Legislators in California have signed a letter that condemns the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which aims to pressure Israel into complying with its obligations under international law and recognizing the rights of the Palestinians. As Alex Kane writes for Mondoweiss, the movement has gained increasing attention in California over the past year or so, with "student government bodies at the UC campuses of Irvine, San Diego, and Berkeley [passing] resolutions urging the UC system to divest from corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation." In their letter, however, the legislators applaud the University of California Regents, the governing board of UC which controls investments, for its stance against divestment and labelled the movement "divisive."
Despite noting that they "believe in free speech," the state officials are effectively condemning students' exercise of their right to free speech through the BDS campaign and their promotion of divestment resolutions.
Back in 2010, the chair and vice-chair of the Board of Regents and the UC president issued a statement on divestment, noting its concern about the BDS movement's focus on Israel and saying that "this isolation of Israel among all countries of the world greatly disturbs us and is of grave concern to members of the Jewish community." It recalled that the UC system's policy on divestment, enacted in 2005, is to only sanction it when "the United States government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide." Given that the U.S. has not done this in the case of Israel, and never will, the statement said that no measure recommending divestment from companies doing business with Israel will be brought before the board. By tying themselves to the U.S. government's policy towards Israel, however, the university is simply helping to ensure that Israel can go on violating its obligations under international law and ignoring the rights of the Palestinian people without any consequences.
And now the more than 30 state senators and assembly members who have so far signed up to the letter are voicing their support for this. According to Kane, the leader of the California Senate, Darrell Steinberg, "a staunch supporter of Israel," worked with the the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) and Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield to write the letter. In it, the regents are congratulated for their "resolute stance" against divestment. The letter goes on to call the BDS movement "divisive" and argues that it "deepen[s] the division between Israelis and Palestinians, drawing them further away from a lasting peace."
The divestment movement in California has had both victories, at Irvine, San Diego, and Berkeley, and defeats, most recently at Stanford and Riverside, over the past year or so. It is understandable, and natural, that people will express both their support for, and opposition to, the movement. They have a right to do so. But while it is one thing to have UC students debating the issue, it is another to have the governing body of the university, and now over 30 state legislators, simply condemn the movement and make a blanket statement against even considering divestment unless the the U.S. government changes its policy towards Israel, which they know full well that it will not.
In the end, the divestment resolutions do not, and cannot, compel divestment, but they are a powerful symbol of the growing opposition on American campuses to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The present approach to the conflict has not worked given the massive power imbalance and Israel's impunity. And yet state officials are continuing to use the same tired mantra of encouraging "all parties to work together in a proactive manner," a process which has achieved almost nothing in terms of ensuring that Israel lives up to its obligations under international law and that the Palestinians are truly able to exercise their right to self determination. And all the while Israel, with full U.S. government support, goes on oppressing the Palestinians, maintaining its illegal wall and building illegal settlements. That is what is really deepening divisions and preventing movement towards a lasting peace.