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Campus Divestment Activists Aren't Secret Haters Who Support Violence (essay)

As a graduate student involved in a campaign to persuade the University of California to divest from companies that are involved in the occupation of the Palestinian territories, I feel compelled to respond to former University of California President Mark Yudof’s recent broadside against our work. His characterization of the campus boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as irrational and intolerant is wrong and demands a rejoinder.

Before making the case for divestment, it is important to establish the circumstances that have stimulated widespread support for this campaign. Although there is a general consensus that Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories should end, people are in much less agreement about what to do to end the occupation and help Palestinians achieve freedom. For the past 20 years, the answer that Americans most commonly have accepted has been to allow what began in 1993 as the Oslo peace process to run its course, producing a negotiated solution that ended the occupation and produced two states living side by side.

Sadly, the peace process has produced very little. The Obama administration recently stated that it did not believe that a peace deal would be at all possible, or that negotiations would perhaps even be restarted, during the remainder of the president’s term. It is hard to see the next administration (Republican or Democratic) being willing to invest as much time and energy into the peace process as John Kerry did during his marathon negotiations in 2013 and 2014. Thus, “Waiting for Oslo” has gone from a plausible option in the 1990s to a polite way of saying you’ve given up in the 2010s.

But as any empathetic observer of the day-to-day reality in Israel-Palestine would agree, not having an option is not an option. As Secretary of State Kerry recently stated in an interview with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, “It is not an answer to simply continue to build in the West Bank and to destroy the homes of the other folks you’re trying to make peace with and pretend that that’s a solution.”

Despite this axiomatic truth, few besides the Palestinians themselves have offered any compelling alternatives to this costly and destructive status quo. Therefore, the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions should be considered an alternative solution that deserves our honest consideration -- particularly in the absence of any other compelling plan to get from the status quo to a resolution of the occupation.

Students across the country have responded to this call by advocating for divestment -- a campaign to pressure colleges and universities to drop their investments in companies directly involved in human rights and international law violations in what is supposed to be the future Palestinian state. Although this type of campaign is not a substitute for the political processes that are necessary to end the occupation, the logic of the campaign is that the economic pressure of divestment can slow the growth of settlements, checkpoints and the rest of the infrastructure of the occupation, while also adding general pressure on the Israeli government to end it altogether.

Consider the companies targeted by the divestment campaigns at the University of California: American and multinational corporations like Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar and Cemex. HP provides electronic services for the checkpoints that prevent Palestinians from traveling to work, school and neighboring towns. Caterpillar provides the armored bulldozers used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian homes throughout the occupied territories, and particularly in the beleaguered Area C of the West Bank. Cemex provides building material for illegal settlements and the wall that snakes through the West Bank, cutting off Palestinians from their lands. None of these facts are disputed -- even many campus groups that oppose divestment generally agree that the corporations in question are violating Palestinian human rights.

But given that such companies are involved in perpetuating the occupation, divesting from them shouldn’t be particularly controversial. It should be relatively easy for someone who supports a two-state solution also to support divesting from the companies that are stifling the possibility of that very solution. Saying that you want to end the occupation but demanding that we continue investing in it is an ineffective and contradictory position.

This, in sum, is the position of many students in the UC system: We want to see Palestinians achieve their freedom, and we think divestment is the best tool available to us to help support that outcome. Although students have a variety of opinions about what the future should look like in Israel-Palestine, virtually everyone would cheer any positive outcome that gained the support of Palestinians themselves. And many students see the UC’s prior divestment decisions, including its recent decision to divest from private prisons, as a sign that student activism can contribute to social justice domestically and internationally.

Ultimately, it is perfectly fine for former President Yudof and others to choose not to support divestment. Many well-meaning people don’t, and it doesn’t make them bad people. But what is really objectionable about Yudof’s comments is his attempt to demonize those who do support divestment. Fearmongering about students who are often roughly a third his age is offensive and undignified.

Yudof’s characterizations of divestment activists don’t apply to me and don’t reflect my experiences in this movement. Campus divestment activists aren’t secret haters, don’t support violence and didn’t hoodwink other progressive students into supporting these campaigns. Rather, we are students from all walks of life whose support for social justice and human rights leads us to work to divest from companies undermining those basic principles. This support is seen outside of campuses as well. Recent polling shows that a plurality of Americans prioritize human rights when considering Israel-Palestine, and furthermore that nearly 40 percent of Americans and 25 percent of Jewish Americans support boycotts or sanctions against Israeli settlements.

If Yudof has an alternative to divestment that he thinks will be more persuasive to the public, he should add it to the debate. But opposing divestment while offering no compelling alternative amounts to tacitly endorsing a status quo of continued occupation with horrible consequences -- primarily for Palestinians, but also for Israelis as well.

Rahim Kurwa is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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