Setting the Record: Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA Reject Misrepresentations of Recent Event and Provide Audio-Video Recording to Prove It
In a recent opinion piece written about a Students for Justice in Palestine-organized panel at UCLA (15 January 2014), Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller misleads readers about the nature of the event and comments made by one of the two featured speakers (Mr. Omar Barghouti). Therein, Rabbi Seidler-Feller charges Barghouti with being anti-Semitic and advocating discrimination.
We write today to categorically reject such accusations. They are designed to do nothing but undermine the integrity and transparency with which SJP has conducted itself and its events. In this spirit, we provide here the audio-video recordings of the presentations and discussion that followed, wherein observers will note that the nature of the event as a whole and the comments of the organizers and speakers do not match the unsubstantiated claims made by Rabbi Seidler-Feller. In particular, regarding Rabbi Seidler-Feller's claim that Mr. Barghouti denied Jewish peoplehood and self-determination, a listener will note that in response to a question about that very issue, Mr. Barghouti replied that “as a Palestinian, whether there is a Jewish people that deserves self-determination or not is not up to me to decide, but certainly they have no right to colonize us and consider that self-determination.” Thus, it is clear that Mr. Barghouti did not deny Jewish peoplehood or self-determination; he merely reiterated that Jewish peoplehood and self-determination do not license denying the human rights of other people. It is impossible to characterize his remarks in any other way.
Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA, which is an organization comprised of a diverse array of students (including but not limited to Palestinians, non-Palestinians, Jewish Americans, and Jewish Israelis) stands firm in its opposition to all forms of discrimination and bigotry, whether it manifests itself in the displacement and disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people, anti-Semitism, or any other form of bigotry. We also reaffirm our commitment to equality between all people that live in the area known as historic Palestine, irrespective of whether it is divided into one, two, or more states. Unfortunately, not a single comment by Rabbi Seidler-Feller in his piece, his questions, or his outburst, showed any similar commitment on his part.
We maintain that the issue at hand is that our tuition and university funds are currently invested in several companies that profit from, enable, and thus prolong Israeli policies that systematically displace, discriminate against, and do violence towards the Palestinian people. As members of the UCLA community, we insist that our university discontinue these investments, and put the university's funds in companies that uphold, rather than denigrate, human rights. Such demands are not anti-Semitic, as they are rooted in a fundamental commitment to equality between Jews and non-Jews currently living under Israeli rule or displaced by it. We continue to pursue our anti-racist, anti-oppression, and pro-human rights agenda, and we invite all members of the UCLA community to join us.
By Omar Zahzah, UCLA SJP
In 2005 Palestinian Civil Society issued the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and subsequently chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in college campuses across the U.S. took it upon themselves to honor this call to action by attempting to get their schools either to boycott or divest from—that is, stop investing in—companies that profit directly from committing human rights violations against Palestinians. Despite the BDS movement’s explicitly non-violent and humanitarian agenda, there have been various objections raised against campus divestment efforts. One such counterargument is that student activists working for this cause aren’t dedicated to “true” justice, because if they were, they would be also be concerned with, say, the unequal treatment of women in Saudi Arabia or injustices faced by Palestinians within other Arab countries. There are, of course, many more issues that could be listed, and that’s precisely the point—the issues usually brought up in these arguments are variables; what remains constant is the underlying implication—namely, that pro-divestment students are somehow “inauthentic” when claiming that they’re working for justice because they only focus on one specific issue.
There are several problems with this argument. Firstly, as Omar Barghouti, Palestinian scholar, choreographer and activist, remarked during an event last Wednesday, divestment is not a zero-sum game. There are many BDS activists involved in multiple causes. Indeed, much of the work done by our SJP chapter is outreaching to and collaborating with a diverse array of other student organizations dedicated to ending the unequal treatment of systematically marginalized groups.
