Anti-Israel protesters want University of California to divest $32 billion in assets

Official at state university system says holdings being targeted by UC Divest Coalition include investments in groups linked to arms makers, $12 billion in US Treasury bills

A sign is seen as pro-Palestinian protesters gather to demonstrate against Israel, in front of Sproul Hall on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)
A sign is seen as pro-Palestinian protesters gather to demonstrate against Israel, in front of Sproul Hall on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

SACRAMENTO, California — Investments in weapons manufacturers and a wide array of other companies by the University of California targeted by students protesting Israel amid the war in Gaza against Hamas represent $32 billion — or nearly one-fifth — of the system’s overall assets, the system’s chief investment officer says.

UC Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Singh Bachher unveiled the estimate Tuesday at the first public Board of Regents meeting since nationwide pro-Palestinian student protests began in April. The calculation was in response to a letter he received last month from the UC Divest Coalition, which is scrutinizing the system’s overall $175 billion in assets.

The group asked for the system to halt its investments in weapons manufacturers, the investment firms Blackstone and BlackRock, and two dozen companies across the entertainment, technology and beverage industries.

Bachher said that would apply to investments that include: $3.3 billion in holdings from groups with ties to weapons manufacturers; $12 billion in US treasuries; $163 million in the investment firm BlackRock and $2.1 billion in bonds that BlackRock manages; $8.6 billion from Blackstone and $3.2 billion from the other 24 companies.

“We pride ourselves on a culture of transparency,” Bachher said, adding that it is important to listen to and engage with students.

The University of California system said last month it would not boycott or divest from Israel, and the regents have not indicated a change in position during this week’s meetings.

Police clash with pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the UCLA campus, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP/Ethan Swope)

In 1986, the regents voted to divest $3.1 billion from companies doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government after more than a year of student protests. The system also dropped its investments in fossil fuels in 2020.

For weeks, students at campuses across the country have been protesting and setting up encampments at their universities to call on them to be more transparent about their investments and to divest from companies that financially support Israel. The demonstrations have led to disruptions, arrests and debates over free speech rights. Tensions between protesters, law enforcement and administration at the University of California, Los Angeles, have garnered some of the most attention.

The protests stem from the ongoing conflict in Gaza, which started on October 7 when Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel in which terrorists killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 252 hostages. Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched an offensive in Gaza in which the Hamas-run health ministry says more than 35,000 people have been killed, a toll that cannot be independently verified. The UN says some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals at this time. The rest of the total figure is based on murkier Hamas “media reports.” It also includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

In a letter provided to The Associated Press by the UC president’s office, the UC Divest Coalition — which is made up of anti-war student advocates across UC campuses — asked the university system to end any investments in “companies that perpetuate war or weapons manufacturing, including companies that give economic support to the state of Israel, and therefore perpetuate the ongoing occupation and genocide of the Palestinian people.”

“Investment in arms production is antithetical to the UC’s expressed values and the moral concerns of the students, workers, and faculty that the regents represent,” the letter says.

The coalition did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent via email and social media on the letter and the $32 billion estimate.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators set up a tent encampment to protest against Israel in front of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on April 22, 2024, in Berkeley, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP)

At a meeting that lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours Tuesday, some students and faculty called for the system to divest from groups with ties to Israel, some faculty raised concerns about antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus, and regents asked investment committee members what it would mean to divest.

Holly Yu, a student studying ethnic studies at the University of California, Merced, urged officials to recognize that students are “expected to continue our everyday lives” as the death toll rises in Gaza.

“Please listen to the voices of your students and stand in solidarity with us by divesting immediately,” Yu said.

Regents said that the question of what it would mean to divest does not have a straight-forward answer.

“We need to be able to articulate to our students that are demanding divestment as to why it’s not so simple,” Regent Jose M. Hernandez said. “It’s not just a matter of selling a coupon and saying ‘okay, we don’t want this, so we’re going to invest in another company.’”

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