We write to commend your recent statement outlining your position on Israel/Palestine. We recognize the difficulty in speaking out about those positions, particularly under conditions in which community institutions frequently speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community. In particular, your condemnation of “Israeli policies of military occupation, expansion of West Bank settlements, failure to take action against settler and soldier violence, demolition of Palestinian property, unequal distribution of resources, and policies that restrict Palestinian movement” is a heartening and important statement of recognition of the severe and persistent oppression experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank.
We were also pleased to see the call for “further dialogue” around Israel/Palestine, for contrary to misconceptions, SJP does not oppose all forms of dialogue; rather, SJP objects to dialogue that does not recognize the blatant power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the systemic violations of Palestinian human rights that occur as a result of Israeli policy. Although we take issue with parts of the statement (such as the false equation of stone-throwing with armed violence, a pretext that has greatly facilitated Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian children as young as eight years of age), and though we encourage you also to apply a critical lens to Israel’s treatment of its own Palestinian and minority populations, as well as to recognize the Palestinian right of return, we are glad that your statement acknowledges Israeli policies of occupation as causes of severe and systematic human rights violations. We wish you many positive and fruitful conversations around Israel/Palestine within your communities, and we invite you to speak to us and attend our events and teach ins.
Finally, we also hope that these future conversations will include the topic of divestment. Because the statement references the imperative to “acknowledge and work to prevent the pain and suffering arising from this conflict," we hope that the undersigned will be able to appreciate how calling for the withdrawal of university funds from companies that profit directly from the violations of Palestinian human rights condemned in this statement is a relevant and necessary tactic that we as students can pursue with the best of intentions.
Students for Justice in Palestine
Good faith or good tactics? How anti-divestment groups manipulated the public discourse to smear Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association
When preparing to bring up its divestment bill in February of this year, SJP at UCLA engaged in what is widely described as one of the most open and far reaching public campaigns on campus. The organization made presentations to over 20 student groups, including those which hold views that might be described as our polar opposite. During this time, SJP repeatedly contacted Hillel and Bruins for Israel in order to secure a presentation to their groups. The results of this outreach are worth reviewing as they put into question whether groups that oppose divestment were acting in good faith or merely taking advantage of SJP’s openness and flexibility.
Taking advantage of SJP
Instead of being allowed to present their resolution to Hillel’s general membership, SJP was asked to hold a closed meeting between student representatives from both organizations. In this meeting, Hillel and BFI leaders were presented with the resolution and asked for any edits or suggestions they wished to make. They said that while they did not have serious problems with the bill as written, they opposed the BDS movement as a whole and asked that we include a clause expressing neutrality with respect to the BDS movement. Acting in good faith, SJP agreed to add the language they requested on the logic that while our organization supports the BDS movement, it was not necessary for everyone on campus to support the entire movement in order for a bill focused on campus divestment to be passed.
However, rather than this concession resulting in their being less opposed to the bill, the very students who asked for the BDS neutrality clause used it as a new source of talking points in order to further attack SJP. During the divestment hearing, these groups claimed that SJP was being duplicitous by inserting this clause and that despite the bill's neutrality on BDS they could prove that SJP actually supported the entirety of the BDS movement. This made it look like BDS was something to be afraid of and something SJP was hiding its support for, when in fact SJP has always supported BDS (and all non-violent economic and social pressure) and only added that clause to respond to their concerns. In the end, SJP was attacked for making the exact concession that its attackers had asked for in the first place.
