The campus campaign to divest from Israel, its Jewish student supporters and where it’s going
Students for Justice in Palestine had declared victory at Hampshire College.
It was Feb. 12, 2009, and the Hampshire Board of Trustees had just voted to divest from the State Street Fund, an investment firm with holdings in Israel and the West Bank. It was, SJP thought, the first time that any school in the country had divested from Israel. Soon afterwards, however, the board of trustees issued a statement claiming that the school had not divested because of the company’s connections to the Israeli occupation. In fact, the board stated, the decision “expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.”
This did not matter to the SJP. The group—a national organization—called for a renewed push nationwide for what they call BDS, or boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank for alleged human rights violations.
This was not the first time that activists at the 1,500-student liberal arts college in western Massachusetts had advocated for such a boycott. Hampshire was the first school in the country, in 1977, to divest from Apartheid-era South Africa—sparking a national wave of similar resolutions. Notwithstanding the statement of the board of trustees, BDS supporters hoped for the same result this time.
Several campuses across the country have followed Hampshire’s lead and engaged in public campaigns of BDS. Students at the University of California (UC)-Berkeley and UC-San Diego also proposed non-binding resolutions and student government bills as part of the BDS movement. These bills, like Hampshire’s, also failed to pass.
And just like Hampshire’s bill, Jewish students were behind the campaigns that brought the UC bills to a vote. Although this debate is still happening at only a few campuses, and no campus BDS activists have as yet succeeded in convincing their schools’ administrations to support the cause, BDS is gaining significant attention from people on all sides of the debate—especially within the Jewish student community.
“We are not willing to have our money spent on manufacturing cluster bombs or any ingredients that violate the rights of the people of Palestine. Or any people,” explained Matan Cohen, an Israeli student at Hampshire College and a member of Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), a grassroots BDS organization active at several colleges.
In support of the BDS movement, Cohen cites United Nations resolutions and international court rulings that declare Israel’s activities illegal. Opponents of BDS, meanwhile, criticize the movement for not recognizing the legitimacy and sovereignty of Israel, and believe that the movement’s tactics are not conducive to reconciliation.
“BDS allocates blame in a one-sided manner that we do not think is representative of the complex nature of the conflict,” said Moriel Rothman, who is also Israeli and who serves as president of J Street U, a national pro-Israel, pro-peace student organization. “Working this framework of right and wrong, targeting only Israel and putting no pressure on the Palestinians is not the best way to arrive at a solution.”
The BDS debate flared up again this past April at UC San Diego, when students presented a bill titled “Resolution in Support of Peace and Neutrality Through UC Divestment From U.S. Corporations Profiting from Occupation” to the UC San Diego Associated Students (AS). The bill called upon the AS to divest holdings from two companies—GE and United Technologies—for their involvement in what the bill described as violations of international law.
While the campus’s Jewish community did oppose the bill as a whole, Keri Copans, director of UC San Diego Hillel, noted a lack of consensus on the issue among Jewish students.
“The entire Jewish community is not against the bill,” Copans said. “There are some students who are for the bill, against the bill, and others who don’t have an opinion. In the past, anti-Israel sentiment on our campuses would bring us together, but now it’s no longer the case.”
As the San Diego vote came to a close, a far larger debate was taking place over BDS at UC Berkeley—a historically socially and politically active campus. In March, a bill calling on the university’s student government to divest holdings from GE and United Technologies had initially passed the Senate by a 16 to 4 vote. A week later, however, the student body president vetoed the bill, citing in part the divisive and complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The following days saw intense lobbying from campus and national activists on both sides. On the pro-divestment side, student senators received letters of support from South African Reverend Desmond Tutu, groups such as JVP, campus professors and even a Holocaust survivor. The anti-divestment side worked with established Jewish groups such as Hillel, the largest Jewish college organization, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby. Akiva Tor, the Israeli consul general for the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, also took an active role in speaking to students.
Tom Pessah, an Israeli graduate student at Berkeley and an SJP member, was inspired by what he described as powerful and transformative student testimonies during the all-night student debates held before each vote. For Pessah, the BDS bill served as a forum to educate students about the daily realities of Palestinian life.
“One of the things I learned from this is how hard it is to have an open discussion on this issue,” Pessah said, describing passionate speeches by both Jewish and Muslim students at Berkeley concerned with the amoral and unequal treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government.
While supporters of divestment campaigns have lauded the diversity of the movement, praising how Jewish, Muslim, and Arab students coalesced around a common cause—one supporter noted that at least half of the Berkeley SJP is comprised of Jews—other students recall a more polarizing experience.
“We had people who felt unsafe walking around campus,” said Joey Freeman, vice president of the Jewish Student Union and an opponent of the bill. He clarified that it was a fear for emotional rather than physical security. “No student on either side of the bill should feel that.
Freeman recalled hearing racist and anti-Israel slurs during the all-night debates and described a hostile spirit on campus.
“The sad part was the divisive spirit of the bill,” he said. “At times it felt as if we were enemies in that bill.”
Simone Zimmerman, a student at UC Berkeley and an active leader in her campus Jewish community, questioned the effectiveness of divesting the relatively small investments of the Berkeley student government from Israel, as well as the appropriateness of a student senate assessing complex foreign policy.
“Instead of using the senate as a vehicle, I think it would have been more constructive as a community to
come together and find something
we could agree upon,” Zimmerman said. “It wasn’t actually doing something concrete. It was more of a symbolic measure.”
