San Diego Case Study

When word spread about the divestment bill happening at Berkeley UCSD’s acting Hillel Director Keri Copans did not think it would impact the students at UCSD because it historically has been a non-political campus.  “I was completely shocked when I got a call from my Israel Fellow on a Sunday informing me that the coming Wednesday a divestment bill was going to be brought to the Associated students.  I asked her what was happening and she told me the students were meeting that night to create a plan of action.  I think I was in denial or shock for the first few hours after the phone call with my Israel Fellow and it wasn’t until International Hillel and ICC called me that made me realize the severity of the storm that was about to hit our campus.”

The resolution was given the Orwellian name of “Resolution in Support of Peace and Neutrality Through UC Divestment From U.S. Corporations Profiting from Occupation.” It was amended so as to not specifically mention Israel while still advocating for divestment from Israel-related companies.

Copans worked with the students on a plan to insure the bill did not pass. “Our Tritons for Israel students are strong advocates for Israel and they took what they learned from the several Advocacy conferences that they attended (AIPAC, Stand With Us, Etc) to form the plan.  They were strategic and they made a list of all the voting members of the Associated Students (also known as AS, which is our Student Governing Body) A.S and personally reached out to them explaining the role of A.S. is not to vote on an issue that will divide the campus.”

Professors Take a Stand for Fairness

Initially, students did not feel they had support from faculty. Then Professor Shlomo Dubnov, the campus’s Scholars for Peace in the Middle East Chair, decided to get involved. At first, he was not sure of the best course and he consulted with SPME and others to decide on a  plan of action.  Because of the sensitivity of faculty, especially if the issue is perceived to have implications for academic freedom, it was important to carefully consider the most effective way to mobilize professors. The decision was made to write a letter voicing opposition to divestment. Ten faculty members from various departments signed the letter, which was sent to the Chancellor of the University and the Student Senate leaders. The letter sent a powerful message by giving intellectual backing and additional legitimacy to the anti-divestment campaign. It cited both academic discourse and campus civility as  reasons for opposing the bill:

If passed, the proposed resolution will cause the academic discourse to be increasingly influenced by ideological distortions. The proposed resolution leads to indoctrination that violates academic traditions of scholarly integrity and degrades the academic enterprise. It poisons debate about the Middle East, inflames hatred of Israel, spreads anti-Semitism, incites anti-Israeli militancy, and serves to excuse Anti-Israel slanders that only exacerbate conflict and undermine prospects for peace.

The importance of tolerance and civility on campus cannot be overestimated and one-sided political attacks on a part of the student population are not constructive or consistent with UCSD’s mission or our campus culture. Any indoctrination that holds one side of a conflict responsible violates academic traditions of scholarly integrity and degrades the academic enterprise.

The Decisive Issue: Avoiding A Schism on Campus

“Hundreds of students showed up to open Student Assembly meetings, giving passionate personal pleas.  The student newspaper articles were sure to note that some Jews supported the divestment resolution. Outside of personal testimonies, much of the time was spent arguing whether or not the issue was worthy of discussion at the council meeting. SJP tried to argue that their cause needed to be addressed since 15 student groups supported the resolution and only one opposed it.”

The day of the vote, Copans sat in the student leadership chambers and said she heard “the most horrific testimonies from students delegitimizing Israel.” She added, “There was strong support on both sides of the issue and it was visible by where you stood in the room if you were for or against the bill.  I noticed that some of our students were for the bill while others didn’t come out at all because they felt uncomfortable being there.  I realized while I sat in the student leadership chambers that the anti Israel sentiment would no longer bring together our Jewish campus community.”

The battle went on for more than two weeks as pro-Israel students, Hillel staff and faculty fought against the resolution. Ultimately, the argument that convinced senators to indefinitely table the motion was the divisive effect it would have on the student body. As as one senator stated, “I withdrew the motion because I realized that failing it or approving it would create a schism between the communities, and we want to continue the conversation.”

One other cautionary note from the experience relates to the tendency for national organizations to become involved in campus activities. Though their resources and guidance can often been helpful, the groups sometimes are so wedded to their own agendas that they do not pay careful attention to the local campus culture and the students, faculty and staff who live with the consequences of any actions by external organizations. “Groups from the outside swoop in and expect students to clean up the mess, but the students live on this campus — an hour after a protest, they sit with people from the other side,” Copans said. “The students knew what they wanted to do. The outside groups feel the students won’t do it right, but we need to let them do it themselves.” The outside groups also cause students to second-guess their decisions, but, ultimately, Copans says, it is okay if students make mistakes because that is part of the learning process.

Read more:

Student Groups:
Students for Justice in Palestine
Tritons for Israel

Pro BDS Op-eds:
A.S. Council Should Pass Resolution for Nonviolence
Historic Opportunity at Hand

Anti-BDS Op-eds:
Divestment Resolution Should Verify Claims
Resolution Denies Justice for Jews
Divestment Resolution Distorts Student Voice
Resolution Hinders Progress
Divestment Won’t Benefit Cause or UCSD
Israel Shouldn’t be the Only Target of Divestment
Interview with Tritons for Israel President Dafna Barzialy

AS Resolution Draws Criticism from Pro-Israel Groups
With Roundabout Politics in Play, No One Leaves Happy
Council Delays Decision on Human Rights Violation
A.S. Hears Lengthy Public Input, Discusses Divestment Resolution
Talks Fail to Bring About Compromise