Lessons learned fighting BDS at UC Davis


With this week’s cover story, J. is launching a multipart series examining the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in California: how it operates, how it is being opposed and what it represents. Next in the series: When does anti-Israel activism cross over into anti-Semitism?

Bedecked in red hijabs and black-and-white kaffiyehs, dozens of jubilant students packed the U.C. Davis lecture hall on Jan. 29, posing for pictures, waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Free Palestine.”

Victory was in the air.

on the cover – photo/courtesy julia reifkind, U.C. Davis “Aggies for Israel” prior to Jan. 29 vote – photo/amcha, initiative U.C. Davis divestment proponents celebrating vote

Minutes before, the Davis student senate had passed a controversial Israel divestment measure demanding that the university divest its holdings from companies that “contribute to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.”

Its passage was no anomaly. That day, Davis became the sixth U.C. campus to pass a divestment resolution in the past three years, adding momentum to a national movement on the rise.

In a report by the nonprofit, Washington-based Israel on Campus Coalition, actions designated as anti-Israel — from pro-Palestinian rallies to divestment resolutions to anti-Israel academic conferences — spiked 82 percent on West Coast campuses during the 2014 fall semester.

But Israel supporters have mounted a strong counterpush. The same ICC report showed twice as many pro-Israel actions at West Coast colleges last fall — from film screenings to lectures to rallies — as so-called “detractor” events during the same period.

A key finding in the report was that the West Coast “continues to be disproportionately targeted by Israel’s detractors on campus.”

Both sides have become more strategic in recent years, moving beyond competing protests in the quad to more sophisticated legal challenges. And so, the victory at Davis was short-lived.

Divestment supporters await student senate vote at U.C. Davis on Jan. 29. photo/aggies for israel

Not long after the vote, in a stealth maneuver that caught pro-divestment forces by surprise, senior Jonathan Mitchell filed suit with the U.C. Davis student court, which has jurisdiction over the senate. He asked the court to rescind the bill.

No one in the pro-Israel camp had ever used the tactic successfully before.

Mitchell, who is Jewish and belongs to the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, shrewdly avoided challenging the merits of divestment. Instead, he claimed the senate had acted outside its jurisdiction when it passed the resolution by an 8-2 vote (with two abstentions).

The electrical engineering major told the justices during a Feb. 18 hearing that he had not come to argue against divestment, but rather “to challenge the use of the senate for the endorsement of the adoption of the resolution,” adding that the court “must restrict your review to the very narrow issue before you: whether [divestment] was an appropriate issue for the senate to undertake. It was not.”

Arguing that the Davis student constitution requires senate legislation to pertain only to matters of student welfare, and not unrelated political issues, Mitchell asked the justices to overturn the resolution.

Then he went home to study for a midterm.

The next day, the court voted 5-0 (with one abstention) to strike down the resolution, agreeing it was too political and had nothing to do with student welfare. Israel divestment had been stopped at U.C. Davis for the time being.

The Davis divestment fight typifies the intense battles between supporters of Israel and backers of BDS, or boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. A key strategy of the global movement is pushing divestment at college campuses.

Aggies for Israel president Julia Refkind speaking against divestment resolution on Jan. 29

Why divestment? Proponents say that because boycotts are a matter of individual choice, they usually fail to achieve critical mass. Sanctions are the purview of national governments and international bodies, far beyond the scope of activists. Divestment measures, with their attendant high profiles and emotional appeals, fall into the sweet spot of the doable.

Pro-Israel activists working to defeat the BDS movement on college campuses say the threat is less about actual divestment, and more about influencing future voters by making an anti-Israel point of view part of the mainstream political conversation.

“If you consider that the people in school today are the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow, the kind of atmosphere and discourse that goes on around certain issues may influence how they think in the future,” said Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network, which keeps an eye on BDS activity across the country and supports the student activists fighting it.

Nationally, the pro-Israel and pro-BDS camps have invested enormous resources in devising winning strategies and more effective countersteps.

