When UC Davis student leaders voted last month to seek divestment from businesses that aid Israeli military efforts, it marked the latest formal victory for a movement that has steadily grown on elite campuses across the nation.
Deep-pocketed institutions with ivy-covered walls have seen more activists, professors and students call for such divestment in recent years. But it is primarily at University of California campuses where student leaders have formally voted to condemn Israeli actions and ask that billions of dollars in endowment funds be removed from companies with identifiable ties to the country’s military.
Seven UC student governments have approved resolutions to support divestment, which proponents contend is a peaceful way to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. On Sunday, the systemwide UC Student Association jumped into the fray, voting 9-1 for the measure, with six abstentions.
UC administrators continue to reiterate that divestment from Israel will not happen. But the string of student political victories across UC campuses has nonetheless become a symbolic victory for the pro-Palestinian movement.
“This is not about boycotting Jews. This is about calling for human rights,” said Gabi Kirk, a campus liaison at Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland nonprofit that is actively encouraging students to support divestment.
University of California spokeswoman Shelly Meron responded Thursday by referring to a 2010 statement that she said still reflects UC policy. That four-paragraph document by top UC system leaders said, “This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community.”
Schools with larger endowments than UC, such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have debated divestment from Israel as far back as 2002 but have not passed formal student resolutions like those seen at UC campuses. Stanford University’s student government this week rejected a motion to divest from businesses involved with Israel, while Cornell University student leaders did the same last year.
The UC Davis vote and two hate crimes against Jewish organizations in Davis have drawn national interest in recent weeks from organizations on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, as well as people on social media. Comedienne Roseanne Barr this week defended Israel through a series of inflammatory tweets, including one that said she hopes the Davis campus “gets nuked” and another that simply had the hashtag “#nukeUCDavisJewHaters.”
Opponents of divestment argue that the UC student movement unfairly singles out Israeli and Jewish students. Though student groups and Jewish organizations at UC Davis have downplayed connections between the divestment vote and two hate crimes, the incidents at Jewish organizations serve as reminders that anti-Semitism remains, they said.
Barry Broad, board president at the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region, described the current climate at UC schools as “deeply troubling.”
He sees divestment as the newest iteration of an economic boycott against Jews among the Arab world that has more or less existed since 1920 when the British administered Palestine.
“It never has been about creating peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Broad said. “The goal is to harm Israel economically in order to further the effort to wage war.”
Divestment has proved itself in the past as a potent weapon. In perhaps the most famous campus effort, college students in the 1970s and 1980s demanded that universities eliminate investments in companies tied to South Africa as that country continued to enforce apartheid. Other movements have sought university divestment from tobacco, oil firms and major banks.
University of California maintains a $7.4 billion endowment, 14th largest among U.S. higher education institutions, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund Institute. That amount does not include its more sizable pension investments.
“The UC investment portfolio is enormous – labs, pension plans, research laboratories – when the UC plans to divest or invest, it can have an enormous effect,” said Karen North, a communication professor at the University of Southern California and former assistant dean of the UCLA School of Public Policy. “The impact UC has when it invests or divests, is astonishing ... It sends more than a signal, it can affect the health of companies.”
Kirk noted that corporations targeted for divestment are not necessarily Israeli-owned. Rather, she said, they are companies believed to be “profiting” off the Israeli occupation, suggesting as an example Caterpillar, which sells bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment.
College students have long lent their ear to social and foreign issues. Most recently, the Occupy movement gained ground on university campuses in 2011 and hit a boiling point with the infamous incident on the UC Davis quad in which students were hit with pepper spray.
At UC Davis, supporters of divestment have been working to pass a resolution in the student Senate for three years. The overwhelming victory last month was the result of a shift in public opinion, according to Marcelle Obeid, president of UC Davis’ Students for Justice in Palestine.
“People saw what happened last summer with Gaza,” Obeid said, referring to an Israeli military operation in Gaza that resulted in the deaths of 2,200 Palestinians. “That partially helped open people’s eyes.”
She added, “At the university level, we don’t want to be complicit.”
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, said portraying Israel as an aggressor plays on the idealism of students.
“This captures the fancy of young idealists who are looking for the issue of the day,” said the rabbi, who has worked with students at UCLA for 40 years. “The nonviolent approach is seen as seductive – talk of apartheid, (Nelson) Mandela and liberation.”
UC Student Association President Jefferson Kuoch-Seng noted that “there’s a big push for more social responsibility.”
At University of California schools, Muslim and Jewish students are a minority. The divestment resolutions at UC campuses have been approved with a coalition of groups, including Asian Americans, African Americans and Latinos.
“Everyone sees commonalities to the Palestinian struggle,” Obeid said. “A lot of minority groups really sympathized and voted with their morals.”
Seidler-Feller appeared to agree, but offered his own interpretation.
“Campus politics have been hijacked by a group of students who are intent to conquer,” he said. “The coalition of Arab, Muslim, Latino, Asian and gay students. They’re all oppressed minorities.”
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute reached the Board of Regents in a different way the last two years.
Regents in 2013 made history by approving Sadia Saifuddin as the system’s first-ever Muslim to be designated to the student position on the board. Saifuddin supports the Israel divestment movement. She received backing from all regents except for Richard Blum, who abstained in a break from tradition, citing concerns about her political activism, according to the Daily Californian.
Last year, regents approved Abraham Oved as the UC student regent designate. Oved is Jewish and opposes the divestment effort. Palestinian supporters accused him of receiving political donations from a pro-Israeli Los Angeles real estate developer.
Saifuddin declined to discuss divestment on Thursday, saying she is a “representative in the higher education field.”