Furthermore, as figures like Cory Robin have argued, it is ridiculous to fault activist efforts for being specific. Throughout history, necessary changes have been brought about precisely by reformers who identified clear, articulable, and achievable goals related to a wider issue, goals which were then pursued via carefully organized campaigns. So, for instance, the unequal treatment of people of color within the U.S., while viewed as a larger concern, has been and continues to be countered through organizing efforts tied to particular aspects of discrimination, such as full and equal access to resources, voting rights, etc. The list goes on and on, and divestment, which would ensure that our school no longer invests in companies that directly profit from systematic abuse of Palestinians, is no different. The point is, although they ultimately work toward a wider goal, the efforts of activists are always specific, and so to cite this as a defect demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of activism and even historical progression overall.
But for me, one of the chief issues of this argument is its racist and reductive logic. Let me illustrate by example: if I were to tell someone who is active in campaigns related to the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico that they are not dedicated to “true” justice because their efforts don’t include the treatment of women in other Latin American countries, I would basically be implying that all Latin American countries are “the same” by virtue of being close to one another and sharing a common language. Of course this is not true; despite our awareness of what some countries have in common, we can’t use these similarities as an excuse to over-generalize to the point that we forget how each country is still unique and comes with its own particular set of problems and complications. This is just as true for the Near East as it is for Latin America, and yet opponents of BDS continue to issue this very charge against Palestine solidarity activists.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Divestment may only be one cause, and it’s true that it won’t solve everything, even for the Palestinians. But as Dr. King’s quote makes clear, bringing an end to any instance of oppression only brings us closer to a more humane and equal world. If that’s not true justice, I don’t know what is.
SJP at UCLA supports divestment from a position of solidarity - we support the Palestinian movement for justice and equality and feel an obligation to respect and follow the requests made by Palestinian society. While we of course wish that every student would join this position of solidarity, we understand that students have a range of political views, and do not all think about this situation the same way we do. Nevertheless, we believe that there are many reasons for students to support divestment, and that divestment can be an idea with consensus support on our campus.
You do not have to endorse SJP, join our group, or know everything about Palestine. But if you find yourself agreeing with even some of the positions below, you should definitely support divestment:
- You support ethical investments
Investment in violence against Palestinians is only one of many ways that our university engages in unethical investments. We also invest in corporations that profit from the prison industrial complex, that supply the bombing of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen with drones, that profit from being major polluters, and that are allowed to engage in massive labor violations without consequence. If you believe that our university should only invest in companies that behave in an ethical manner, you should also support this specific case of divestment.
- You are against violence
The companies we are focused on are enabling and profiting from massive ongoing violence against a group of people. If you don't want your university's funds going towards any violent ends, then you should support this specific campaign as well. It is a specific case that fits a broader moral position against investment in violence.
- You believe that students should have a say in how their funds are invested by the Regents
The UC Regents didn't ask anyone before they invested funds that benefit students into these companies. However, as the biggest part of the UC community, and the people most affected by its decisions, we should have a say in our university's investment policies. By supporting divestment we are saying that it is not ok to shut students out of the process and that we are reclaiming our voice in the governance of the university.
- You believe in a one or two (or five) state solution
The goal of divestment isn't to promote a particular political solution. It is to remove our own investments in violence against Palestinians. There is a wide spectrum of views in our group on the future for Israelis and Palestinians, but that diversity does not change our unity around divestment. Although divestment is portrayed by some of its opponents as a secret movement to support one state, we believe that even the staunchest supporters of a two state solution should support divestment because there is no two state solution in which Caterpillar bulldozers will be demolishing homes in the Palestinian West Bank or in which HP will be servicing checkpoints between Palestinian towns.
- You believe in being neutral on this situation
Currently, our university invests millions of dollars of student funds into companies that enable and profit from violations of human rights. This puts the university in a position of support for Israeli policies, because they would not be possible to maintain without those companies' involvement and the UC investment in said companies. In other words, Our university is not neutral right now. If we divest, we will not have funds invested in violence by either side, making us neutral on this issue.
And, most importantly...
