Students demand divestment, this time targeting Israel

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When the University of California at Berkeley sponsored a conference entitled "The Free Speech Movement and the Legacy of Social Protest" last spring, the impressive roster of veteran activists included Bob Moses, Bettina Aptheker, and Jack Weinberg. But as they talked about the movements born during Berkeley's famous decade, something disconcerting kept coming to the surface: Virtually none of the conference participants was under the age of 50.

"Where are the students?" people asked repeatedly.

Berkeley English professor and antiwar veteran Peter Dale Scott pointed out how quickly the campaign against South African apartheid took hold on campuses in 1984 after a lengthy period in which activism was absent. "Things are quiet now," he concluded, "but you never know when something's going to happen."

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Professor Scott was more on target than he could have known. Less than two weeks later, the building housing Scott's department was taken over in a symbolic act of occupation by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

The activists demanded a response by the UC regents to their call for the university to withdraw its investments in Israel. University police made 32 arrests and kept the students from blocking entrances.

Many movements have come and gone since Berkeley students of the 1960s set the standards of protest. The past several years have seen an upswing in antiglobalization activism, but relatively few groups have been audacious or ambitious enough to try to affect directly specific policies of the United States.

The SJP, by contrast, has emerged out of the new Palestinian intifada like an angry hornet. And it is willing to use direct action and civil disobedience to bring back the days when the State Department felt the sting of student activism.

The antiapartheid model

Since the Vietnam antiwar movement, in which students were able to interfere directly by resisting the draft, only one campaign targeting US foreign policy has achieved similar success: the 1980s efforts against apartheid.

Universities led the rest of the country in removing investments from companies that did business with the apartheid government. The divestment in 1986 of the University of California's $3 billion in stock holdings was particularly important because at that point it was the largest public institution to take a stand. Nelson Mandela, during a visit to the area after his release from prison, pointed to this event as a catalyst that ultimately helped end white-minority rule in South Africa.

Snehal Shingavi, a member of SJP, estimates that $6.4 billion of the current UC portfolio is invested in companies that do substantial business in Israel (defined by the group as transactions worth $5 million or more annually, or having branches or subsidiaries), often directly in the Israeli military-industrial complex.

The names are well known: General Electric, which manufactures the propulsion systems for attack helicopters used in the occupied territories; Hewlett-Packard, which provides the electronics; Raytheon, which makes the missiles; Cisco Systems, Texas Instruments, AOL Time Warner, and Microsoft.

"The people who run our universities are not just tacitly supporting but are actually benefiting from the exploitation of Palestinians," Mr. Shingavi says.

Fellow SJP member Sarah Weir says she hasn't been involved with activist causes until now, because "other issues never motivated me like this one does."

Mock checkpoints on campus

SJP has attracted attention at Berkeley with its unique brand of demonstrations. The group uses symbolism and street theater to bring students eye-to-eye with what it sees as an unjust Israeli occupation.

In its first demonstration, the group blocked off Sathar Gate – a major point of entry onto campus – and turned it into an Israeli checkpoint. On one side of the gate, marked "Jews only," there was free access. But on the other, marked "Palestinians," group members – dressed as Israeli soldiers – toted cardboard guns and demanded to know people's destinations and to see ID cards.

Other actions have followed suit: establishing a mock refugee camp, creating an effigy of Ariel Sharon, demolishing Palestinian homes, and occupying a building. To date, the group has collected more than 5,000 student signatures on its petition for divestment.

Rebuke from the university

The university's response to SJP's formal divestment request, made nearly a year ago, has been stony silence.

Berkeley chancellor Robert Berdahl rebuked the checkpoint demonstration, claiming it created an environment hostile to some students.

Indeed, SJP's divestment drive runs up against frequent accusations of anti-Semitism and the active resistance of Jewish student groups. University officials privately express doubts about the SJP's chances of success, citing active opposition behind the scenes by Jewish faculty and administrators.

But SJP also counts Jewish students among its members. And groups such as Jews Against the Occupation and Jews for a Free Palestine have endorsed the divestment campaign and have participated in SJP actions.

Intricate investments

A more formidable obstacle may be the intricacies of divestment itself. The university's portfolio has grown from $9 billion during the South Africa campaign to $54 billion today.

That money is directly tied to pension funds for 136,000 employees of the University of California, as well as operating funds for some of the most renowned research facilities.

There is enormous pressure to ensure that financial priorities are the chief criteria in investment decisions.

The university regularly receives divestment requests, most recently by groups opposed to regimes in Burma and Tibet. Shares in individual companies have occasionally been sold off, but only when there were good financial reasons, says Trey Davis, spokesman for the UC regents. Since the South Africa decision, the regents have not considered any large-scale divestment.

"In these conditions, it's really not feasible to operate on the sole basis of social-responsibility issues," Mr. Davis says.

Diverse student involvement

Galvanizing support is also challenging because the plight of Palestinians seems more remote to many students than did that of the South African blacks, which had special resonance in a country with its own history of racial segregation.

"You need broad support to win in a movement like this," says Phil Gasper, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., and a former antiapartheid activist. "At that time, it was clearer to a broader group of people what was going on. They understood that apartheid was an abomination. But the American media don't portray Israel that way."

SJP has been able to get past that problem to some extent. Neither Shingavi nor Ms. Weir is Palestinian, and less than a quarter of the group's core members are even of Arab descent. Success, therefore, will largely depend on the group's ability to portray the Palestinian cause as a universal one.

Delegations from schools all around the US came to the Berkeley campus in mid-February for the first national conference hosted by the SJP. Nearly 500 students of various ethnicities and political affiliations attended the seminars on divestment research, media outreach, civil disobedience, and organizing strategies.

SJP-style demonstrations have already been replicated at campuses such as Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Michigan, where students staged a mock refugee camp recently.

Today, protest demonstrations are planned on a number of campuses, and Berkeley's SJP is expected to announce that the divestment campaign is going national.

"The feeling [at the February conference] was very hopeful," says Tamer Douara, a representative from the University of California at Davis.

"Like we've taken a nebulous movement, given it shape, and taken it nationally. Now, in the spirit of Berkeley, we'll march on to that goal."

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