Another issue that bears examining is the claim that SJP should have co-written the resolution with BFI and Hillel. There are several problems with this contention. In the first place, it demonstrates how SJP, and Palestinian Bruins overall, are held to a completely different standard than other groups on campus. For instance, would Bruin Democrats seriously be expected to co-write a bill alongside Bruin Republicans? SJP is one student organization, like any other, and like any other student organization, SJP has the right to draft bills which concern the priorities and values of its members. Nevertheless, the fact that SJP reached out to members of Hillel and BFI to give them an opportunity to hear more information about the resolution and voice their concerns means that SJP was attempting to include them. Any organization that was contacted, that had the opportunity to ask questions, pose problems and communicate with SJP members in depth about the bill was a part of the bill-creation process. For these reasons, when asked in February, we politely declined to co-write a bill with BFI and Hillel, but still offered to make reasonable edits that their students asked for. But despite our openness to their edits, they publicly claimed that only being able to co-write a bill from scratch would satisfy their concerns and created a narrative that said that there was some meaningful area of agreement that could be reached between both parties if they just started over from scratch. However, as evidence from the campaign shows, this turned out to be false.
In a radio interview held on February 25th, Daily Bruin opinion editor Eitan Arom asked SJP and Hillel representatives what they could agree to co-write. SJP said that they were completely flexible on the content of a resolution, as long as the minimum requirement of divestment from companies that violate Palestinian rights was met. The Hillel representative, however, could offer no such avenue of compromise, instead suggesting that the groups write a resolution saying that “We’re Bruins, you’re Bruins, and we can agree to disagree.”(See roughly 10 minutes, 25 seconds into this radio show for the clip.) SJP students also met with a university administrator, Berky Nelson, who had taken it upon himself to ask members of BFI if they would agree to divest from just one of the five companies on SJP’s list, Caterpillar, based on its completely obvious and egregious violations of Palestinian human rights. The response he described to SJP was a flat out no.
So, on one hand, we see anti-divestment groups acknowledging that they were unwilling to move towards SJP’s position in any meaningful way, and on the other hand, we see them promoting the idea of “co-authorship” as if it was actually a genuine possibility, and attacking SJP as somehow at fault for not having pursued it.
Stepping back for a moment, we can see that if the groups opposed to divestment had been acting in good faith, then SJP’s concessions would have produced a change in their response to the divestment resolution, even something as small as opposing the bill for a different reasons. Instead, these groups used SJP’s concession on BDS as a new way to attack the resolution and SJP’s integrity. The same applies to the possibility of co-authorship. If anti-divestment students had been acting in good faith, they either would have been able to offer some kind of meaningful compromise, or they would never have claimed that co-authorship was possible. Instead, while privately admitting that they would not compromise, they still used the public stage to claim the opposite, arguing that if SJP had been more reasonable, the groups could have co-authored a bill together and satisfied everyone’s concerns.
The same behavior, now applied to the MSA
The divestment hearing sadly also included a cavalcade of racist, tokenizing, and grotesquely Islamophobic commentary. In the wake of this shocking display, the Muslim Students Association took it upon itself to draft a statement denouncing Islamophobia on campus and urging the campus to adopt a diversity requirement as one way of pushing back against the deeply offensive ideas on display at the hearing. However, when MSA approached BFI and Hillel with the statement, the same saga played out again. First, BFI and Hillel asked for the statement to include language denouncing anti-Semitism. Then, when the MSA added this language, BFI and Hillel objected to it, and rather than offer edits to the MSA’s new clauses, simply declined to endorse the statement, stating instead that they wished that MSA leaders would agree to start over by co-writing a statement. It got so absurd that the MSA’s anti-Islamophobia statement was eventually portrayed as an attack on Jewish students. Once again, we see the same cat and mouse game playing out. When approached with a reasonable statement, offer edits. When the edits are accepted, argue that they’re not good enough and that the only possible way forward is to start from scratch all over again. When these demands are not met, describe the other group as the aggressor.
At the end of the day, members of SJP and MSA were clearly taken advantage of over the course of the past quarter. Their openness and flexibility was met with a perplexing back and forth that only served to delay and obscure the original intent of their work. Being open and transparent is admirable and both SJP and the MSA should continue their policies of transparency and flexibility. But in the future, SJP and the MSA should not automatically assume that their good faith will be met with the same good faith, and should make sure that their openness is not taken advantage of in the same way as it was this year.