- You would act the same if it was your community
Imagine for a moment that your tuition was being invested in companies that supported violence against your family and community. How would you feel? How would you react? Would you ask that those investments stop? If your answer is yes, then you can understand the situation for Palestinian students in the UC, many of whom are from the occupied Palestinian territory or have family there. They should not be forced to invest in their own community's suffering.
Sunday, January 12 (6-8pm)
Omar Barghouti at Corazon Del Pueblo
2003 E. 1st Los Angeles, CA 90033
Wednesday, January 15th (3-5pm)
Evolutionary Dance of the Oppressed
UCLA World Arts and Cultures Department (Kaufman 200)
Wednesday, January 15th, 7-9pm
International Solidarity with Palestine: Towards a Global Intifada
Omar Barghouti and Robin DG Kelley
UCLA Law School 1347
Honoring the Diversity of our Community
January 8, 2014
As the school year began, UCLA welcomed some of the most diverse classes of new graduate and undergraduate Bruins ever admitted. This provides us with a valuable opportunity to think about how all of us will be further enriched by the wide variety of experiences and views each student brings to UCLA. And as we look forward to the coming year, one aspiration I hope we all take to heart is honoring the diversity of our community.
Our diversity is a gift of extraordinary value, and is one of the most celebrated aspects of life at UCLA. Our campus depends on a foundation of mutual respect and I expect each of you to take advantage of the opportunity to build positive and meaningful relationships with individuals from every imaginable background. In our increasingly global world, those connections could well be one of the most valuable experiences you have at UCLA, better preparing you for the world beyond our campus.
All of us work hard to maintain an environment where everyone feels welcomed and accepted. Unfortunately, intolerance and painful ideological conflict continue to exist. Recently members of the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine spoke to me concerning incidents of verbal harassment and even physical attacks suffered by Muslim and SJP students in recent years. I have had similar conversations with other groups as well. Regardless to whom they are directed, incidents of harassment and intolerance wound every one of us who cherishes a civil community. It is also imperative to acknowledge additional instances of intolerance and bias-related behavior in which students have experienced sobering and disturbing incidents based upon their membership in a specifically identifiable group. Sadly, even as most students co-exist respectfully and productively within our campus, virtually all of our student communities have been the targets of intolerance and bias, including Vietnamese students, Asian/Asian American students, African American students, Jewish students, Chicana/o/Latina/o students, and LGBT students, among others.
As a campus, we must take a decisive and unwavering stand—including disciplinary or legal action when appropriate—against acts that threaten or endanger any member of our community. We must also hope that difficult situations become catalysts for reflection, introspection, and constructive action. As we welcome a full range of ideas and perspectives, we need to understand that inevitably there will be strongly-felt disagreements.
Ideological differences and conflict are basic elements in the foundation of intellectual life. Critical inquiry and passionate advocacy are signs of vibrant intellectual engagement. Divergent points of view are stated, discussed, and, if not resolved, ideally should form a fuller understanding of the issue at hand. Robust debate is healthy. However we have to acknowledge the difference between debating others and demeaning them and note that events like the “affirmative action bake-sale,” intended to dramatize opposition to affirmative action policies, will inevitably be painful for underrepresented communities and deeply offensive to many.
We all must remember that communities are not just a given. They are built. And they can be fragile. Even in the midst of passionate debate we must keep in mind the humanity of others and exercise the respect, compassion and even restraint that are essential for a community to endure. As an academic community, we hope to see respectful disagreement, constructive dialogue, and perhaps some convergence in the ideological separation of our concerned members. However, we also know that issues such as these can generate emotionally charged and sometimes conflict-laden reactions. We must make a commitment as a community to do all we can to ensure that these and future discussions of difference remain respectful, productive, and focused on understanding rather than division.
No one should ever have to deal with anything less than mutual respect and equal consideration from their peers and their community. We have the opportunity to create a model of the world as it should be – a place where diversity of backgrounds and experiences fosters an environment of respect, understanding, and compassion. I hope you will join in the challenging, but essential, process of continuing to build such a community.