During a five-hour-long Senate meeting in UCR’s Tartan and Tweed Room on Feb. 12, over 10 student speakers debated over a senate resolution entitled, “Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid,” which urges the UC to divest its asset holdings from various companies that reinforce the alleged apartheid system and military occupation in Israel’s Palestinian territories.
Divestment supporters, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) President Amal Ali and Vice President Tina Matar, argued that the resolution targeted Israel’s government and institutions, which allegedly supported human rights violations to the Palestinian people. Senators later expressed concerns over the resolution’s affiliation to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, described by supporters as a global movement against the Israeli government’s occupation of Arab lands and the separation wall between the Israeli and Palestinian territories.
The meeting apexed when the divestment resolution fell short of passing the senate for the second consecutive year by a slim margin of 6-7-1. As the news broke, half of the galley emptied the room and rallied outside the hall with a unity clap and chants.
The second resolution, “A Bill in Support of Positive Steps Toward a Negotiated Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” which requested that UCR invest in companies that strengthen Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in pursuit of a two-state resolution, was tabled due to broken hyperlinks sourced in the document.
Divestment opponents, such as President of Highlanders for Israel (HIFI) Ben Morag, argued in favor of the second resolution over the first, which he said, disregards the existence of Israel.
President Pro Tempore Aaron Johnson motioned for an open ballot as opposed to a closed one, but the senate overruled his motion with a simple majority vote of 3-8-3. Ultimately, senators voted to keep their votes hidden from the public; this is the second time that the ASUCR senate has voted under the premise of a closed ballot for a divestment resolution.
Audience members split up into “divestment” lines
Clear divisions were constructed at the onset of the meeting, when audience members were asked to form “pro-divestment” and “anti-divestment” lines upon entry into the Tartan and Tweed Room. Members of ASUCR argued that the divided lines aimed to create a balanced debate floor by representing both sides of the resolution.
According to Tina Matar, only 25 members from both the pro- and anti-divestment sides were permitted entry into the room. “Twenty-five on each side and that includes the speakers, so that left us with only 18 (people to allow in) … we had to choose 18 people out of the 60, 70 people; how can I hand-pick 18 people?” she said.
Senator Shadi Matar also explained that the room limitations were meant to prevent a fire hazard. “We wanted to do it proportionally, but in my opinion, it should be whoever wants to go to the meeting,” he said. “When an overwhelming number of students and (organizations) show up and you’re turning them away, just (because) more people on the other side didn’t show up to balance you out (is unfair) in itself.”
Audience members reported that they went to Asian Pacific Student Programs and Native American Student Programs to watch a live stream of the senate session after being denied access from the meeting due to limited room capacity.
President Pro Tempore Aaron Johnson explained that the senate wanted to hear from both perspectives of the resolution equally. “The lines were divided so an equal amount of students could speak and represent both sides,” said Johnson. “If we hadn’t regulated chambers in this manner, students from only one viewpoint could have flooded the chambers.”
Ali reveals divestment resolution is part of BDS movement
As continuing advocates of the divestment resolution, SJP President Ali and Vice President Tina Matar delivered a presentation on the divestment resolution. The two also presented signatures from over 75 campus student organizations, which stood in solidarity with the resolution.
Addressing the need to divest from companies that support alleged human rights violations against citizens in Palestine, Ali stated, “Divestment cannot be eliminated as an option. Divestment needs to happen … Divestment is not a question of if; it’s a question of when.”
She recognized that though the passage of the resolution may create a deeper fissure between the two opposing groups on campus, the bill is based on ethical and social justice issues, such as the civil rights movement and abortion, which have always been historically controversial.
“We can’t live in this idealist world where everyone lives in a Kumbaya circle without addressing problems that exist. This division happens because there are communities that feel that our university contributes to global oppression. To say that we shouldn’t divide ourselves on this issue … is complete disregard to struggles that people actually face.”
Ali also argued that the whole UC community, as opposed to a small sector of the UC Office of the President (UCOP), should have a say in the investment and expenditure of systemwide funds.
Senator Jessica Moncayo asked whether or not the divestment resolution was similar to the one previously passed at UC Berkeley — which denied its affiliation with BDS — given that one of the movement’s founders, Omar Barghouti, allegedly made repeated anti-Semitic claims, according to Morag.
Rebutting Morag’s claim that BDS threatens to eliminate the state of Israel, senator Shadi Matar reiterated that BDS is a nonviolent movement. “The goal of BDS is not to destroy Israel at all,” argued Matar. “I thought (Barghouti’s statement) was taken out of context and the BDS movement was given a bad image … but that’s not what it is.”
