Podcast: Student activists on divestment victory at UC Riverside

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Relatives grieve the death of 22-year-old Mohammed Asfour, who succumbed to his wounds after being shot in the head by Israeli forces two weeks ago during a demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes in Israeli jails; Aboud, West Bank, 8 March. 

Issam Rimawi APA images

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Rush transcript: Shadi Matar and Amal Ali of Students for Justice in Palestine at University of California at Riverside (Divestment resolution text follows)

The Electronic Intifada: Amal, if you could begin by talking about how the resolution was organized up to this point, and the vote that happened on Wednesday night.

Amal Ali: It started maybe about a month and a half ago when we really seriously put down ideas for divestment. Before, it was like, okay, should we do it this year? Are the senators in a position to do it, are we in a position to do it? Eh, let’s wait and see, let’s test out the waters. And after an SJP West conference, actually, where we met with SJP members from all over California, Shadi and I decided, “let’s put this to work, let’s make this happen.”

So he and one of our other board members, who’s a senator, they started lobbying, and meanwhile, my job, the task that I took on, was to contact student organizations and faculty, other key members within the community who could support from outside of the Associated Students [the student government]. So those were basically our main ways of getting this done, was through personal contact with people.

And of course we were in contact with people from UC Irvine daily. So many phone calls logged at the most absurd times from people at UC Irvine who were giving us the most amazing advice and guiding us along the way.

EI: And of course, when we talk about UC Irvine, of course three of the Irvine 11, the students who were prosecuted and convicted for basically exercising their free speech rights and standing up in protest at an event on the campus, three of them went to UC Riverside. And as you mentioned, just a few months ago, the UC Irvine’s Associated Student body voted in favor of urging the university to divest, and now it’s been followed by the students at UC Riverside. We know that the intention of prosecuting the Irvine 11 was to intimidate these students, and others who follow, into not speaking out about Israel’s policies in Palestine — and now we have both universities here passing major divestment resolutions which are very strongly and clearly worded. Talk about the significance of these resolutions in the face of these enormous, well-funded efforts of the Israel lobby and its local political counterparts to silence and criminalize protest.

Shadi Matar: I think it just shows the effectiveness of grassroots campaigns and how in today’s society, social media and all that stuff can really boost grassroots and what’s going on. It’s really evident when you saw UC Irvine pass their divestment, we saw the Twitter going crazy, and [with ours], I checked the next day and saw how much #UCRDivest had so many retweets.

But it goes to show you that people who are really dedicated, who really want to pass divestment, who really want it, they don’t need a paid incentive to do it. I would say that all the pro-Palestinian organizations are non-profit and everyone is doing it to advocate for human rights; while the organizations who were against the bill or who are pro-Israel have the financial backing behind it. Their wallets may be into the cause of supporting Israel, but I really do believe that their hearts are not in it, and I believe that’s where we had the advantage that day. Our hearts were in it. And you could definitely tell by the arguments that were drawn both ways.

When Amal went up to go address the senate, when I went up to address the senate, and the rest of the members who came to talk and speak, advocating for the bill, they didn’t have notecards, they didn’t have anything in front of them. They were speaking from the heart. They were speaking from things that they know, facts, statistics, all this stuff. While on the other side, nearly all of them were pulling out notecards, or pre-written speeches, or whatever. And I think that the senate really noted that — they were reading off of a pre-written notecard, or something pre-prepared for them.

So I really do think that — I’m one of the most anti-cliche people — but heart really does beat everything.

EI: What kinds of testimonies did you, you and Amal, give at the senate? What did you talk about?

SM: I went through the process of requesting additional time to speak. So I had … 7 days before the meeting, I had sent an email to the executive vice-president [of the student senate] requesting time, and I was given 10 minutes to speak. Amal and the rest were given 2 minutes to speak each.

The background scene of that was that they didn’t want something like UC San Diego’s divestment resolution to go forth, where they were up until 3 in the morning, arguing about this — and the same stuff was just repeated over and over. So they only allowed 10 speakers to speak, other than myself, five advocating for the bill, and five against the resolution. And then if the senators still needed more testimony, they allowed an extension for that. So they allowed four more people after that, so a total of 14 speakers other than myself, seven advocating for it and seven against it spoke.

And I gave my 10-minute presentation, which I got a 4-minute extension at the end, because I had a lot of material to cover. I was given a 14-minute presentation where I had a slide show, which basically talked about what is apartheid, using the example of South African apartheid because it is the best example for that, is there apartheid in Israel — in Palestine — and I used a lot of examples to justify that, what does this bill actually do, student organizations on our UCR campus who support it, faculty who support it, and testimonies from all this to back it up.

EI: And Amal, what did you say to the student senate?

AA: Well, as Shadi said, it was brief — we were limited in our public comment. I was the first of public comment to come up, so I had to make sure that it would be something that would solidify what Shadi presented, rather than it be any sort of counter-argument or response or anything like that.