Max Samarov, a senior researcher with the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, helps students defeat divestment initiatives and push back against other BDS inroads on campus.

He said part of his job is to study the national BDS movement and try to stay a step ahead.

“The reason they [work for divestment] isn’t because they are about [criticizing] specific Israeli policies. … It is a steppingstone toward a comprehensive boycott. They are mainstreaming this idea of boycotting something from Israel in order to eventually take it further.”

How much further? Samarov, who graduated from U.C. Santa Barbara in 2011, maintains that the goal of the BDS movement is to mainstream the concept of ending Israel’s existence.

Despite the attention they get, student-sponsored divestment measures like the ones passed at Stanford University and U.C. campuses are entirely symbolic. Student senate resolutions are unenforceable, and university administrators have been quick to disavow them.

Davis senior Jonathan Mitchell, who successfully filed suit against the measure

As soon as the U.C. Davis senate passed its divestment bill in January, the university’s chancellor, Linda Katehi, issued a statement noting that divestment “does not reflect the position of U.C. Davis or the U.C. system” and that divestment “will not be entertained.”

In a similar move, the Stanford board of trustees issued an April 14 statement in the wake of a student senate–approved divestment measure, stating unequivocally it “will not be taking action on [divestment], nor will it consider this request further.”

No American university, in fact, has divested from corporations that BDS supporters claim are enabling Israeli abuses in Palestinian territories. But that doesn’t mean the efforts have no effect.

Palast, whose agency was formed by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to combat delegitimization of Israel, said BDS is “still a fairly marginal movement” in other parts of the country. But she concedes that in and around the Bay Area, “it feels like [BDS] doesn’t end.”

The movement has a strong history in the University of California system. Since 2012, student senates at Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Santa Cruz and Irvine have passed divestment measures. At U.C. Davis, proponents brought resolutions to the senate multiple times, including during the 2014 spring semester, when a divestment measure failed by a whisker on a 5-5 tie with two abstentions.

According to Mitchell, during the academic year now drawing to a close, divestment supporters seized on an opportunity, taking advantage of what he called student apathy to pack the school’s senate with BDS supporters.

“Voter turnout has decreased exponentially,” he said. “The number of people running for senators has decreased. Six people ran for six spots, and one presidential [candidate] for one spot. Clearly getting involved is less desirable. Pro-BDS students seized the moment. It’s part of their strategy to get all the votes, because it gives them power. Hopefully, in the fall more than one slate will run.”

Pro-divestment forces are well organized, and are frequently led by Students for Justice in Palestine, which has chapters on campuses across the country.

SJP employs a variety of strategies to push its pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist message, from tabling on the quad and bringing in speakers, to more aggressive, high-visibility tactics such as Israel Apartheid Week, mock checkpoints and mock eviction notices slipped under dorm room doors.

SJP representatives declined to talk to J. for this story. One group that does help push divestment bills on campus is Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based nonprofit that has been harshly critical of Israeli policy over the years, and is considered blatantly anti-Israel by its detractors. The group officially supports divestment and boycott of some Israeli products.

Gabi Kirk, 24, a former U.C. Santa Cruz student and until recently the JVP national campus liaison, organized college students to pass divestment measures and take part in other forms of protest. She promoted divestment as she traveled the country opening JVP campus chapters. The group supported the latest bill to the U.C. Davis senate.

“We support divestment initiatives if we’re asked,” Kirk said. “The snowball is massive. We’ll be asked to write letters of support explaining the Jewish values [behind divestment], and we will retweet on social media.”

Elly Oltersdorf is a 20-year-old Jewish sophomore from San Diego and is currently vice president of the Davis chapter of JVP, which she helped found last winter quarter. She was inspired to join after last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, which she said left her “appalled.” She was one of the students who spoke up for divestment during the senate hearing in January.

Oltersdorf does not see JVP as the fringe group its critics say it is, and said she strives to remain open to all views.

