This article is published in Mondoweiss.
The University of California Student Association (UCSA) made history on 8 February 2015, voting overwhelmingly to divest from companies complicit in human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as from the governments of Israel, the US, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Mexico, over these states’ human rights violations.
Between 2012 and the end of 2014, six University of California (UC) campuses (UC Irvine, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, UC Los Angeles, and UC Davis), along with UAW-2865—UC’s student union, representing over 13,000 student workers—passed resolutions calling for divestment from corporations complicit in Israel’s illegal occupation of and human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza.
The UCSA is the official voice of UC students, representing over 239,000 students on the system’s 10 campuses. Many have called its support of divestment the largest victory in the US university BDS movement.
Two resolutions were passed in the UCSA vote. The first, the “Resolution Calling for the UC Regents to Divest from Corporations Violating Palestinian Human Rights,” passed with nine votes in favor and just one against, with six abstentions. It solely calls on UC Regents “to divest from corporations that violate Palestinian human rights,” and only addresses “issues of corporate complicity in human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and elsewhere.” The word “Israel” is never mentioned in the text of this resolution.
The second resolution passed in the vote, the “Resolution Toward Socially Responsible Investment at the University of California,” also passed in a landslide, with 11 members for, one against, and three abstaining. This resolution calls on the UC Regents to divest from the governments of Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the US, for egregious human rights violations.
In response to these passed divestment measures, Hillel at UCLA sent an email to the thousands of people on its listserve, strongly condemning the decision of the democratically elected UCSA. The Mondoweiss got in touch with a student on the UCLA Hillel listserv, who archived the email so that others may read it.
In its message, Hillel accuses the UCSA of “attacking their own country.” It proceeds to claim that BDS measures have passed at numerous University of California branches “only because [student groups] have partnered with other radical and marginal groups to create coalitions in which each group supports one another’s special interest projects.”
UCLA Hillel characterizes the groups who supported the divestment as “incredibly extreme and marginal” and speaks of “the radical ideology of the zealots who somehow have managed to take over various organizations,” insisting that the “UCSA doesn’t represent any significant amount of UC students.”
Ignoring the fact that the UCSA consists of student representatives who were elected or appointed by elected member student governments, the measures had an incredibly broad base of support. Close to 90 student organizations across the state backed the UCSA divestment. In January 2015, this enormous array of student groups, along with many professors from a variety of disciplines who also supported the measures, signed a letter to the UCSA Board Members “proudly endors[ing]” the resolutions.
The following are just some of the organizations who supported divestment:
- UAW-2865, the student union representing over 13,000 student workers;
- Mentors For Academic and Peer Support;
- Graduate Students of Color Collective;
- Afrikan Student Union;
- Black Student Union;
- Jewish Voice for Peace;
- Armenian Students’ Association;
- Student Affirmative Action Committee;
- Improving Dreams Equality Access And Success (IDEAS), an immigrant rights groups;
- El Congreso, a Latin@ student group;
- Incarcerated Youth Tutorial Project;
- Students Against Mass Incarceration;
- Student Sustainability Collective;
- Asian and Pacific-Islander Student Alliance;
- Kaibigang Pilipin@, a Pilipin@-American student group;
- South Asian Advocacy Group;
- Coalition of South Asian Peoples;
- Pakistani Student Association;
- Afghan Student Association;
- a variety of Arab student organizations;
- many Muslim student organizations;
Professors who supported the measures also came from fields as diverse as
- African-American studies,
- natural resources,
- Spanish and Portuguese,
- urban planning,
- American studies,
- film and media studies,
- visual arts,
- ethnic studies,
“Highly Insensitive and Incredibly Insulting”
Mondoweiss spoke with Jacob Manheim, president of Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA, who expressed great concern at Hillel’s response to the divestment. “It’s shocking that Hillel at UCLA leadership has decided that the best way to fight divestment is to attack the integrity of student of color organizations that support Palestinian rights,” he said.
“Rabbi Lerner’s comments really demonstrate the enormous gulf between Hillel leadership and progressive Jewish students,” Manheim explained. “Rather than targeting immigrant groups, as Lerner does, I think the Jewish community should show the same sensitivity towards other communities that we would expect for ourselves.”
Hillel at UCLA went so far in its denouncement as to claim that the coalition of student organizations which voted on the divestment measures (emphasis added) “runs for election on a supposedly progressive platform, brings out their voters en masse, and succeeds in essentially colonizing various student leadership groups. When their leadership foothold is established, the being to use the group’s [sic] to pass their radical initiatives one after another.”