The Berkeley bill failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to overrule the president’s veto. Still, it was the closest the BDS movement had come to campus success since its beginnings five years beforehand, after over 170 Palestinian civil-society organizations came together and called for the international community to join them in divestment campaigns against Israeli violations of international law. While Palestinian boycotts of Israeli settlement goods have occurred intermittently throughout the conflict, organized action—including the campus efforts—rose following the Gaza War of late 2008.
Since then, Palestinian BDS advocates have organized two international and several regional conferences. BDS was also at the forefront of this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual series of protests and events held in March on campuses and in cities around the world. IAW’s website called 2010 “a year of incredible successes for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on the global level.”
JVP members point to several international court rulings as the basis for the group’s argument. They cite UN Resolution 194—which calls for the right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees, enabling them to automatically become citizens—and a 2004 International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion ruling that Israel’s separation barrier was illegal. JVP is protesting, supporters say, because Israel perpetuates these violations.
“Divestment is one of those last resort approaches when others have failed to uphold their deeds to their words,” explained Gabe Schivone, a University of Arizona student and member of JVP. “We aren’t policy makers, we aren’t government representatives. We are students that are taking the initiative to uphold the law.”
Meanwhile, the Reut institute, a Tel Aviv-based Israeli think-tank, released a report in Feb. 2009 called “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall.” The report highlighted the threat of the “Delegitimization Network”—those who brand Israel “as a pariah or ‘apartheid’ state’” and promote “grassroots activities such as BDS as a way to correct Israel’s ways”—in eroding international public support for the Jewish state.
“The Delegitimization Network tarnishes Israel’s reputation, constrains its military capabilities, and advances the One-State Solution,” the report concluded, adding that such “delegitimization” aims only to demonize Israel rather than promote constructive solutions to the conflict. They posit that an “Israeli and Palestinian comprehensive Permanent Status Agreement that establishes a Palestinian state… would weaken the grounds of Israel’s de-legitimization.”
While much of the established Jewish community has come out in opposition to their cause, supporters of BDS cite the Reut report as a sign of the growing effect of their actions upon Israeli and American public opinion.
J Street U’s Rothman also criticized the BDS movement for not acknowledging Israel’s sovereignty, and pointed to one BDS poster featuring a bleeding Jaffa Orange as an example of what he calls “counterproductive” tactics. He added that the BDS movement has “no recognition of Israel’s right to exist.”
But according to JVP Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky, JVP campaigns target only companies connected to the occupation, and not Israel’s sovereignty. She defended the disproportionate emphasis BDS places upon Israel, noting how the United States applies little diplomatic pressure to Israel to limit excessive military operations.
“JVP campaigns focus only on divesting from the occupation,” Surasky said, and claimed that as a human rights group JVP does not take an official position on the debate over a political solution. She added, however, that “other groups and organizations that want to focus on broader Israel have every right.”
But Surasky’s argument has yet to convince the leadership of America’s colleges. At UC-San Diego the bill ultimately failed to pass the AS in April, despite multiple committee revisions in which specific nations’ names were replaced with condemnations of war crimes in general. Moreover, noted Daniel Friedman, president of the UC-San Diego Union for Jewish Students, the AS money invested in GE supported a commercial lending unit of the company not involved in providing military technology–contrary to what the resolution alleged.
BDS has yet to pass a bill at any campus, but both opponents and proponents of the movement predict renewed interest in BDS this fall. As the outcome of the Berkeley vote portrayed, however, these minority movements still face a sizable organizational and implementation challenge.
Despite these obstacles, Matan Cohen, the Israeli member of Jewish Voices for Peace at Hampshire, viewed the divestment as a success. He noted that Hampshire held a national BDS conference last November, in which students from over seventeen campuses participated.
“We paved the way for other colleges across the state and across the world,” Cohen said.
BDS’s opponents are also gearing up for next year. Steven Kuperberg, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC)—a consortium of Jewish and pro-Israel groups that have campus pro-Israel arms—says that the pro-Israel community must remain vigilant against BDS efforts precisely because of the relentless optimism of BDS activists.
“The irony of the highly publicized divestment battles is that anti-Israel forces treat their defeats as victories,” Kuperberg said. “They believe that by raising the public profile of the battle, they’ve raised the issues in ways they otherwise couldn’t.”
Nevertheless, Kuperberg is also optimistic about students’ desire for meaningful conversation on the issue. He described how the ICC has worked to build relationships and share information with student governments in an effort to offer a positive view of Israel to counter BDS language.
J Street U, which is not an ICC member, has likewise developed the “Invest in Two States” campaign, which helps students purchase fair trade olive oil from participating Palestinian and Israeli groves as part of a program to promote peace and economic development.
But Surasky, the JVP deputy director, believes that grassroots BDS activists are dedicated enough to counter their opposition.
“So much Jewish education and training is about making Jews feel like they are threatened,” said Surasky. “What we do have is a sense of justice on our side—and a whole generation of students who are passionate about this cause,” she said.
As the school year progresses, JVP and other student groups will doubtless follow Hampshire’ lead and advance resolutions calling for BDS. Other students will oppose them. The question that remains, beyond whether those initiatives will succeed, is whether those groups will engage in meaningful conversation—creating a space for students to grapple with the complexities of human rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—or will once more talk past each other.
Miriam Berger hails from the (always sunny) Philadelphia suburbs and is currently a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut studying political science, Arabic, and Middle East affairs.