Divestment on campus: The vote is not what matters

Tonight UCLA votes on a BDS Resolution. I am writing this before the resolution is voted on because win or lose; the outcome of the vote is not what matters.

Let me explain. The outcome of a resolution to divest from companies contributing to the State of Israel matters on a campus level only because it is a litmus test on whether the majority of student government is biased. It shows whether they have been swayed by factual inaccuracy and accepted a corrupted narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. A vote for divestment does not represent the campus population at large. It does not represent any administration’s opinion or financial action. The outcome of a vote for divestment from Israel only matters in so far that it clarifies if elected student representation on campus holds itself to standards of integrity. Anyone paying college tuition should care if his or her school votes no in the face of BDS: an inorganic plot to adopt corrupted history. Otherwise, I stand by my statement that in the case of BDS the vote itself does not matter.

To give my readers context, I have sat through eight divestment meetings on the West Coast. UCLA will be my ninth. That is a total of 60+ hours listening to deliberations over divestment resolutions on college campuses.

I have seen student governments argue for hours and vote in favor of BDS resolutions, and I have seen student governments argue for hours and vote against BDS resolutions. I will tell you that the outcome of both of these scenarios is the same. To understand, one must know what goes on at a meeting where a resolution is posed to “divest from companies benefiting from apartheid” imposed by the State of Israel.

For a BDS hearing a room is reserved to for this very specialized student government meeting. It is a larger room than is reserved weekly. This is because there is anticipation of a large showing from both sides to debate the merits of the BDS resolution. This should be a student government’s first clue that the resolution isn’t clear-cut and fully kosher, but they proceed and make sure that this massive room has extra security.

The second clue that the resolution isn’t quite right shows itself in the moments before the meeting. On some campuses only a certain number of students are allowed to sit in and speak representing each side. If, as was the case two weeks ago at UC Riverside, campus security requests that the students representing each position split into two rows before entering the building, one will notice that the difference between the two sides is Kafias vs. Jewish Stars. I shouldn’t have to explain how alienating it feels to be separated by “voting opinion” into what are very clearly two lines made up largely of members of two different religious affiliations, on a public university campus in the United States of America. Student government should observe, and garner that the resolution might be highly insulting; that what comes next might walk the fine line between civil debate and holy war. They may even want to consider fact checking some of the elements of this resolution. After all, how could so many students, specifically of these two different religious affiliations, be this grievously upset? The pro-BDS camp will say that their resolution is not anti-Semitic, but where are the non-Jewish states being divested from in this resolution?

Once inside the building, student government allows both sides to give their position. The person representing the pro-BDS side is usually the person who “wrote the bill.” I use quotations, because the bill came directly out of the BDS Handbook, available online. You can Google it. Both sides will make their case and the pro-BDS Camp will state many times that their bill isn’t anti-Semitic, despite the fact that the person contacted by student government to represent the “vote no” side has been found based upon their affiliation with a Jewish student group.

My family and friends often ask me their advocacy based questions because they know this is what I do full time. The question I have been getting the most often is, “If BDS doesn’t effect the universities funding, and not a single US Institution has officially pulled any funds from Israel, then what does BDS on campus actually do?”

I will tell you.

BDS means hundreds of people are now sitting in rooms like I have described, listening to falsehoods about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict presented as fact. Often these lies come from the mouths of minorities whose only advocate in the Middle East is Israel. Painfully, sometimes these slanders come from token Jews.

BDS means that student senators will vote via secret ballot; because they are terrified that transparency will make them a target of verbal or physical aggression. This is a cowardly form of democracy. Far lesser than what is seen in the Israel, where diversely opinioned members of parliament vote using an open ballot. It’s Ironic: those who vote on the logistical realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from within said conflict, feel less intimidated than those charged with voting on Palestinian-Israeli relations on American college campuses.

BDS means that student government rules get bent and broken in the name of free speech. Such was the case last spring at UC Santa Barbara; when the President of student government used her allotted “presidents report” to speak about the travesty that is the State of Israel, instead of summarizing student government activities.

BDS means the revival of blood libel accusations. Israelis are accused of harvesting organs and worse. This is hate speech. But this speech is granted in open forum of a BDS meeting under the guise of “free speech.” Even if it is admonished later, everyone knows that once said, nothing can truly been stricken from the record. Not after a room of hundreds has heard it.

BDS means a college freshman will be asked questions about the Middle East that ought to be asked to an expert on the subject, perhaps someone who has made their life’s work in Israeli politics or Middle Eastern studies. Instead, these questions are being asked to a Math Major. And while this inquisitorial squad asks their burning questions about peace negotiations yet unsolved by world politicians, the anti-Israel camp waits with baited breadth for this freshman to slip-up and either answer something incorrectly, or use the words occupation or apartheid in a sentence.

Hours drag on and students fight for their lives not to allow their campus to be marked with the shame of divestment. Student government will suggest amending the motion so as not to include the State of Israel or the words “boycott,” “divest,” or “sanctions.” Don’t be fooled, any amended BDS resolution is still a BDS resolution no matter how “friendly” the amendments, and will be reported as such in the morning by blogs like Electronic Intifada. The truth is that until a resolution includes any other country besides Israel, it is still anti-Israel. Further, as long as only the Jewish state is mentioned, the resolution is anti-Semitic. In the words of Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic…but singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction—out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East—is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”

When the morning comes and the highly amended resolution is finally voted upon, regardless of whether the vote passes or not. Kefias will be thrown in the air, and chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” will ring out. Where will the Israelis be driven when Palestinians control the entirety of the river to the sea? But nobody has asked this question all night. Nobody has asked the pro-BDS camp if somewhere between river and sea there is a place for two peoples, for Israelis of any religion.

It is for this reason that I began by saying that the vote does not matter. It is because for a pro-Israel student, the vote against BDS isn’t really a win; it only means that they narrowly managed to scrape by based upon the opinions of a majority number of senators. Because Facebook “likes” unfortunately do not win a BDS Campaign. The difference between passing divestment and not passing divestment is always only a few senators. On any given campus the numbers makeup could leave this a crapshoot.

This victory is not a win because these pro-Israel students have not eaten or slept properly in weeks. They have slacked in their classes. Instead they have been spending their time making presentations and strategizing; forgoing their social lives in exchange for throwing educational seminars on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These students have not been learning at the universities where they pay tuition because they have been fighting for their homeland’s legitimacy; defending a narrative that allows for two states for two peoples living in peace. The failure to pass BDS is a hallow victory, because regardless of the vote, entertaining the resolution has allowed Israel and its inhabitants to be slandered to a point beyond repair.

I issue this, my thank you note, to all pro-Israel students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who stand up on their campuses, a target on their back, to defend the State of Israel. These students did not sign up for it, but their bravery is the only thing that stands between campus discourse and the biased education of their peers. When students speak up they protect the future of anyone who has ever benefited from the generosity, empathy, and democracy of Israel, regardless of their race, sexuality, religion, age or gender.

Tonight, the student government at UCLA will make their decision. I give my deepest thanks and appreciation, win or lose, to the pro-Israel students who will conduct themselves with grace and honestly. Your sleepless nights are appreciated.