Fortunately, over 30 different organizations signed on to MSA’s press release, and over 20 different organizations came out to speak in support of SJP’s divestment resolution. What all of these organizations recognized is that standing in solidarity with another group does not mean asserting your voice over theirs. It does not mean compulsively inscribing the narrative of your troubles over the troubles of others. It means that, for everything you give, there is so much more you hold back, because you recognize that the most precious and necessary moment in overcoming oppression is that in which one stands and speaks in their own voice, with their own words, as the rest of the world looks on. Despite the frustrating experience of attempting to work with BFI and Hillel, the beautiful acts of solidarity shown by so many other groups reaffirm the value and importance of our anti-racist and anti-oppression activism.
On October 22nd, the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council voted to defeat a resolution that threatened the ability for students to pursue divestment from companies tied to the Israeli occupation. The resolution, entitled “A Resolution In Support of Positive Steps Towards an Israeli-Palestinian Peace" framed divestment as a source of tension on campus, while also calling for "positive investment" in a basket of companies loosely affiliated with both Israelis and Palestinians. . During the effort to defeat this bill, we received solidarity statements from around the world, explaining the futility of the bill's "positive investment" clauses and the importance of divestment as a non-violent response to the occupation. For more, please see our press release. Here is a statement sent by DeeJay Pepito, the Associated Students of the University of California President at UC Berkeley:
Defeating the anti-BDS bill: Letter from Stanford Students for Palestinian Equal Rights on divestment and the campus
On October 22nd, the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council voted to defeat a resolution that threatened the ability for students to pursue divestment from companies tied to the Israeli occupation. The resolution, entitled “A Resolution In Support of Positive Steps Towards an Israeli-Palestinian Peace" framed divestment as a source of tension on campus, while also calling for "positive investment" in a basket of companies loosely affiliated with both Israelis and Palestinians. . During the effort to defeat this bill, we received solidarity statements from around the world, explaining the futility of the bill's "positive investment" clauses and the importance of divestment as a non-violent response to the occupation. For more, please see our press release. Here is a statement sent by Stanford Students for Palestinian Equal Rights on their divestment campaign and its positive effects on campus discourse.
To our peers at the University of California - Los Angeles,
We write to you from Stanford University, where just months ago our campus was asking similar questions to the ones you are now. We write to you to say that discussing divestment from the military occupation of Palestine has not destroyed our campus climate or relations. In fact, divestment turned out to be one of the most unifying topics our campus has recently addressed. Support for divestment generated the highest and most diverse turnout for any topic our senate had addressed. Over 75 students from virtually every community on campus came to our student union and lined the entire length from the entrance of the building, up two flights of stairs, all the way our Senate meeting room, which you can see in this video:
The bill before you calls for dialogue but has the opposite effect of promoting conversations. We encourage you to recognize that political action and divestment is one form of dialogue--in this case between students concerned with justice, a people living under an illegal military occupation, and an occupying state that refuses to listen to anyone--including international law, the United Nations and its close ally, the United States. With many of our own members having been in Palestine this summer, we can say without a doubt that investing money in Palestine will not erase the effects of living under military occupation. While money is important for the safety and security of a people, social responsibility and the freedom to live without external control or fear are paramount. People can have all the money and all the respect in the world from their peers. But if the government of these respectful peers continues to build walls around them, raid their homes at night, and detain their children, something needs to change.
We hope that you can understand that this occupation is not something that money can fix. Ending the occupation of Palestine and its people is the largest positive step we can take towards peace.
Yours in justice,
Stanford Students for Palestinian Equal Rights
On October 22nd, the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council voted to defeat a resolution that threatened the ability for students to pursue divestment from companies tied to the Israeli occupation. The resolution, entitled “A Resolution In Support of Positive Steps Towards an Israeli-Palestinian Peace" framed divestment as a source of tension on campus, while also calling for "positive investment" in a basket of companies loosely affiliated with both Israelis and Palestinians. . During the effort to defeat this bill, we received solidarity statements from around the world, explaining the futility of the bill's "positive investment" clauses and the importance of divestment as a non-violent response to the occupation. For more, please see our press release. Here is a statement sent by Sam Bahour that addresses "positive investment."