Costly pro-Israel PR campaign fails to stop UCLA divestment

UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine were joined by dozens of allied student groups calling for divestment. (Image courtesy of SJP at UCLA)

On Tuesday night, the University of California at Los Angeles became the sixth of nine undergraduate campuses in the UC system within the last two years to pass a resolution calling for divestment from firms that profit from the Israeli occupation. 

The resolution was passed despite expensive efforts by anti-Palestinian groups to thwart such a victory.

In a landslide victory — with eight student senators voting in favor, two voting against and two abstaining — UCLA’s resolution formally calls on the University of California to “withdraw investments in securities, endowments, mutual funds, and other monetary instruments with holdings” in eleven US-based companies linked to the occupation. 

More than thirty student groups representing a wide spectrum of causes supported the divestment resolution.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UCLA stated in a press release following the vote that members of the UCLA student council “from a variety of political affiliations voted in favor of the resolution.”

SJP at UCLA adds that “Before the vote, council members expressed their admiration and respect for the coalition building, education, and outreach by SJP-UCLA during our campaign.”

In October 2013, UCLA’s undergraduate student body voted down a resolution that would have threatened the ability of students to pursue divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation.

Failure of PR firm

As support for Palestinian rights and the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel becomes more mainstream across US campuses, anti-Palestinian groups are scrambling to develop expensive strategies to combat divestment initiatives and shut down educational events on Palestine.

Last month, Alex Kane reported in Mondoweiss that UCLA’s Hillel chapter hired an outside public relations firm to fight BDS campaigns on the UCLA campus.

Working from a series of leaked emails, Kane reported that PR firm 30 Point — which has close ties to right-wing Israel advocacy organizations in Washington — advised Hillel to “minimize coverage” of BDS campaigns.

UCLA Hillel’s Rabbi Aaron Lerner told a 30 Point staffer that Hillel would work to “isolate” SJP on campus, and attempt to paint the group as “unrepresentative, a groups [sic] of isolated graduate students, part of Nationwide Agenda [sic] that has nothing to do with Student Life at UCLA and is an issue which our student government shouldn’t even be considering.”

In addition, it was revealed over the summer that a wealthy anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic real estate agent in the Los Angeles area, Adam Milstein, donated to a UCLA political party ostensibly to cultivate pro-Israel interests in the student government. The donations were reportedly funneled through UCLA’s Hillel chapter and sparked a UC system-wide investigation by a student government committee.

An Israel-aligned UCLA student who received Milstein’s donations, Avi Oved, was confirmed in July as a UC student regent representative over the objections of students.

Intimidation and threats

Student Palestine solidarity organizers at UCLA have been under attack not only by on-campus Israel-aligned organizations such as Hillel, but from the University of California and even the Los Angeles political legislature as well.

Earlier this year, UCLA students introduced a non-binding ethics pledge — which asks candidates of the student government not to participate in all-expense-paid trips from outside political organizations with histories of discrimination and promotion of bigotry, such as the Israel lobby group AIPAC — and were immediately condemned by the Los Angeles City Council which accused the statement of being “a tactic of intimidation and harassment.” The city council recommended that students who sign the ethics pledge be turned over to law enforcement and threatened with other legal consequences.

The ethics pledge followed revelations that a UCLA student government representative, Sunny Singh, went on an all-expense-paid junket to Israel in 2013, sponsored and organized by the anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Singh became an outspoken opponent of campus divestment efforts, and in February of this year, helped vote down an initial divestment resolution introduced by SJP and a myriad of other student groups.

Gene Block, UCLA’s chancellor, condemned the ethics pledge and stated that students behind it were embracing “hostility” and had “sought to delegitimize educational trips.”

In September, The Electronic Intifada reported that the ADL is urging a renewed crackdown on Palestine solidarity activism on US campuses, in line with other anti-Palestinian groups who regularly threaten university administrations with legal action and encourage administrative punishment of SJP groups.

“Overcoming the chilling effect”

Liz Jackson of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support told The Electronic Intifada by email today that UCLA’s divestment victory is a testament to the determination and focus of the student activists themselves — especially as university administrations and outside pressure groups expand their efforts to chill political debate and shut down Palestine activism.

“Look at how they campaigned for divestment and challenged the role of the Israel lobby on campus, and in return they were threatened with law enforcement, called harassers and bullies, targeted by the Islamophobia industry and investigated and condemned by the highest level of the UC,” Jackson said.

“And how did they handle all of that? They kept their focus on Palestinian freedom and honest solidarity, and they brought the student body along with them to understand how the campus is complicit in Palestinian suffering,” she added. “And then they passed divestment — in addition to fighting off an LA City Council resolution to have them publicly declared bullies and referred to law enforcement. This is is how you overcome the chilling effect.”

The list of companies targeted for divestment in the UCLA resolution include Boeing, Caterpillar, Cement Roadstone Holdings, Cemex, General Dynamics, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and United Technologies. The entire resolution can be read here.




My compliments to all those who carried this out and supported it! GOOD FOR YOU!!

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).