On Tuesday night, Nov. 18, the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council held a public meeting to discuss, and ultimately pass, a symbolic resolution calling for UCLA to divest from companies that do business with Israel. In order to not grant legitimacy to this unilateral and nonconstructive maneuver, the Jewish student leadership of UCLA decided to “boycott the boycotters,” so to say, and encouraged the pro-Israel community of UCLA not to attend the resolution meeting. This decision was based on the toxic atmosphere that had permeated a similar meeting from last year, and the antagonistic campus climate followed.
In lieu of attending the USAC meeting, members of the pro-Israel community were encouraged to attend the alternative program planned by student leaders Bruins for Israel, Hillel at UCLA, and J-Street U. The program, which followed the “students first” theme introduced by these groups last week, featured students breaking into groups and discussing how the divestment resolution affected them and how they expected the campus atmosphere to change after the vote. The students were encouraged to express their opinion on way to strengthen their communities and campus unity in light of the divisive divestment resolution. The gathering, which took place at the Alpha Epsilon Pi house, ended with a presentation describing ways that students could get involved with projects designed to initiate dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, to counter the divestment resolution which forced an even bigger wedge between people with opposing viewpoint of the issue. The atmosphere at AEPi was filled with energy, with students eager to discuss the issues and suggest creative solutions.
Meanwhile, at 7:00 p.m., Jewish and pro-Israel student leaders on campus held a press conference to clarify their position and to explain the strategy with which they had chosen to confront divestment this year. The student leaders included Tammy Rubin, president emeritus of Hillel at UCLA, Eytan Davidovits and Omer Hit, president and vice president of Bruins for Israel, respectively, and Gil Bar-Or, president of J-Street U. The leaders described their efforts to counter the divestment resolution last year, for which they devoted a combined 4,000 hours. While last year they successfully repelled the resolution, they explained, the experience was “traumatic” and campus climate was “divisive” following the vote, and Jewish students felt targeted and unsafe.
“You cannot trample on the rights of one student group to protect the rights of another,” said Bar-Or.
That’s why the community leaders decided this year to not give validity to the USAC vote and instead informed students that USAC was focusing on polarizing issues out of the purview of their power, rather than concentrating on topics of direct concern to the entire student body. Nearly 2,000 undergraduate students signed a petition calling on USAC to focus on topics more relevant to all 28,000 undergraduate students that council members were elected to represent. The leaders stressed that they were not avoiding the topic of divestment or running away from confrontation; rather, they were pursuing more constructive avenues of action.
After the press conference, these four Jewish and pro-Israel student leaders went to the USAC meeting to give a short presentation of the anti-divestment perspective, which took place after two hours of public comment. The council ultimately passed the divestment resolution by a vote of 8-2, with 2 abstentions, despite the passionate and highly emotional statement by student government president Avinoam Baral. Baral spoke about the harmful effects the resolution would have on campus climate and of the personal connection he has to Israel.
“I just want to reflect as the only person on this council who is actually invested in this conversation, in the sense that I am an Israeli citizen and that I was born in Israel 21 years ago, and I am extremely, extremely proud about it,” he said. “And I’m going to say this, I think that Israel is what’s right about the Middle East.”
Stressing his personal connection to Israel, Baral continued, “And I’ll say this…. do not ever, ever frame this conflict as an indigenous versus non-indigenous [issue], and I don’t care where you stand on this issue because when you frame this issue in that way you’re saying that I don’t actually matter, that I don’t have a place in my homeland, and I would never, ever take that from anybody.”
After expressing frustration about having presidency forced upon him following former USAC president Devin Murphy’s resignation, which curtailed his ability to express himself at the meeting, Baral ended his statement with an apology to the Jewish and pro-Israel community.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t be there and represent you the way you wanted me to represent you,” said a visibly emotional Baral. “If our intention is to divest from all companies that violate human rights, and the actual effect is to only divest from Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, it’s hard for me to take it any other way. It’s hard for me to not feel targeted, it’s hard for me to not feel like I don’t actually matter….It’s so false, I can’t even understand it. We’re raising Israel to a standard that we don’t have for anybody else. It’s outrageous.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 19, the day after council passed a divestment resolution, several officials released statements showing solidarity with the Jewish and pro-Israel community. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in his statement, “UCLA and the UCLA Foundation share the Board of Regents conviction that divestment decisions should not hold any one organization or country to a different standard than any other. The Board of Regents does not support divestment in companies that engage in business with Israel and UCLA agrees with that position.”
Assembly member Richard Bloom, who chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Transportation and represents California’s 50th Assembly District, which comprises of the communities of Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica West Hollywood,West Los Angeles and others, also released a statement. Expressing outrage at USAC’s decision, he noted that “ironically, this vote — targeting only Jews and Israelis — takes place while Palestinians have been openly celebrating the vicious murder of five innocent individuals in Jerusalem.”
Assembly member Bloom also conveyed his disappointment at the negative effect the passing of the resolution will undoubtedly have on campus climate, and reiterated that “a vote of eight student leaders does not represent, in any way, the majority of UCLA students, 2,000 of whom were brave enough to sign a petition opposing the short-sighted and polarizing resolution.”