Emotional marathon meeting sees Senate passionately debate election rules and rescind controversial divestment resolution.
The ASUCR senate carried out a nearly six-hour-long meeting on Wednesday, April 3. Among other issues, senators voted to rescind the controversial resolution that called to divest in companies that allegedly support apartheid in the Middle East.
Three opponents of the resolution were Daniel Benjamin Leserman and Jacqueline Zelener, presidents of Highlanders for Israel and a UCR graduate student of physics, Daniel Wegman. Additionally, the public forum included a total of 11 individuals, consisting of five in support, five against and one neutral side of the divestment resolution.
The senate chambers were once again packed to capacity, so much so that after the public comment portion, it was decided that the meeting would relocate to a larger room, the Tartan and Tweed room in the Student Services Building. It was there that the resolution was debated.
In addition, by a simple majority vote, the Legislative Branch voted to allow candidates with missing student identification numbers (SIDs) in their applications to participate in the spring elections. The senate’s decision overruled the advisory suggestions offered by the Judicial Branch and Elections Director Harmony Chai on the basis of misleading documentation. A few senators questioned whether there is a conflict of interest in passing legislation that involved incumbent Senator Niela Darmani, who is running for reelection, as well as the fact that several of the senators voting are members of the disqualified candidates’ party.
Members of the audience expressed concerns over the senate’s ability to make foreign policy decisions on behalf of the student body. The senate voted to rescind the Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid resolution, which was passed March 6 during the last meeting of the winter quarter. Opponents argue that the resolution is divisive, which was made clear by the separations established between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian speakers as the meeting winded down.
Incomplete candidacy applications
It would be some time before the dialogue regarding the divestment resolution would actually begin. While those in the audience were being added to the speaker’s list, the senate took the time to address other matters regarding the upcoming elections. Several students who were denied candidacy for the elections spoke about problems they had with the elections application. The senate was questioned for having a controversial conflict of interest in the final decision to allow the denied applicants, including one sitting senator, to run in the upcoming elections.
One of the speakers who had issues with the elections application process was Andrew Hua, an ex-officio member of the Residence Halls Association. He was previously denied candidacy because he failed to obtain the required student identification numbers from those who endorsed him.
According to Hua, “On the application it was not required. It did not ask me to get the SID numbers. All it provided was, as you can see, the signature.”
Copies of the elections packet from this year and last were then distributed and Senator Sai Patadia clarified to the senate and public that in the section of this year’s packet “where you have to have 50 students nominate you, there is one section that says ‘name’ and the second column states ‘signature’. However, on last year’s elections packet it is clearly stated name and student ID numbers.”
Four out of 37 applicants had the same issue with the packet that Hua had.
Several members of the ASUCR senate who also sit on the elections committee then began to give their reasoning on why Hua’s and others’ candidacies were rejected.
Senator and Assistant Elections Director Kristina Morelos stated that “although they had ample amount of time no one after March 8—after the deadline came—no one came to speak with us until the candidate meeting,” which was week 10 of last quarter.
The Judicial Review Board collected input from Elections Director Harmony Chai, in order to review the cases of the applicants who failed to obtain their required SID numbers.
“I was asked to present my testimony to the Judicial [Review] Board on Monday, March 11,” stated Chai. “The [Judicial Review Board] made their decision and upheld the judgment call I had made.”
In response to Chai’s comments, Senator and Chair of the Legislative Review Committee Sai Patadia stated the decisions made by the judicial branch are not “responsible for matters of elections…the senate is responsible for matters of elections because it is regarding the student body.”
Following the discussion, Senator Niela Darmani revealed that she was unable to turn in her candidacy packet to run for reelection, due to the missing SIDs on her application.
Vice President of External Affairs Lazaro Cardenas brought up the point that there was a conflict of interest due to the fact that the senate was making internal decisions affecting a senator running for reelection: Darmani.
The current senate belongs to the political party [YOU]CR, which includes the denied candidates Darmani, Hua and another speaker, Sandy Saly. By overruling election guidelines for the candidates, critics claim that senators gave their own party an unfair advantage and voted on matters that directly affect their candidacy.
When asked about this controversy, Darmani countered, “I do not think it is a conflict of interest. Every piece of legislation/resolution we vote on could be considered a conflict of interest considering each bill needs two senators to co-sponsor it.”
Chai was questioned as to whether she felt the candidacy application could have been further clarified.
“The main argument I had was that I provided plenty of time for students to approach and ask me questions. Every single student was emailed the packet with the instructions along with my email [address],” said Chai.
After various testimonies from those who sufficiently filled out the packet and others who failed to get the SID numbers, the senate determined that the judicial review was an an advisory action. The senate ruled in favor of granting candidacy to Hua, Saly, Darmani and another candidate who did not attend the meeting.
By a 10-2-1 vote, the senate gained the necessary majority vote in order to override the decisions made by Chai and Patadia, thus permitting Darmani and three other applicants the option to run as candidates.
Israeli divestment resolution rescinded
The first to argue the case to rescind the resolution was Leserman. In a PowerPoint presentation that lasted around ten minutes, Leserman made claims that the senate was not given all the facts when it first considered the piece of legislation.
