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UC Student Reps Demand UC System Divest from 9 Countries—and the List Hits Home

February 11, 2015
by Glen Martin

This week the UC Student Association board overwhelmingly voted to urge the University of California to divest from governments it says abuse human rights. And what countries would those be?

One resolution specifically singled out companies doing business in Israel. A second called for divestment from a litany of other offending nations: Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, Sri Lanka—and the United States.

Most of the attention focused on the long-contentious Israeli divestment vote, which supporters called a morally appropriate reaction to its treatment of Palestinians, and which critics denounced as anti-Semitic. But they can no longer say Israel is being held to a unique double-standard:  Now the board of the association—representing nearly 240,000 undergraduate and graduate students at all 10 UC campuses—is condemning the human rights records of a host of other nations.

The second vote has garnered far less attention on the campuses themselves: at UC Berkeley, The Daily Californian’s story focused on the Israel vote for nine paragraphs before dispensing with the second divestment vote in a single sentence at the end of its story.

But as news of it began to trickle across the country—particularly on conservative websites, which dubbed it “the anti-America vote”—the reaction has been robust. Or if you prefer, the (insert noxious material of choice here) is hitting the fan.

The resolution was introduced by Rebecca Ora, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in film and digital media from UC Santa Cruz and serves as external vice president of that campus’s student association. It calls for the university to divest from foreign governments that impinge on the right to the “life, liberty, security…education, privacy, family…home…(and) property…” of their citizens.

It also alleged specific wrongdoings for each country: The United States, for example, was cited for drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, its high rate of imprisonment, minority targeting by police, the mass detention of undocumented immigrants and  “supporting and propping up numerous dictatorships around the world with weapons sales and foreign aid.”

Ultimately both resolutions passed by a vote of 9-to-1 with several abstentions. The sole no vote was reportedly cast by the graduate student contingent from UC San Francisco.

The UC Student Association board is composed of elected or appointment members from student associations on UC campuses. Its votes are advisory only; the authority to make divestment decisions lies with the UC Regents, who show no intention of acceding to the student association’s desire.

To the contrary, UC’s Regents maintain they will not divest from any foreign government unless the United States concludes it is responsible for genocide, nor will they authorize divestment from U.S. companies that conduct business with Israel.

National Review editor Rich Lowry deemed Ora’s resolution “a mashup of Noam Chomsky and Monty Python.” Other conservative websites and news outlets covering the story ran the gamut from mild pique to fulminating rage.

“The U. Cal. student government has proven a point I’ve made repeatedly in terms of the academic boycott: If you are going to boycott Israel, then you need to apply those standards to the whole world, which will result in boycotting yourselves,” wrote Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson. “I’m not glad that the Israel divestment passed, but at least it passed combined with a resolution which made the anti-Israel students and U. Cal student government look like fools.”

The hoi polloi also weighed in on social media, and most contributors were less than charmed, as demonstrated by the following responses posted on Reddit:


…Well (,) I now officially hate my school.


…It seems that these “senators” have such a huge hard on for justice they’ve forgotten how to think with their heads. This group of people is supposed to help improve the quality of education and the lives of students. Instead they go off fighting issues that don’t concern them, heralding opinions that don’t even reflect the student body…

And those are some of the milder postings; most are highly pungent, and many are scatological. In any event, they questioned whether the vote reflects the larger UC student body.

“If we are the aca­dem­ic cus­tom­ers, then we are en­titled to a say; the cus­tom­er is, after all, al­ways right.”

That perspective, certainly, was well-represented at the board meeting, where about 75 pro-Israel demonstrators chanted against the resolution during a public comment period that preceded the directors’ vote. UCLA’s Daily Bruin newspaper provided an on-scene account of the meeting, held on that university’s campus. It reported that the president of UCLA’s student government, Avinoam Baral, accused the divestment drive of encouraging hate, and that he left the meeting in protest, later convening a rally opposing the resolution targeting Israel.

But supporters of that resolution also showed up at the meeting in force. And the resolution wasn’t just about—or rather, against—Israel, proponents insisted. Nor, insisted Iman Sylvain, the external vice president of the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly, was the action “hate-based.”  And Amal Ali, a UC Riverside student and a former president of the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine, said that the association’s role was important because it provided a forum to students who otherwise lack a voice in shaping UC policy.

Ora also took pains to present her 8-country resolution  as a compromise designed to accommodate rather than antagonize Israel supporters. She stated that human rights violations exist in numerous countries, and that her measure provides some balance to the first resolution, which, she averred, could be construed by some as an unfair censure of Israel.

“In addition to authorizing student groups calling for the respect of human rights in Israel/Palestine, this resolution also opens the door for other conversations on international violations,” Ora tels CALIFORNIA Online. “Recently, Armenian student groups have been pressing for divestment from Turkey, for example. This invites student groups to further their efforts. I invite Jewish/Pro-Israel student groups to engage in difficult conversations around these issues, and to be recognized as concerned citizens able to stand up for their cultural identities….Unless we move together, student efforts will not succeed.”

The resolution also called on the UC Regents to give students a greater decision-making role in UC investments, given that tuition covers an increasing share of the UC system’s operating costs. “If the University does not want us asking for transparency in financial matters, it should rethink its increasing privatization,” Ora maintains. “If we are the academic customers, then we are entitled to a say;  the customer is, after all, always right.”

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