As the divestment movement within the University of California (UC) system continues to grow, administrators and presidents have repeatedly issued condemnations and denunciations of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Such moves might be the result of pressure from anti-Palestinian groups or perhaps as a way to forestall making the university`s administration accountable to student demands. Regardless, this position is familiar to many of us. To those that recall the anti-Apartheid movement, the UC leadership’s opposition to divestment from South Africa in the 1980s meant that it took roughly a decade to force the Regents to finally divest. However, one does not even have to go that far back to recognize such unaccountability. There are also the more recent decisions to pay for a bloated administration and skyrocketing salaries through massive tuition hikes on a student body that vehemently opposed them.
Student divestment activism at the University of California actually began in the early 2000s at UC Berkeley, where the student campaign was met with administrative obstinacy. Since then, a broad-based Palestinian civil society call for a boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign has given increased urgency to this cause, and has served as a turning point in the Palestine solidarity movement at university campuses—one that helped unify and energize the movement we see today.
The first example of administrative pushback against the new wave of divestment activism came in 2010. Then, the administration was under duress as UC Berkeley’s student senators voted sixteen-to-four to divest from companies supporting war crimes in Gaza. However, the student government’s president vetoed their vote. During the debate, the UC Regents, an unelected group largely comprised of politically connected elites that head the UC system, stated that the UC would not divest from Israel, citing a position laid out in 2005 after the Regents passed divestment from Sudan over atrocities in Darfur. In that position—crafted to support the Darfur movement but shut the door on all others—the Regents declared that from now on, they would only divest from a foreign country if the government in that country had been engaged in acts of genocide. This policy, of course, turns its back on the historic divestment campaign that hastened the end of South African apartheid, and establishes a bizarre metric by which many forms of systematic violence and oppression are deemed unworthy of divestment.
However, the Regents` pronouncement fell on deaf ears among UC students, who have continued to organize across the state, winning majority votes for divestment at five of seven UC campuses during the 2012-2013 academic year (two votes were stricken, leaving three permanent victories). So as the movement to divest from companies enabling and profiting from apartheid grows louder, administrators and presidents across the UC have responded with a new tactic: pushing dialogue as an alternative to accountability.
Yudof’s Anti-Divestment Strategy
In 2010, then-UC President Mark Yudof spoke to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that has campaigned against divestment at the UCs and abetted anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States. In his comments, Yudof labeled the work of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters (specifically their annual Palestine Awareness Week) as a form of “bad speech” that, rather than being directly prohibited, should be countered by what he called “good speech.” Although he heaped praise on UC Irvine President Michael Drake`s efforts to intimidate and bully pro-Palestinian students, he encouraged the idea of flooding the campus with “good speech,” which included the expansion of Jewish studies programs and Hillel chapters (note the conflation of Jewish identity with support for Israeli policies), brown-bag discussions, and trips to Israel through the American Jewish Committee`s Project Interchange. In addition to Yudof, several campus presidents and many student government members have participated in these trips. These trips were most notably exposed in 2013, when Berkeley student government president Connor Landgraf, who had been considering vetoing the divestment bill, was revealed to have taken a Project Interchange trip. He eventually decided not to veto the bill.
Yudof’s vigorous support for Israeli policies continued to be put into practice throughout the remainder of his presidency. In the summer of 2013, Yudof travelled to Israel in the summer of 2013 to speak at the Israeli Presidential Conference—a forum boycotted by world famous physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. In his remarks and the subsequent discussion, he described the state of activism at the UC system as follows: “It seems to me every six months I am reading about another vote of some sort of student organization on this issue or some sort of academic organization on this issue, and too often that vote is lost…” Referring to SJP`s work as an "alliance between some of the Muslim organizations... and racial minorities," Yudof accused SJPs of being engaged in a "usurpation of the narrative of human rights." Presumably speaking on behalf of the UC Office of the President (and once again conflating Jewish identity with support for Israeli policies), he remarked that, "Our strategy is not the book burning business... it is building up Jewish studies programs, Israeli studies programs..."
Yudof also offered his thoughts on the anti-divestment strategy at the student level. In the question and answer period, he said,
... You know a lot of times you have ten thousand students eligible to vote and you have four hundred of them show up for an election, and then you get some election results that a lot of us might find bothersome. So I have seen more organization of Jewish students on campuses, a willingness to engage in the internal political processes on campus.
And I have seen a lot of creativity on campus, I have seen something called the Olive Tree Initiative... and they have tried to get Muslim and Jewish students to come to Israel and meet with Israeli leaders and some Arab leaders and so forth.
Yudof`s attitude towards students who support divestment reached its most petty when he was asked about the nomination of divestment advocate Sadia Saiffudin to the Student Regent position. He responded, "I was not on that nominating committee and I am upset, and that is all I will say about that."
Whether it is a product of some personal antipathy towards Palestinians or a statement of the UC leadership`s general orientation towards the question of Palestine, the Yudof strategy of promoting speech that does not hold Israel accountable over speech that does has become a staple of recent UC leaders’ responses to BDS victories.
