Future leaders show the way

The UNM Student Senate held a 3 hour hearing this evening on the divestment resolution brought to them by the Students  for Justice in Palestine and other groups on campus.

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The resolution calls for UNM to divest from specific companies that are violating the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories; to refrain from making any new investments in companies which engage in violations of human rights; and to create a committee of students to monitor the investment activities of the university to make sure they are socially responsible investments.

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Approximately 100 people attended the hearing, and it looked to me as though both sides were evenly represented. The Chair of the meeting said this was probably the largest turn-out ever for a student senate meeting. He kept good order and allowed 10 people from each side to speak for 3 minutes each.

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There’s a growing movement of university campuses in the USA divesting from companies that profit from human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, including Arizona State University, Hampshire College, Loyola University, Oberlin College, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Irvine, U.C. Riverside and U.S. San Diego.  And there’s good precedent at UNM too. In 1985, the Board of Regents unanimously voted to divest stocks in South African gold mining companies.

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The Dean of Students, Tomas Aguirre, began the meeting by stressing the importance of “learning from each other,” and remembering that “inclusion is strength.”

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Then the proponents of the resolution were invited to speak.  Professor Les Field, a Jew himself and Director of the Peace Studies Institute, said he supports the resolution because “divestment is a nonviolent and legitimate form of protest.”

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A Jewish student said she could travel to the West Bank and have more rights than Palestinians who had lived there for generations. She’s concerned because she was never told about the human rights violations when she was growing up. She didn’t want students’ monies going to corporations that violate the rights of Palestinians.

Others reminded the UNM Senators that the resolution only targets companies that are profiting off of human rights violations.

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Then the other side spoke against the resolution.  They included representatives from Hillel, Lobos for Israel, a Rabbi, the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation, and John Wertheim (a Santa Fe lawyer running for State Treasurer).

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The arguments against the resolution included:

  • The resolution shows no respect for the state of Israel or Israeli society
  • Everyone wants peace in the Middle East but we need more dialogue
  • The resolution was a stepping stone to a larger movement calling for the destruction of Israel
  • Israel is a democracy that protects all of its citizens
  • “Sickened” by the comparison to apartheid South Africa
  • The Israel-Palestine conflict is not simple
  • If the resolution passes, a student believes it would send a message that his beliefs aren’t valid
  • Divesting from Caterpillar means divesting from security; Israel needs protection from Palestinian extremists
  • The divestment resolution just creates more division and disharmony on campus
  • Why isn’t there a Palestinian state today? Because the Arab leaders are responsible for no Palestinian state. Palestinians have been betrayed by other Arab countries, the primary reason there hasn’t been peace agreement.
  • The resolution opens the gate to more hatred on campus.
  • We need Israeli cooperation and technology for business development.
  • The proponents of the resolution want to destroy Israel and deny the Jews a homeland.
  • The resolution targets only Israel, while there are human rights violations occurring around the world.

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A student Senator proposed a compromise. She asked that any reference to Israel be removed from the resolution, along with the names of the specific companies targeted for divestment, so that the resolution became a general statement of socially responsible investing and divestment from companies that engage in human rights violations generally.

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The proponent of the resolution agreed to the amendments, but it soon became clear that the pro-Israel group did not. During a short break, each side lobbied the Senators, and I could tell there was still a lot of heartburn on that other side of the room. One opponent claimed that any divestment resolution — regardless how generic and bland it might be — would signal a “win” for the BDS movement which they couldn’t tolerate.

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During the break, I went up to the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and introduced myself and said I’d like to get together to discuss our different views. He knew who I was, and referred to my blog which he said calls for the destruction of Israel. I tried to reassure him that was not the case, and it might help if we could sit down to talk. He asked me if I support BDS —- I said I do —- and he said that means I want to destroy Israel.  He was very adamant, despite the fact that we’ve never met or talked. I’m hoping we’ll have the chance to talk in the next few weeks.

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When the Senate reconvened, there was strong advocacy in favor of the new version of the resolution which removed reference to Israel and the deleted the names of the companies.  The pro-divestment group supported the amendments; the sponsor of the resolution argued eloquently in favor. I was inspired listening to these future leaders.

However, at the end of the evening, the students urging caution prevailed. They want all sides to get together and work on a new resolution to bring back to the Senate. The final vote was 7-12-1.  (Seven in favor, 12 against and one abstention.)

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The leader of the pro-divestment group graciously thanked all of the Senators for their time and consideration. She promised this was not the end, only the beginning. And she said she would hold the pro-Israel groups accountable to meet with the pro-divestment groups to work on a joint resolution. She plans to email them all tomorrow!

I could have easily left that meeting discouraged and disheartened, but the students’ conduct and advocacy in a spirit of goodwill actually left me feeling very hopeful.

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Filed under Peaceful, People, US Policy

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