He claimed that once Israel meets the three demands of BDS — ending military occupation and apartheid in Israel, fully recognizing the rights of Arab-Palestinians and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties (also known as the right of return) — then the BDS movement will end.
Morag argues in favor of two-state solution as one of “peace and negotiation”
Morag delivered a presentation against the divestment resolution, which he said seeks to defame Israel and delegitimize the separation wall that he argued protects the citizens of the country against terrorists. He argued that the goal of the divestment resolution was to push a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ultimately eliminate the state of Israel.
“(The divestment resolution) talks about the separation wall, and how it hinders the Palestinians. However, they neglect to talk about how (the wall) saves lives that would’ve been taken by terrorist attacks,” said Morag. “For example, in 2013, there were nearly 1,004 attempted attacks against Israelis in Jerusalem in the West Bank, and the security area there helped to prevent them.”
Morag further accused the divestment resolution as an “inherently one-sided framework,” which framed the debate around the Israeli government’s alleged violations of human rights. He asked the senators to reconsider the agenda of BDS for imposing such a framework.
Claiming that divestment is not the solution to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Morag also urged the senators to pass the resolution that he authored on peaceful negotiation.
“The legitimate narrative would encourage a peace agreement instead of privileging one over the other,” said Morag. “My resolution talks about how as a public university, we should take a neutral stance on issues of high conflict. And divestment is not a neutral stance; it is saying that Israel is an apartheid state, and that is in no way, shape or form, a neutral stance.”
As an opponent to the divestment bill, former ASUCR President Liam Dow recalled the campus community’s division from the aftermath of a 2012-13 senate meeting, which previously heard the divestment resolution.
“If you did not support the bill, you were immediately separated and alienated from those who did; students felt scared and misrepresented by their ASUCR representatives,” said Dow. “I just want you to measure the resolution’s toll against the campus climate and most importantly, our student body.”
Galley members storm out after hearing aftermath of divestment resolution
After the divestment resolution failed to pass, SJP President Ali immediately exited the room once the ruling was made. She was soon followed by nearly half of the gallery, one of whom yelled to the senate, “You’ll be remembered as the senators who didn’t pass this resolution!” Ali later expressed the outcome as “a damn shame” and “embarrassment” of the senate.
A crowd of 30 to 40 individuals gathered outside of the Tartan and Tweed Room in solidarity with the divestment resolution. When SJP member and former ASUCR senator Ahlam Jadallah was asked what led to the departure of audience members, she said, “I think we left because we needed to reassure ourselves that (the resolution) was still alive,” she said. “I just know that in the future we are always strong because it’s a constant struggle for us, we live the struggle every day (and) we’re always going to fight for peace and justice.”
Before the divestment resolution was voted on, senator Michael Ervin motioned to amend the divestment resolution to include the phrase: “ASUCR does not support the politics of the BDS movement,” in an attempt to separate extremist features that may be potentially associated with the BDS movement.
Both Johnson and senator Niela Darmani warned that the motion would have violated the senate’s required reading policy in the ASUCR bylaws, which keeps senators accountable for reading pieces of legislation prior to voting on them. Since additional source links were not provided for the phrase “BDS,” Ervin’s amendment would send the resolution back to LRC for another week and require senators to abide by the required reading policy. senators ultimately voted against Ervin’s motion by a 2-12 vote.
As the meeting continued, senator Nafi Karim motioned to include the following amendment to the resolution: “ASUCR acknowledges the existence of Israel,” which was successfully passed by a 13-1 vote. However, Matar later expressed that it was an unnecessary and isolated statement from the BDS movement.
Senators vote to table second resolution
The senate also reviewed the second resolution, which sought to establish a two-state peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.
In response to the resolution, Outreach Director Mina Kato said it was one-sided because the bill did not result from the combined efforts of both Israeli and Palestinian students. “How can this … be a bill in support for positive steps in negotiating Israeli-Palestinian peace, if this resolution did not include a positive discussion between our own Israeli and Palestinian communities on this campus?” asked Kato.
It was Matar who noticed that two hyperlinks on the document, which served to fact-check statements in the resolution, were broken. Uncertain about how to proceed with the resolution, the senate called forth the judicial branch for additional advice on the matter; the senate eventually voted to table the resolution by a 6-3-5 vote.