In 2010, UC Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine brought forth a resolution in its student senate to divest from companies involved in Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip conducted in the winter of 2008-09. The vote made national headlines as one of the state’s most prestigious institutions voted by a 16-4 margin to remove UC funds from companies deeply involved in profiting from Israel’s occupation. After a week of intense pressure, including from representatives of the Israeli government, the student body president vetoed the resolution. Despite once again securing a clear majority, the student senate was unable to reach a two-thirds vote to override the veto.
At the time, many students across the state felt that they were facing an insurmountable political challenge. If students at the state’s most liberal university couldn’t pass divestment even when they managed to secure a majority vote, what hope did others have of passing divestment anywhere else? To the credit of student activists, the disappointment at UC Berkeley only spurred them to work harder, and two years later, UC Irvine’s student senate passed the state’s first successful divestment measure by a unanimous 16-0 margin. Despite losing the 2010 campaign, UC Berkeley divestment activists had clearly highlighted the conditions of the occupation and exposed a one-sided political debate. Despite attempts to vilify Palestinians and their supporters or claims to support human rights and oppose the occupation, the loudest opponents of divestment could never produce a convincing argument for why the university should continue investing in, implicitly endorsing and actually profiting from companies that carry out Israel’s brutal, decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories.
UC Irvine’s victory inspired new campaigns all across the state. In the winter and spring of 2013, divestment campaigns emerged so rapidly that activists coined terms such as “Divestment Tuesdays” to mark parallel votes being held across the UC system. That spring, there were votes at UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and even Stanford University. In the span of one academic year, the student movement went from zero campuses endorsing divestment to three, including a stirring moment when UC Berkeley overcame 2010’s defeat to pass a new divestment bill. Buoyed by the solidarity of dozens upon dozens of campus organizations representing a huge spectrum of campus life, the movement had taken on an irreversible momentum.
Today, a majority of UC campuses, including UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and most recently, UCLA and UC Davis, have now officially voted to divest from companies involved in Israel’s occupation. This year’s activists passed resolutions at UCLA and UC Davis by sweeping margins, highlighting just how thoroughly debunked anti-divestment arguments have become. Dozens of student groups on every campus have endorsed divestment, thousands of students have been educated and mobilized, and the new status quo position at the university is in support of Palestinian human rights, in opposition to the occupation and in favor of divestment.
Although years of hard work went into passing divestment at a majority of UC campuses, the next step is even harder — getting the UC regents to implement the democratically expressed will of the students. For the South African solidarity movement, that process took a decade. The regents finally chose to divest because the political pressure to divest had become too strong to resist. Judging by their attitude toward students on issues such as tuition and fossil fuel divestment, the same type of political force will be needed to convince today’s regents to divest once again.
It is time for our statewide student representatives to help us begin to translate the democratic votes of the majority of the university’s campuses into political pressure on the UC regents. The UC Student Association, or UCSA, is the body of external affairs officers from the UC system that represents and advocates for student demands to bodies such as the UC regents and the state government. Just as it strives to represent the views of students on a variety of other social justice issues, the UCSA should have little problem recognizing that a majority of UC campuses have voted for divestment and conveying the students’ demands to the regents.
This vote is about the UCSA acknowledging the fact that six of nine UC student governments have officially voted to divest the university’s endowment and retirement funds from companies that violate Palestinian human rights on a daily basis. Supporting this vote is about affirming student democracy, asserting our role in determining how our university is run, making a serious commitment to supporting human rights and reinforcing the growing power of other divestment activism regarding fossil fuels and mass incarceration. When united, students have the power to make incredible change within the UC system. Just as we have historically supported freedom, justice and equality for oppressed groups at home and abroad, so too can we support freedom, justice and equality for Palestinians.
Marium Navid is an ASUC senator and Rahim Kurwa is a graduate student at UCLA.