be honest, it became difficult to come to campus for quite some time. I had never felt so unwelcome and out of place. I was very frustrated with student politics, with people prioritizing party-line loyalty over human lives, over the lives and rights of my family members. Despite knowing Palestine had widespread support across so many communities, I did not know how to grapple with the fact that those in positions of power were ready to undermine our efforts any chance they had.
The second time we proposed divestment, we had been building on so much momentum. The second vote was an expansion of the education and cross-community solidarity we had been prioritizing over the previous few years. The night that divestment was brought up in November 2014 is one of the most memorable to me, and one of my proudest as an organizer. I had been organizing with SJP at UCLA for over four years at that point, and watching our efforts come full circle and culminating in an overwhelming majority vote in favor of divestment was so empowering. Seeing the further shift in campus discussion even from the first vote in February 2014 to that November, was incredible. When we sat in Ackerman and watched student after student give public comment supporting divestment, with no students opposing it, I knew without a doubt that we had reached a tipping point. Those opposing divestment could no longer engage in a logical discussion around Palestine and divestment. We had won the logical argument, one hundred percent, and it was so clear that night, when even a council member on the conservative slate unexpectedly voted in favor of divestment. I knew there was no going back after we reached that point.”
SJP would like to express its apprecation to the following UCLA student groups for endorsing divestment on the UCLA campus:
- Afrikan Student Union
- American Indian Student Association
- Al-Talib Newsmagazine
- Armenian Student Association
- Asian Pacific Coalition
- Bengali Students Association
- Bhagat Puran Singh Health Initiative
- Black Law Students Association
- Bruin Feminists for Equality
- FEM Magazine
- Fossil Free UCLA
- Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS)
- Incarcerated Youth Tutorial Project
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Law Students for Justice in Palestine
- MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) de UCLA
- Mentors for Academic and Peer Support (MAPS)
- Muslim Law Student Association
- Muslim Student Association
- Native Roots
- Pakistani Student Association
- Project One
- Queer Alliance
- Samahang Pilipino
- Social Awareness Network for Activism through Art (SANAA)
- Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE)
- UMMA Volunteer Project
- United Afghan Club
- United Arab Society
- Vietnamese Student Union
- Womyn of Color Collective at UCLA Law School
[To download a PDF version of this report, click here.]
[To contact SJP at UCLA, please email firstname.lastname@example.org]
 This article is the culmination of years of advocacy for the Palestinian cause as well as a conscious attempt to battle an ahistorical understanding of campus Palestine organizing that has allowed for persistent mischaracterizations of this strand of activism and relevant organizations. But many of the issues presented here are presently evolving, and information pertaining to the formative years of Palestine organizing in the United States remains difficult to come by. The co-authors therefore consider this text to be a fluid archive, and invite all connected to the efforts recounted here to continue to share their stories and wisdom.
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