The moral challenge of divestment comes to UCSD

Students at UC San Diego were swayed by BDS misinformation and distortion

Last week the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Associated Student Council passed an amended version of a resolution for divesture from companies dealing with the State of Israel, voting 20-12-1 in favor of divesting. To date, UCSD is the most prestigious school to pass a divestment resolution, as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign being propagated across North America and Europe. This resolution marks three out of the ten universities in the California system that have introduced and voted on similar resolutions. It is anticipated that the Student Council of UC Santa Barbara will be voting on a similar resolution soon.

The UCSD students, in formulating their resolution, relied on the distortions of the BDS campaign in general: namely, a false characterization of Israel as a rogue human rights violator, the portrayal of the Jewish citizens of Israel as “colonial occupiers,” and the positioning of Arabs as indigenous residents of the land.

The students supporting the BDS movement have challenged the pro-Israel community as they have promoted the false notion that they are open to actual dialogue and debate that would promote equitable and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; in reality, their motives are much more sinister. Rather than being interested in the “social justice” and “human rights” to which they so regularly give lip service, their actual intention is to weaken and destroy Israel, not to make it a partner in peace. As a result, the American Jewish community at large, many of whom embrace the “big tent” approach, still hold on to the desire to accept everyone’s views and self-affirmation in the name of being open and pluralistic.

Since Israel’s very existence is positioned by BDS proponents as antithetical to peace, and an obstacle to social justice for the Palestinians, many on campus are conflicted about fervently supporting the Jewish state. To avoid such dilemma, the strategy of some organizations that support Jewish students is to focus on internal campus life issues, such as Jews being offended if the divestment passes. These arguments are not strong enough in the battle against BDS.

But not all supporters of Israel fall into that moral trap. For instance, some faculty at UCSD, spear-headed by members of its SPME chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), were able to come together and issue a strong statement opposing the divestment initiative, stating that “the most troubling aspect of the resolution is its characterization of Jewish citizens of Israel as ‘colonial occupiers’ while Arabs are described as indigenous to the land. In so doing, the resolution denies the profound emotional, cultural, and religious connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, a connection that spans 3000 years. This is a deplorable attempt to delegitimize an ancient people’s ethnic identity. Rather than advancing the prospect of reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, such claims regress to the very attitude that has been at the heart of the conflict and prevented a peaceful resolution thus far.”

So while the UCSD faculty understood the danger of BDS, the rest of the Jewish community – both on the UCSD campus and at large – lost the battle before it even came to a vote because of a lack of unified strategy and a common ideology. SPME commends the student groups for toning down some of the amoral language of the BDS bill yet it was clearly not enough. Consequently, these grassroots efforts led Associated Students President Meggie Le to express objection to the divestment resolution, but to no avail. Unfortunately, the BDS movement continues to gain momentum as it uses academic freedom to intimidate those who would speak up and question its true intentions.

It is critical to understand that the BDS campaign is contrary to peace, representing a form of misguided economic warfare. The movement is in direct opposition to decades of agreements between Arabs and Israelis, in which both sides pledged to negotiate a peaceful settlement and commitment to a two-state solution, even while only Israel has repeatedly made concessions for peace. There is no doubt that what we saw at UCSD is only part of a larger campaign to isolate Israel and silence its supporters. Until we internalize that the actions of those supporting the BDS campaign are, as former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers observed, “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent,” we will be losing more ground in this uphill battle.

As such, SPME would welcome the opportunity to help students navigate through the matrix of the university governing bodies as we work together, faculty, community and students, to combat BDS more effectively and strategically.

Shlomo Dubnov is a professor of music at UCSD and an SPME board member. Asaf Romirowsky is the acting executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)

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