Representing what’s right

An open letter to critics of the UCSA resolution on HR 35

Sebastian Yan/Staff

Last month, the UC Student Association, a coalition of the UC student governments across each campus, expressed its principled opposition to anti-Semitism but deep concern with the language of a state Assembly bill purportedly about the topic, HR 35. The concern stems from language in the bill that conflates anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israeli state policies. For example, HR 35 equates anti-Semitism with statements that Israel’s policies may be racist or constitute apartheid, as Nobel Peace Prize winners Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Mairead Maguire, among many others, have suggested, or with advocacy for boycotting Israel and complicit companies until the state ends such policies. Civil rights groups and faculty members have already recognized the threat such a definition of anti-Semitism poses to free speech and academic freedom on our campuses, and through its vote, the UCSA now has too. We applaud the UCSA for speaking up for the free speech rights of students.

We also applaud the UCSA for calling on the UC Regents to “cleanse their investment portfolios of unethical investments in companies implicated in or profiting from violations of international human rights law, without making special exemptions for any country.” Rather than singling out Israel for criticism, as some have suggested, the UCSA vote helps to correct HR 35’s efforts to singularly protect Israel from criticism that would be directed at any other nation engaging in similar practices. As the UCSA resolution makes clear, all states should be held accountable for their human rights violations, with boycotts or divestment being legitimate nonviolent tools to do so. SJP supports an ethical investment policy that would broadly target human rights abuses in multiple countries. We recognize the importance of naming Israel in that list because the United States has given more in military aid to Israel than any other country in our lifetimes, giving United States residents a special responsibility for the human rights abuses Israel commits and a special opportunity to make change.

Specifically, SJP advocates using boycott and divestment to target companies that are directly complicit in the human rights abuses attending Israel’s occupation, such as Caterpillar Inc., a company in which our school invests more than $5 million, according to the most recent end-of-year investment report. Caterpillar supplies massive weaponized bulldozers to the Israeli Defense Force that are routinely used to demolish Palestinian homes and farmland as part of Israel’s ongoing theft of Palestinian land taken to establish exclusionary Jewish-only settlements that are illegal under international law. These are not “alleged” human rights violations, as some have recently impugned, but the honest reality affirmed by myriad human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, all of whom decry the human rights abuses perpetrated by Israel with America’s support. The UCSA view that we should not be profiting from these human rights abuses should hardly be controversial, and, in most corners of the university, it clearly is not, as evidenced by the overwhelming majority votes in the UCSA and in in all three divestment votes at Berkeley in 2010.

Since the UCSA vote, however, some — including the editors of this paper — have raised objections. Though we suspect their true concerns are with the substance of the bill, their chief expressed complaint has been procedural. In response, it is worth noting that UCSA student leaders did nothing to make this bill less public than any of their other legislative efforts. HR 35’s passage was sudden and unexpected, and the UCSA had a duty to promptly respond in defense of student rights. The suggestion that the Jewish community on campus was selectively and intentionally excluded from the conversation, as has been alleged, is absolutely false. In fact, a Jewish Israeli student was one of two students to address the UCSA on the day of its vote, a fact conveniently ignored by those attempting to craft a narrative of Jewish exclusion. This student approached the UCSA because his own research on Israel’s ethnic cleansing is threatened by HR 35, and he hoped his student government would stand up for him. There’s nothing devious about petitioning your elected representatives to protect your rights — and it’s not really reasonable to demand that a student invite those who seek to restrict his free speech rights to a hearing about his right to speak freely. But there is something worrying about some people’s attempt to lend their marginal viewpoint defending Israel’s occupation the moral weight of an entire ethnic and religious minority, disregarding the many Jewish students on campus who firmly oppose Israel’s policies in the process.

Due to institutional features of the UCSA — UCSA representatives from across the state are only in the same city to cover all business matters for a full day once a month — the UCSA forum is not an ideal forum for long debates about HR 35 and divestment. To those wishing for more robust debate, we can relate. The longest public debates on the topic of Israel/Palestine on this campus came about as a result of the 2010 divestment hearings in the ASUC, initiated by SJP members. Though we recognize that fewer and fewer students stand in opposition to granting Palestinians universal human rights, we are eager to engage with those who do not yet share this opinion. In fact, on numerous occasions, our members have sought out a debating partner among those who defend American support for Israel’s policies, only to find no one willing to debate on the other side. We hereby extend an open invitation to any remaining critics of the recent UCSA resolution, including recent opinion writers Joey Freeman and Noah Ickowitz, to participate in a respectful, academic debate with fellow students regarding HR 35 and the ethicality of boycotting and divesting from Israel and complicit companies. We would like this debate to be moderated by a mutually agreed upon unbiased party — and failing that, we’d even be willing to settle for a moderator like The Daily Californian.

Cal Students for Justice in Palestine is a student group that advocates equal rights for the Palestinian people.