“It’s really important on issues like this to talk to as many people as you possibly can,” she said. “Everyone I’ve worked with in divestment is incredibly willing to discuss everything, to be reasonable, to talk to people with other views.”

After months of building alliances with campus student groups, especially among clubs representing students of color, and after helping to elect senators sympathetic to the pro-Palestinian cause, according to Mitchell, SJP members brought the bill to the senate in January.

Students at U.C. Davis show their support for Israel. photo/aggies for israel

Student supporters of Israel knew in advance the divestment measure would pass. Written by members of the Davis chapter of SJP, the resolution called on the U.C. Board of Regents to divest from corporations that “aid in the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” naming Caterpillar, Veolia and Raytheon.

Just before the vote, when public comments were being taken, representatives from Aggies for Israel, a pro-Israel student group at Davis, spoke out against the resolution. Club president Julia Reifkind said to divestment supporters, “You have divided our campus and damaged lives.”

Immediately after the speeches and before the vote, dozens of Jewish and pro-Israel students walked out as pro-Palestinian audience members cheered, with some shouting “Allahu Ahkbar” (Arabic for “God is great”).

After the vote, student senator and divestment supporter Azka Fayyaz posted Facebook photos with the captions “Hamas & Sharia law have taken over UC Davis” and “Israel will fall, inshallah [with God’s help].” She later insisted the first caption was “satirical,” but disavowed neither the second nor statements she made during the Jan. 29 senate hearing, including “You can’t have coexistence with Zionists.”

Things turned ugly two days later when, on the morning of Jan. 31, student residents at the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house discovered two large red swastikas spray-painted on the back wall and porch.

While this vandalism grabbed headlines, U.C. Davis law student and former student senator Ryan Meyerhoff sat down to look for a new strategy — one that would not only overturn divestment at Davis, but possibly could serve as a model for campus activists elsewhere.

He later brought in Mitchell, who as a senator the year before had experience fighting divestment. Together they did a close read of the student constitution and senate bylaws, zeroing in on a clause that suggested legislation must pertain to “student welfare.” They needed precedent, and found it in a senate bill from 2000 that officially opposed Proposition 22, an early ban on same-sex marriage in California.

“What I had to do was think logically,” Mitchell explained. “[We] had to find an old case and see how it was similar to the current issue, and how precedent could be used in accordance with a logical argument. Ryan found the case. Both [the old case and divestment] were political in nature. And both were controversial topics. Those were the silver bullets.”

A few weeks later, Mitchell found himself before the Davis student court, whose forerunners overturned the 2000 senate bill because it was deemed political and unrelated to student welfare. Mitchell thought the same rationale should apply to divestment.

Mitchell said that when he appeared before the court in February, “We did not know we were going to win … [but] we showed up prepared.” He said the other side lost because its argument appealed to emotions, while his side stuck with the law and the facts.

In its decision, the court concluded that the divestment resolution “was primarily a political document and did not address student welfare.”

And that was that. Divestment had come and gone from U.C. Davis, at least for the present. Getting the measure quashed was something new in the annals of campus BDS battles, and Samarov of StandWithUs was impressed.

“There have been other constitutional challenges to divestment,” he said, “but none that wiped divestment off the slate as a whole. It’s something we’re hoping can be applied to a lot of different schools. We need as many angles to deal with this as possible.”

When the U.C. Davis student court overturned the divestment bill, it came as a shock to Oltersdorf of JVP, especially because, as she sees it, the thinking behind the decision was “shaky.” She believes student welfare is very much at stake when it comes to Israel divestment.

“It’s insane to say this doesn’t affect         students,” she said of the court ruling. “I have seen firsthand how this affects [Palestinian] students. They’re not talking about history. They’re talking about their families. This affects pro-Israel students as well. Neither side thinks this doesn’t affect students.”

Mitchell will be graduating soon, leaving the battle at Davis to others. And though he won this round, he is certain divestment supporters aren’t giving up the fight.

“BDS is a movement,” he said. “A movement is not a one-try thing. They will be back.”


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.