Commentary By NICK ESTES
In a standing room only, record-setting gathering of over 150 people at six p.m. on Wednesday night, April 2, 2013, the undergraduate student council Associated Students of the University of New Mexico (ASUNM) voted against adopting a divestment resolution targeting UNM investments in Israeli corporations. Student Senator Ayham Maadi sponsored the resolution, which was drafted and supported by eight student organizations—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Students Organizing Actions for Peace, Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán, UNM Dreamers in Action (MEChA), Men of Color Alliance, Men of Color Initiative, Fair Trade Initiative, and UNM Arabic Club.
Before the floor opened for debate, UNM Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre read a letter written by UNM President Robert Frank that “discouraged” discussants from partaking in discriminating behavior and language, appealing instead to UNM’s commitment to “diversity” and “equality.” Adding his own twist to Frank’s words, Aguirre remarked, “Love is universal.” Although Aguirre stated his position as Dean of Students was “neutral,” he sat amongst the opponents of the resolution as the debate opened up.
Ten people from each side for and against the divestment resolution were given an hour to debate, approximately thirty minutes for each side. Proponents and drafters of the resolution were joined by faculty supporters as they argued that the resolution specifically targets UNM’s ties to Israeli corporations that profit from the occupation of Palestinian lands. The divestment resolution specifically cited Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Group 4 Securicor (G4S), SodaStream, Elbit Systems, and Veolia as being complicit in “severe and ongoing human rights violations systematically committed by the Israeli government,” which has been documented by international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Al-Haq, and Defense for Children.
Student representatives of MEChA spoke about how G4S, a for-profit prison security company, conducts transportation services for ICE deportations on the U.S.-Mexico border and provides surveillance equipment for three Israeli prisons housing Palestinian political prisoners. G4S also provides equipment used in the construction and maintenance of Israeli checkpoints and security services to illegal Israeli settlements. Cecy Valisco of MEChA told members of the audience and ASUNM representatives that she was against her tuition money being used to support UNM’s ties with G4S, a company that has helped deport members of her community and continues to participate in ongoing human rights violations in the U.S. and Israel.
Les Field, UNM Professor of Anthropology, SJP faculty advisor, and Director of UNM’s Peace Studies Program, supported the divestment resolution because of its nonviolent strategy of financial divestment. Proponents of the resolution further cited the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a nonviolent political tactic to bring attention to the Palestinian cause. Some referenced UNM’s Board of Regents unanimous 1985 decision to divest stocks in South African gold mine companies in response to the South Africa’s policy of apartheid. The divestment resolution refers to this particular case as a precedent for the cause of corporate divestment in companies that engage in human rights violations. The resolution specifically called for creating a permanent committee to review and monitor UNM’s investments in companies that may partake in human rights violations. This was originally called for in 1985, and to date UNM has no committee that reviews or evaluates responsible financial investments.
Supporters of the divestment resolution reminded Senators and the audience that the resolution did not target individuals, only corporations. Emphasis on corporations’ participation in human rights violations, SJP member and UNM student Brittany Arneson stressed, is the goal of the resolution, not the singling out of any individual and community.
Members of the Lobos for Israel, New Mexico Israel Business Alliance, and UNM’s Hillel Jewish Community voiced opposition to the divestment resolution. Many opponents, however, were non-UNM students, such as several New Mexico businessmen, faculty directors, and students from other universities. The opposition lost its moral high ground by resorting to the hackneyed claim that divestments against the “only Jewish state in the world”—Israel—is “anti-semitic.” One opponent, UNM student Rose Davenport, claimed supporters of BDS wanted to “shoot the Jew,” were affiliated with terrorist organizations, and called for “the destruction of Israel.” UNM Hillel Director Sara Koplik stated that blame for the Palestine-Israel issue should be placed on “Arab leaders” who have failed to accept Israeli peace terms and effectively implement peaceful solutions.
The opposition attempted to place blame and fault on the Arabic countries and BDS supporters instead of engaging in debate over the divestment resolution and the lack of accountability in UNM’s investment in corporations that participate and profit from human rights violations against Palestinians. After the floor was closed to debate, ASUNM representatives struck any reference of “Israel” from the resolution and pushed for the creation of an oversight committee that would review UNM’s investments in corporations violating human rights. Many senators expressed lack of knowledge about the Israel-Palestine conflict and ambiguity about their own positions on the issue.
After a brief recess, the entire divestment resolution was voted down with no prospects of creating an oversight committee. The final voting tally was seven for the resolution, twelve against, and one abstaining. Four years of work by SJP and many student organizations were quashed by a largely non-student opposition to the divestment resolution and ASUNM’s apparent lack of concern about the Palestinian people.
While many college campuses and academic professional organizations across the world have adopted various BDS resolutions, UNM administrators remain hostile to the growing BDS movement. On January 10, 2014, UNM President Robert Frank and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Chaouki Abdallah issued a public statement condemning the American Studies Association’s (ASA) December 2013 adoption of a cultural boycott resolution of Israeli institutions.
To date the ASA, the Association for Asian American Studies, and Native American and Indigenous Studies Association have either sponsored boycott resolutions and/or have supported the cultural boycott of Israeli institutions. The University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, Irvine, and Loyola University, Chicago have also passed divestment resolutions.
The question remains, however, if “love is universal,” as UNM Dean of Students Tomás Aguirre would have us believe, then why does Palestine remain the exception to this universalism for UNM administrators and anti-BDS groups?
Watch the full video of the ASUNM session here.
For more information about the UNM Divest campaign and SJP go here.