When preparing to bring up its divestment bill in February of this year, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) engaged in what is widely described as one of the most open and far-reaching public campaigns on campus. The organization made presentations to over twenty student groups, including those which hold views that might be described as our polar opposite. During this time, SJP repeatedly contacted UCLA student groups Hillel and Bruins for Israel (BFI) in order to secure a presentation to their members. The results of this outreach are worth reviewing as they put into question whether groups that oppose divestment were acting in good faith or merely taking advantage of SJP’s openness and flexibility.
Taking Advantage of SJP
Instead of being allowed to present their resolution to Hillel’s general membership, SJP was asked to hold a closed meeting between student representatives from both organizations. In this meeting, Hillel and BFI leaders were presented with the resolution and asked for any edits or suggestions they wished to make. They said that while they did not have serious problems with the bill as written, they opposed the BDS movement as a whole and asked that we include a clause expressing neutrality with respect to the BDS movement. Acting in good faith, SJP agreed to add the language they requested on the logic that while our organization supports the BDS movement, it was not necessary for everyone on campus to support the entire movement in order for a bill focused on campus divestment to be passed.
However, rather than this concession resulting in their being less opposed to the bill, the very students who asked for the BDS neutrality clause used it as a new source of talking points in order to further attack SJP. During the divestment hearing, these groups claimed that SJP was being duplicitous by inserting this clause and that despite the bill`s neutrality on BDS they could prove that SJP actually supported the entirety of the BDS movement. This made it look like BDS was something to be afraid of and something SJP was hiding its support for, when in fact SJP has always supported BDS (and all non-violent economic and social pressure) and only added that clause to respond to their concerns. In the end, SJP was attacked for making the exact concession that its attackers had asked for in the first place.
Another issue that bears examining is the claim that SJP should have co-written the resolution with BFI and Hillel. There are several problems with this contention. In the first place, it demonstrates how SJP, and Palestinian Bruins overall, are held to a completely different standard than other groups on campus. For instance, would Bruin Democrats seriously be expected to co-write a bill alongside Bruin Republicans? SJP is one student organization, like any other, and like any other student organization, SJP has the right to draft bills which concern the priorities and values of its members. Nevertheless, the fact that SJP reached out to members of Hillel and BFI to give them an opportunity to hear more information about the resolution and voice their concerns means that SJP was attempting to include them. Any organization that was contacted, that had the opportunity to ask questions, pose problems, and communicate with SJP members in depth about the bill was a part of the bill-creation process. For these reasons, when asked in February to co-write a bill with BFI and Hillel, we politely declined but still offered to make reasonable edits that their students asked for. But despite our openness to their edits, these groups publicly claimed that only being able to co-write a bill from scratch would satisfy their concerns. They went on to create a narrative that said that there was some meaningful area of agreement that could be reached between both parties if they just started over from scratch. However, as evidence from the campaign shows, this turned out to be false.
In a radio interview held on 25 February 2014, Daily Bruin opinion editor Eitan Arom asked SJP and Hillel representatives what they could agree to co-write. SJP said that they were completely flexible on the content of a resolution, as long as the minimum requirement of divestment from companies that violate Palestinian rights was met. The Hillel representative, however, could offer no such avenue of compromise, instead suggesting that the groups write a resolution saying that “We are Bruins, you are Bruins, and we can agree to disagree.” (See roughly ten minutes and twenty-five seconds into this radio show for the clip.) SJP students also met with a university administrator, Berky Nelson, who had taken it upon himself to ask members of BFI if they would agree to divest from just one of the five companies on SJP’s list, Caterpillar, based on its completely obvious and egregious violations of Palestinian human rights. The response he described to SJP was a flat out no.
So, on the one hand, we see anti-divestment groups acknowledging that they were unwilling to move towards SJP’s position in any meaningful way. On the other hand, we see them promoting the idea of “co-authorship” as if it was actually a genuine possibility, and attacking SJP as somehow at fault for not having pursued it.
Stepping back for a moment, we can see that if the groups opposed to divestment had been acting in good faith, then SJP’s concessions would have produced a change in their response to the divestment resolution, even something as small as opposing the bill for a different reasons. Instead, these groups used SJP’s concession on BDS as a new way to attack the resolution and SJP’s integrity. The same applies to the possibility of co-authorship. If anti-divestment students had been acting in good faith, they either would have been able to offer some kind of meaningful compromise, or they would never have claimed that co-authorship was possible. Instead, while privately admitting that they would not compromise, they still used the public stage to claim the opposite, arguing that if SJP had been more reasonable, the groups could have co-authored a bill together and satisfied everyone’s concerns.
The Same Behavior, Now Applied to the MSA
The divestment hearing sadly also included a cavalcade of racist, tokenizing, and grotesquely Islamophobic commentary. In the wake of this shocking display, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) took it upon itself to draft a statement denouncing Islamophobia on campus and urging the campus to adopt a diversity requirement as one way of pushing back against the deeply offensive ideas on display at the hearing. However, when MSA approached BFI and Hillel with the statement, the same saga played out again. First, BFI and Hillel asked for the statement to include language denouncing anti-Semitism. Then, when the MSA added this language, BFI and Hillel objected to the resolution, and rather than offer edits to the MSA’s new clauses simply declined to endorse the statement, stating instead that they wished that MSA leaders would agree to start over by co-writing a statement. It got so absurd that the MSA’s anti-Islamophobia statement was eventually falsely portrayed as an attack on Jewish students. Once again, we see the same cat and mouse game playing out. When approached with a reasonable statement, offer edits. When the edits are accepted, argue that they are not good enough and that the only possible way forward is to start from scratch all over again. When these demands are not met, describe the other group as the aggressor.
At the end of the day, members of SJP and MSA were clearly taken advantage of over the course of the past quarter. Their openness and flexibility was met with a perplexing back and forth that only served to delay and obscure the original intent of their work. Being open and transparent is admirable and both SJP and the MSA should continue their policies of transparency and flexibility. But in the future, SJP and the MSA should not automatically assume that their good faith will be met with the same good faith, and should make sure that their openness is not taken advantage of in the same way as it was this year.
Fortunately, over thirty different organizations signed on to MSA’s press release, and over twenty different organizations came out to speak in support of SJP’s divestment resolution. What all of these organizations recognized is that standing in solidarity with another group does not mean asserting your voice over theirs. It does not mean compulsively inscribing the narrative of your troubles over the troubles of others. It means that, for everything you give, there is so much more you hold back, because you recognize that the most precious and necessary moment in overcoming oppression is that in which one stands and speaks in their own voice, with their own words, as the rest of the world looks on. Despite the frustrating experience of attempting to work with BFI and Hillel, the beautiful acts of solidarity shown by so many other groups reaffirm the value and importance of our anti-racist and anti-oppression activism.