My main point that I wanted to address the senate with was that for any senators who were worried about staying neutral and who didn’t want to get involved with politics — because that’s something that’s really important on our campus: the university that we attend really markets itself on its diversity and on coexistence and on peaceful dialogue, we’re very “don’t rock the boat” — senators were worried about getting involved in something political, and not being neutral.

So I had to address them that being neutral is divestment. Because right now, we currently invest in only one side of this apparently two-sided conflict, in their eyes. And that the solution was either to begin investing in Palestinian companies, which is obviously not feasible, or to disinvest from both sides and stay completely out of it, by the choices of students — which it was.

We had several student organizations backing us up, several faculty backing us up, UC Irvine and senators from all over the UC system supporting the resolution. I guess the take home point was to make it less of a political issue, and more of a student issue — this is something that we at the UCs need to care about because we’re students, not because we’re going to save the world and free Palestine or whatever the case may be.

EI: So now, this is just — the resolution makes recommendations to the university administration, and the University of California itself. How will the student government now follow up with the University? And when will reports and recommendations be made about the University’s involvement in investment into these companies which profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights? What’s the next step?

SM: Quite promptly after the vote, the interim chancellor, Jane Conley, put out a statement, or her office put out a statement, saying that we understand that the student government put out a recommendation to divest from companies that support apartheid, but this is up to the UC Regents itself, which is up to the United States, which is up to the federal government and all that … so even though the student government representatives of the 18,000-plus students have passed this resolution, we cannot do this until the UC Regents recommend to this or follow this policy. So that was their response.

But the next steps are, one, to talk to our senators more, our student representatives more, and say hey, thank you for voting on this — you’re going to get a lot of heat from the other side, people who oppose this resolution, but you need to stand firm on your ground, and we thank you for what you’ve done and choosing the side of justice and anti-racism and anti-discrimination.

Other than that, on our part, as SJP at UCR, we’re going to set up a special meeting with the chancellor and see what can be done on her end at the administrative level to make this less of a symbolic gesture and actually get some money moved.

EI: Shadi and Amal, what can you say have been the most effective strategies in your organizing and getting this resolution passed, what advice can you give to other student groups who are trying to do the same at their universities and colleges across the country?

SM: I would definitely say for any students who are thinking about organizing something like this, any SJPs across the country or across the UC system or wherever are thinking about divestment, but whose campus is “polarized,” or pro-Israel, I would say just go for it. Really just go for it, try something — BDS and divestment and all this stuff, it’s not about the victories, it’s about the attempts. If you try divestment, if you make a big stir, if you make a big fuss about it, and if it passes, that’s great, you set out to do what you accomplished. If it doesn’t pass, if it fails, you still made some noise. You let people know that hey, something is going on, I’m against this, and people are shouting out against it.

Strategies that I would recommend: become part of your student government. The biggest, biggest key is know the tricks of the trade. Go inside, learn how a meeting is run. Learn what kinds of forms you need to do. Learn what kinds of meetings you need to attend. If you can, be a student representative. I’m running to be a student senator for UCR this coming spring, and I’m very excited about that, and to be able to represent my campus. Just get involved, and just try it — work on a small BDS campaign if you can, focus on one product, and say hey, we were able to remove this product from our campus. I think we need to focus on the larger funding of it. That’s what I would say.

EI: How can people follow the work of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Riverside, and get more information?

AA: The SJP at Riverside Twitter account has been a little inactive, but we’re getting back on that in light of everything. The handle for the Twitter [account] is @SJP_UCR. The website is in the process of being made — so many people have contacted me for a copy of the resolution and I realize I can’t keep emailing individuals. So I’m hoping that this weekend we can turn out most of the work on the website, and by this weekend, or the end of the weekend, a website will be up. Something simple where we can spreading information about our SJP.

And we’re on Facebook, SJP UCR. That’s where we do most of our main work for social media.

UC Riverside Resolution:

Divestment from Companies that Profit from Apartheid

WHEREAS, it is UC Riverside’s duty to maintain the values of “respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, and empathy” which includes the promotion of human rights, equality, and dignity for all people without distinction;

WHEREAS, it is the mission of the UCR Foundation to “ensure the appropriate use of all funds” in order to uphold the values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment appreciation, and empathy;

WHEREAS, students have a legacy of standing against oppression and injustice at UC Riverside and across the United States.