Students for Justice in Palestine board member and Palestinian-American Safwan Hamdi told Mondoweiss that, by “calling into question student groups’ partnering with ‘radical and marginal groups to create coalitions in which each group supports one another’s special interest projects,’ it seems Hillel’s email is attempting to vilify student efforts of intersectionality and solidarity. What they fail to realize is that our profiting from human rights abuses is something that affects all students.”
“This ‘radical and marginal coalition’ they speak of,” Hamdi said, “in fact consists of the underrepresented students and student groups across the UC system, from all walks of life, who otherwise have difficulty making their voices heard by administration, and who collectively oppose any and all forms of oppression.”
“Furthermore, it is highly insensitive and incredibly insulting for the author(s) of this email to accuse pro-divestment groups of ‘colonizing,'” Hamdi added, “considering the fact that many of these students and organizations come from backgrounds who have suffered from American and European colonization.”
Conrad Contreras, External Vice President of UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association, also spoke with Mondoweiss. He remarked that Hillel’s “statement targets the entire students of color coalition on campus. Our communities come together because of intersecting experiences and histories with a common goal to see the liberation of all people,” he said, not as “radical and marginal groups” in pursuit of “special interest projects.”
In its email, Hillel at UCLA also accused the Palestinian human rights advocates of being “a highly organized, well-funded, and extremely passionate opposition.” Such an accusation is intriguing, considering the well-documented external funding from wealthy donors for Zionist organizations both on and off US campuses.
Journalist Max Blumenthal has written before about how “so many Zionist accusations against Palestinian society (‘They only understand force,’ ‘They teach their children to hate,’ ‘They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’)” are “projections,” referring to the psychological phenomenon in which a party charged with a crime denies any wrongdoing and accuses others of the very same behavior in which it is engaging. Blumenthal was speaking in regard to the common claim by supporters of Israel that Palestinians use “human shields,” a war crime in which Israel itself has regularly engaged, according the UN and other leading international organizations, yet examples of the phenomenon extend much further.
In a prime example of such projection, Hillel at UCLA was itself embroiled in controversy in late 2014 when a leaked email showed it had hired the DC-linked PR firm 30 Point Strategies in order to smear Palestinian solidarity activists. 30 Point openly spoke of launching a “counter-offensive” against student activists, with the support of Hillel International.
In spite of this costly PR campaign, UCLA passed a BDS measure, with the support of over 30 student organizations from a wide variety of backgrounds.
At the University of South Florida (USF), a similar controversy erupted. Mondoweiss revealed that pro-Israel students have, in the words of a Hillel executive, “been working quietly behind the scenes building alliances with other student organizations and getting involved with student government in order to thwart the efforts of SJP.” Hillel admitted to secretly meeting with board members of the USF Foundation in order to silence the voices of the 10,000 students who physically signed a BDS petition.
Documents obtained through a public records request also demonstrated that Zionist organizations had essentially bribed USF administrators. Moreover, USF President Judy Genshaft, who vociferously condemns the academic boycott of Israel, has direct financial ties to illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
It was also discovered in mid 2014 that Adam Milstein—an Israeli real estate mogul with, as of 2009, a $147 million net worth and a documented history of overtly anti-Muslim remarks—made large donations to pro-Israel student government candidates at UCLA. Milstein is founder of the Milstein Family Foundation, a purported charity whose professed mission is “to strengthen the State of Israel,” and a founding board member of the Israeli-American Council. Personal emails show that Milstein personally told donors to send checks to UCLA Hillel’s director of fundraising.
In short, Hillel is accusing the UCSA of engaging in the very questionable behavior of which it is itself guilty.
The Palestinian solidarity movement may indeed be “extremely passionate,” as Hillel alleges, but it certainly is not well-funded, particularly compared to the billions upon billions of dollars in US donations Israel receives.
Further compounding the irony of a Zionist organization accusing a diverse array of Palestinian human rights advocates of “colonizing” student groups is the fact that Zionism itself is a colonialist movement. Ohio State University Professor of Law John Quigley documents the colonialist origins of Zionism in his 2005 book The Case for Palestine: An International Law Perspective.
Quigley cites correspondence between Theodor Herzl, the “Father of Zionism,” and Cecil Rhodes, the mining magnate who named the former colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after himself. In 1902, Herzl reached out to Rhodes, asking for help with a new colonial project. Herzl openly spoke of “the idea of Zionism, which is a colonial idea.”
“You are being invited to help make history,” Herzl wrote. “It doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen, but Jews. How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.”