Lessons from divestment

CAMPUS ISSUES: Should the ASUC Senate once again consider an Israel-related divestment bill, it should learn from its 2010 effort.

Israel-related divestment is once again a pressing issue in the UC system. But this time, student governments at campuses other than UC Berkeley are the ones addressing the topic — so far.

UC Riverside’s student government recently passed a resolution calling on the university to divest from companies with ties to allegedly unethical acts in Israel, and UC San Diego is considering something similar. These follow a bill passed by a branch of UC Irvine’s student government in November and a failed attempt to pass a controversial divestment bill at UC Berkeley three years ago. At least partially because of those measures, it seems likely that a related divestment effort could resurface in the ASUC Senate. Furthermore, ASUC President Connor Landgraf admitted that there “have definitely been murmurs of divestment,” and Senator Sadia Saifuddin indicated that she would be receptive to restarting the debate.

If history is any indicator, an ASUC divestment bill could catapult the UC Berkeley student body into a firestorm of controversy. In 2010, the senate’s bill asking the University of California to divest from companies associated with alleged war crimes in Israel bitterly divided the student body. The bill passed but was promptly vetoed by the ASUC president. That triggered several meetings rife with antagonistic discourse — and attracted international attention — but the senate failed to override the veto. The divisive nature of the 2010 events casts doubt over whether the ASUC is equipped to handle a healthy discussion about this issue.

Of course, there are potential benefits to reconsidering a divestment bill. It could provide a setting for an open, honest and informative dialogue. Theoretically, by bringing the issue into focus, it could also be a productive opportunity that allows supporters and opponents to spread their perspectives to more students. And if each side can enter the debate in good faith with each other, they will be far more likely to engage each other in constructive conversations.

But in order for that to happen, senators and other student leaders need to carefully heed the lessons of 2010. First, they would need to allow sufficient time for a complete discussion — because scores of students will have strong sentiments about divestment, the senate cannot attempt to rush a bill in the last few weeks of the semester. Should divestment return, senators would need to prepare themselves for a lengthy process that considers all perspectives.

The bill itself would also require an extensive time investment. Unlike the 2010 version, a new Israeli divestment bill would require thorough research if it is to receive any respect from students who oppose it. Similarly, students must also take explicit measures to ensure that all discourse about divestment does not devolve into offensive conversations that alienate campus community members. And ASUC officials should also be completely transparent about any political pressure they receive from outside groups.

Given the ASUC’s past attempt, it’s difficult to believe that another round of divestment talks in the senate could be worthwhile for any party involved. But if the subject returns, student leaders can take some specific steps to make the effort legitimate. Repeating the mistakes of 2010 would be damaging to all parties involved.