Dialogue, not Divestment
In the spring of 2013, UC Berkeley`s student senate once again took up divestment, passing a bill calling on the UC Regents to cease investing in companies that enable and profit from Israel`s occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). After the vote, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued a public statement voicing his opposition to the bill and encouraging students to abandon divestment activism in favor of dialogue. In his statement, he remarked:
It is my personal opinion that targeting a single nation or state in this highly complex world is not appropriate and does little to advance the cause of peace and coexistence...Ultimately, we believe that engaging in dialogue on these difficult issues is the best hope that we have for achieving peace.
Going further, Birgenau singled out a campus organization named the Olive Tree Initiative as an exemplar of the type of discourse on Palestine-Israel that the university supported,
I and members of my administration will continue to work hard to build and sustain the sort of campus climate that I believe we all benefit from. We will also continue to support efforts like The Olive Tree Initiative, a student-led endeavor that is fostering dialogue and discussion here on campus and in the Middle East.
In the 2013-2014 academic year, with Yudof having departed, the UC’s approach has not changed. UC leadership, including now-President Janet Napolitano, has maintained its anti-divestment stance. After the American Studies Association`s (ASA) historic two-thirds membership vote in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions, UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake released a statement condemning the vote and more blatantly invoking dialogue as its alternative. In a public release, he wrote,
In recent years, UC Irvine has formed partnerships with educational institutions throughout the world, including those in the Middle East. Our students, representing a mosaic of diverse cultures, religions and political perspectives, established bonds with students in Israel and Palestine through the Olive Tree Initiative. These first-hand relationships lead to greater understanding and empathy, helping us break through the barriers of prejudice and highlight the power of education for all people. A boycott, on the other hand, narrows our world view and stifles the intellectual exchange that is central to our mission.
Dialogue in the Service of Power
The above-quoted remarks make it clear that UC leadership is not just ideologically opposed to BDS, but is actively positioning dialogue as a roadblock to the BDS movement. Just as "constructive engagement" was used to slow down the movement to boycott South Africa during apartheid, dialogue projects are now being used by the UC administration to distract students from the real issues—our investments in systematic violence against the Palestinian people and the totally undemocratic nature by which these investments are initiated and maintained.
The Olive Tree Initiative was established in 2007 “in response to tensions on campus surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a desire to address them in a constructive and innovative way.” The organization’s primary activities with respect to Palestine-Israel are summer trips to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, and its academic year forums and speaking events. As I have argued elsewhere, rather than centering its work on principles of international law, human rights, or equality, the initiative uses an approach of balancing narratives—effectively equating oppressor and oppressed. Such a program redefines the idea of dialogue as something that can successfully occur without a framework of social justice. It also limits the validity of dialogue to encounters between oppressor and oppressed rather than between groups of people who share common values but different experiences.
Today, OTI receives a remarkable level of financial and administrative support from the UC. On some campuses, it receives office space that no other student group has access to. On others, it is gifted with extra funding and financial awards from the administration. Furthermore, across the UC system, OTI is allowed to operate for-credit courses in departments like Middle Eastern Studies, in which the idea that education about the situation in Palestine-Israel must be "balanced" to be credible is given both official sanction and academic credibility. At UC Irvine, the program has become the “foundation of the new UCI undergraduate certificate program in conflict analysis and resolution.” In contrast, it is hard to imagine the UC accepting a similar educational program that teaches about the history of divestment and its role in popular freedom struggles. Consider that just two years ago, a UCLA professor was subjected to a campaign of attacks and professional challenges for merely including a link to the BDS movement in a class on indigenous struggles.
Whether individual students and staff members involved in OTI share the UC leadership’s anti-divestment position is unknown and ultimately irrelevant. The administration`s use of OTI as a rhetorical tool against divestment is occurring with or without their consent. OTI`s leadership has yet to clarify its own position or the position its programming is being given in the statewide debate on BDS, despite full knowledge of the statements and policies of UC leadership. OTI thus provides advocates for divestment little reason to assume that it is opposed to the administration`s use of the organization as a bulwark against the Palestine solidarity movement, and the threat that movement poses to the administration`s ability to continue managing the university’s finances without regard for student demands.
Nevertheless, just as "constructive engagement" eventually gave way to accountability, so too will dialogue that fails to center itself on justice give way to a process of holding the UC leadership accountable for its blood-soaked investments. So long as massive investments in systematic violence against Palestinian communities in Palestine and at the UC continue, there can be no credible alternative to the BDS movement.
What the leadership of the University of California failed to learn from the South Africa experience is that their resistance and obstience to divestment spurred the movement for justice. Rather than discouraging student activism, the ten-year struggle for divestment from South Africa served as an oppertunity for education and radicalization for students across California. It left a remarkable legacy that today’s students continue to look to for inspiration. Today it appears that, in order to protect their autonomy, the UC Regents are willing to once again remain obstinate in the face of calls for justice. Nevertheless, the movement to educate and build solidarity among the incoming generation of UC students continues.
 In his speech to the ADL, Yudof said, “And while we cannot censor bad speech, we can dictate time, place, and manner. At UC Irvine, Chancellor Drake has insisted that the simulated checkpoints be set up directly in front of his office, where he can physically see them for the entire week.”