WHEREAS, the role of student activists in exposing South Africa’s apartheid system and  supporting equality, freedom, and dignity sets an example for us to follow as students of global conscience;

WHEREAS, as the example of South Africa shows, it is imperative for students to stand unequivocally against all forms of racism and bigotry globally and on campus, including but not limited to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, patriarchy, and Israel’s system of apartheid;

WHEREAS, the occupied Palestinian Territory is controlled militarily by the Israeli government;

WHEREAS, certain companies have promoted and been complicit in these ongoing human rights violations systematically committed by the Israeli government, which have been documented by human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Al-Haq, Defense for Children International, Addameer, B’tselem, Adalah, Badil, and the Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolitions;  

WHEREAS, according to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), “the construction by Israel of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and its associated régime are contrary to international law”;

WHEREAS, according to the same ICJ decision, the establishment and expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem is also illegal by international law;

WHEREAS, according to the UN General Assembly’s application of the Fourth Geneva Convention to occupied Palestinian territory, the establishment and expansion of settlements “…in Occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, especially settlement activities…remain contrary to international law and cannot be recognized, irrespective of the passage of time”;

WHEREAS, a US Department of State official said that the US policy “on Israeli settlements has not changed and will not change. Like every American administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.”;

WHEREAS, according to the UN General Assembly’s application of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the exploitation of natural resources in the occupied Palestinian territory is also illegal by international law;

WHEREAS, these violations of human rights and international law have been recognized and have resulted in the condemnation of the state of Israel by the international community in the UN Security Council, Human Rights Council Fact-Finding mission in Gaza, and the above mentioned governmental bodies and organizations, which consequently resulted in dozens of resolutions concerning the state of Israel (i.e. 106, 111, 127, 162, 171, 228, 237, 248, 250-252, 256, 259, 262, 265, 267, 270, 271, 279, 280, 285, 298, 313, 316, 317, 332, 337, 347, 425, 427, 444, 446, etc.);

WHEREAS, our university invests in, and thereby profits from companies, which have an active role in the human rights abuse and institutionalized structural violence against the Palestinian people, thereby making it a complicit third-party;

WHEREAS, these companies have been previously engaged by various solidarity campaigns and concerned investors about their complicit involvement in the previously mentioned human rights violations of the Palestinian people to no avail;

WHEREAS, the following illustrative and non-exhaustive list of companies, which the university invests in, plays a role in these human rights violations;¨

WHEREAS, Caterpillar has helped sustain the occupation by providing engineering tools and bulldozers to destroy Palestinian houses, neighborhoods (in refugee camps), agriculture, and water cisterns;

WHEREAS, Caterpillar has also provided engineering tools and bulldozers to expand illegal settlements and construct the Wall and checkpoints;

WHEREAS, Cement Roadstones Holding (CRH) has also contributed to the construction of military checkpoints, the Wall, and the settlement enterprise by providing cement and other building material;

WHEREAS, CRH and Cemex have supplied building materials used to build illegal settlements, the Wall, and checkpoints;

WHEREAS, Cemex also illegally owns and operates manufacturing plants in West Bank settlements, exploiting Palestinian natural resources in violation of international law;

WHEREAS, General Electric Company (GE) manufactures and supplies engines for A64 Apache Helicopters, systematically used by the Israeli military; in attacks on Palestinian civilians which constitute severe human rights violations and war crimes ;

WHEREAS, Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) has supported restricting the freedom of movement of the Palestinian peoples within the West Bank by providing biometric identification systems used in the Israeli military checkpoints;

WHEREAS, Raytheon’s guided missiles were used to ruthlessly level civilian dense regions during Operation Cast Lead;

WHEREAS, Sodastream operates its main manufacturing plant in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank;

WHEREAS, L-3 Communications has provided the Israeli occupation with equipment used in military checkpoints throughout the occupied West Bank, used to promote the dehumanization and humiliation of the Palestinians; to take away Palestinian freedom of movement between Palestinian towns and cities; to fragmentize and strangle the Palestinian economy;

LET IT BE RESOLVED, that ASUCR will further examine its assets and UC assets for investments in companies that a) provide military support for, or weaponry to, support the occupation of the Palestinian territory or b) facilitate the building or maintenance of the illegal wall or the demolition of Palestinian homes, or c) facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory;

LET IT FURTHER BE RESOLVED, that we call upon, our university, the University of California Treasury, and the UCR Foundation to divest their holdings from these aforementioned companies;

LET IT FURTHER BE RESOLVED, that if its found that UCR funds or UC funds are being invested in any of the above mentioned companies, UCR will divest, and will advocate that the UC system divests, all stocks and securities of such companies with the goal of maintaining the divestment, in the case of said companies, until they cease these specific practices. Moreover, UCR will not make further investments, and will advocate that the UC system not make further investments, in any companies materially supporting or profiting from Israel’s occupation in the above-mentioned ways;

LET IT FINALLY BE RESOLVED, that we, the students, call upon our university to dissociate itself from groups or companies that promote systematic prejudiced oppression, whether this system targets people based on their religion, gender, race or orientation, by divesting from companies that participate in or profit from human rights violations.





Well done! We are proud of your achievements in South Africa..

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).