“I know that the senators were lobbied and one of the things they were told, among many, was that to be neutral is to vote for divestment… If i was told the same thing with as much confidence and assurance as it was told to you, I would’ve done the same thing,” stated Leserman.
His presentation centered on various counter-arguments, including claims that because Arabs hold office in the Israeli government, true apartheid doesn’t exist. Leserman borrowed his definition of apartheid from the United Nations, which he explained is, “Any government institution which can be compared to South African apartheid which maintains the domination of one racial group over another by systematically oppressing them.”
He also claimed that divestment in pro-Israeli companies is rooted in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, a campaign he cites has leaders who have made anti-Israeli comments.
Leserman described the divestment resolution as “inherently polarizing” and “black and white,” due to the specificity of the legislation that refers to Palestine and Israel. However, he stated that choosing to defund corporations that support Israel was not the same thing as being neutral. “The way to peace is not through the delegitimization and eradication of the opposition,” he stated in regards to the efforts of the BDS.
After his presentation was over, senators were given the time to ask Leserman about his points and his possible suggestions.
Senator Spencer Castrellon asked, “What do you suggest we as a school do to help deflate this tension between Palestine and Israel?”
Leserman responded, “I think that instead of picking sides and kicking one side over favoring the other, I think the senate should…promote and find actual solutions.”
After Leserman, his fellow co-president of Highlanders for Israel Jacqueline Zelener began with her own presentation.
Zelener, a self-described Zionist, gave opposing arguments to each paragraph of the divestment resolution in an eight-minute presentation. “In comparison to apartheid South Africa, Israel is opposite of the apartheid state. The resolution is not neutral. It fails to mention Palestinian terrorism, incitement, reception of multiple peace offers and refusal to negotiate. It calls for punishment of Israel alone,” said Zelener.
Daniel Wegman, a fifth-year graduate student in the physics department, and last of the pre-approved speakers, expressed his opinion that divesting from companies such as the Mexican state-owned petroleum company, Pemex, is “very offensive.” According to Wegman in his eight-minute speech, Pemex contributes to over one percent of Mexico’s economy. As a Mexican immigrant, Wegman gave an emotional recollection of the murder of his uncle, who was killed by a Palestinian bomber while living in Israel.
He emphasized that despite this incident, he doesn’t hate the bomber but the “people who taught him that Israel is the enemy.” He says that to invest in Israel means that Palestine will be stronger too. “We should stop pointing at the other side. Both sides are responsible,” said Wegman.
Following the aforementioned speakers, 11 others were each given two minutes to either express their support, opposition or neutrality in respect to the resolution.
Shaheen Nassar recollected on the loss of his cousins, who were killed in Operation Cast Lead and the loss of other civilians who were killed by Israeli militants through the use of white phosphorus. In contrast to Leserman, Wegman and Zelener, Nassar argued in favor of the resolution.
“The reason I’m here today is that I’m trying to say to you that this resolution does not give justice to the Palestinian people,” Nassar stated. “What it does is it gives them the next best thing. It’s saying that we’re going to gently nudge…them with economic incentives to do justice.”
Speaker Kevin Giser asked, “What is the purpose of a divestment against Israel versus divestment in China? China’s been doing human rights violations for billions of years…yet we have some sort of issue against Caterpillar, General Electric, which are American corporations.”
“Senators acknowledged that they do not have enough information to talk about [these things] that happen in the UC system…yet there was enough information to make important foreign policy decisions…I wonder how that would be possible,” continued Giser.
Ben Monag argued that American defense contractor and industrial corporation Raytheon offers employment opportunities for postgraduates, but divesting from them will threaten that opportunity for UCR students.
Another speaker, Jeniene Abougherir, extended her condolences to Wegman, but argued against key points of his. “I am really sorry about your uncle. I don’t want to begin on how many people I lost. But I just want to touch upon a small point that you mentioned about us teaching our children to go kill Israelis,” said Abougherir. “I went to school there for 11 years and that was not true. I was never taught to go kill an Israeli ever.”
Benjiman Roden asked, “What is the role of student government?” He suggested the divestment of any country that has a history of human rights violations, if the senate decided to tackle topics of foreign policy.
The decision to extend the public forum was considered after the initial fifteen individuals presented, however at approximately 11:15 p.m. it was declined in consideration of rescinding the vote.
“I personally don’t feel a vote of anything should happen today because we don’t want to run into the same problem that we did…two weeks ago where we rushed into a decision and this is the reason why we’re here, because we rushed into a decision,” said Jo. Similar sentiments were carried out by ASUCR President Liam Dow, who suggested rescinding the resolution, while passing later legislation that involved the community and student body.
In agreement with Dow’s suggestions, the senate conducted a closed-ballot vote to determine whether to rescind support for the divestment resolution. Executive Vice President Armando Saldana, Parliamentarian Chris Sanchez and Senate Secretary Janice Tang exited the room in order to count the votes—a review process that did not take place at the previous meeting.
After taking a five minute recess, Saldana announced that the senate had voted to rescind the divestment resolution by 10-2-1, and adjourned the meeting soon after at 11:32 p.m.