On Tuesday November 13, just days before Israeli missiles began to pelt Gaza, a motley group of students, one after another, made the case for why the Associated Students at the University of California, Irvine should urge the school administration to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Thousands of miles and dozens of checkpoints removed from the region, the students at UCI spoke passionately about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, comparing the situation with South Africa’s Apartheid.
In the end, the Associated Students voted unanimously, 16-0 with no abstentions, to pass the resolution. The room that had reverberated with tense anxiety while the board of students were deliberating, erupted in cheer at the verdict. For UCI, this small victory was monumental. Traci Ishigo, president of UCI’s Associated Students, addressed the room, capturing the students’ conviction saying, “We are agents of change in this world.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has roused heated discussions on college campuses across the country for about as long as the conflict itself has endured. In this regard however, UCI has historically been a unique case, to put it mildly. Protests and debates have snowballed into disciplinary suspension of a student group, criminal convictions of students, and a nationwide media spectacle, transforming the otherwise sleepy Southern California campus into a free-speech battleground.
Despite a well-deserved reputation for sidestepping student rights and suppressing free speech on the issue of Israel, UCI is the first California campus whose student body passed the resolution for divestment. Both UC Berkeley and UCSD made similar attempts to push for divestment through their legislative student bodies, but were unsuccessful. “The decision made by ASUCI's Legislative Council clearly shows the strength and integrity of students utilizing their collective power to protect human rights on a global scale,” Ishigo said in a press release. While the overwhelming consensus on the resolution was a historic step for the student body, the UCI administration delivered a swift response in rejecting the resolution the very next day. The administrators released a statement saying that, “such divestment is not the policy of this campus, nor is it the policy of the University of California. The UC Board of Regents policy requires this action only when the US government deems it necessary. No such declaration has been made regarding Israel.”
The administration turning a cold shoulder to the resolution comes as no surprise to anyone. UC leaders had addressed the divestment campaign at UC Berkeley in 2010, sharply turning it down by claiming that it unfairly targets Israel and said in a statement, "This isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community."
And at UCI, in February of the same year, the administration sternly punished the Muslim Student Union for its alleged involvement in planning a disruptive protest of Israeli Ambassador, Michael Oren. Many remained convinced the administration operated at the behest of external pro-Israel groups, who have elbowed their way into campus politics, pressuring the school to take a strong stance on student dissent against Israel. The 11 students who had interrupted Oren while speaking were charged and convicted with misdemeanors, an unprecedented and decidedly harsh punishment for students involved in a campus protest.