Lessons from Irvine: Student Government Matters

Influence elicits change. Israel activists on some campuses know that strong relationships with student government can be productive, while others have learned the hard way that weak or non-existent partnerships can prove hazardous to the campus climate.

Last month, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) became the first California school to pass a resolution calling to divest from Israel when its student government voted unanimously to request pulling funds from several companies that conduct business with Israel (the university administration has shown no indication that it will follow suit).

The Associated Students voted to call on university officials to support withdrawing investments from Caterpillar, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Cement Roadstone Holdings, Cemex, Sodastream and Raytheon. The resolution also called for divesting from companies that do business with other conflict-ridden countries.

Lessons Learned, Results Delivered

Several years ago, the student government at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) sponsored a screening of an incendiary film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Occupation 101. UIC Hillel Director Marla Baker recounted that pro-Israel students at the urban campus were taken by surprise — and they resolved to take a pro-active approach to student government.

While the event ultimately resulted in positive dialogue, it highlighted the price pro-Israel students pay when they are under-represented in student government. Without effort from pro-Israel students to educate student senators and form relationships — or to serve on student government themselves — there is no reason to expect student government to support Israel.

“You can’t expect people to rally at your side without these relationships,” said Baker, adding that students have made greater effort since the Occupation 101 experience.

The importance of relationships was underscored for UIC’s pro-Israel community again this year, when a BDS campaign targeted hundreds of faculty, asking them to sign a petition.

While scenarios and leadership may change, the need for pro-Israel representation on campus only grows over time. UIC senior Katie Matanky coordinated an effort to reach out to the faculty members who had been asked to sign the BDS petition, passing along information demonstrating that BDS will not bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any closer to a solution.

While Matanky began by targeting faculty, she recognized the importance of communicating with student leaders on campus.

“In creating and maintaining bonds with student leaders on campus, we can spread Israel education to people who generally would not receive it,” she said.

Matanky added that relationships between student senators and the pro-Israel community allow advocates like herself to have an influential voice regarding anti-Israel campaigns, including petition drives, proposed legislation and other tactics. In order to form long-lasting relationships, she stressed the importance of relating Israeli ideals to the lives of students.

“What while we have a new Students for Israel group,” Matanky concluded, “the connections we make with other student groups who non-verbally support Israel are often through shared values and experiences as opposed to explicit political view.”

UCI Israel activists have criticized the resolution, which they say came without anybody notifying them or alerting them that such a resolution would be discussed at the Nov. 13 Associated Students meeting. Daniel Narvy, the president of UCI’s Movement for Peace in the Middle East, said that the vote might have been unanimous only because all of the voting members who were present all were supporters of the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions movement.

“The vote passed unanimously because only students endorsing the bill were in the room when it was voted on,” Narvy said. “The agenda for the legislation was never published publicly, thus, no one from the pro-Israel or Jewish community was able to know the vote was coming.”

Pro-Israel groups at UCI did not have pre-existing relationships with members of student government. At other schools, well-developed ties have been more successful in the political arena.

With the leadership of a pro-Israel senator and careful use of some political clout, members of the Stanford student senate defeated a bill vilifying Israel last spring. By endorsing candidates running for student government and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships, pro-Israel students there were able to alter the campus climate.

“It’s one thing to mobilize students on campus but it’s another thing to mobilize people who actually have a pragmatic role in effecting change and that is where student senate comes in,” said sophomore and Jewish Student Association Israel academic chair Ariella Axler.

Students at Arizona State University took a different approach. The proposal of a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) bill in the student senate last spring prompted ASU’s Sun Devils for Israel (SDI) to take action both on campus and off. While the bill never went through the proper legislative process, the university’s pro-Israel community enlisted support from members of student government as well as US Senators John McCain and John Kyl.

SDI members viewed widespread support, especially from members of student government, as a valuable educational opportunity.

“It is extremely important to have a pro-Israel presence within the student government in order to make sure there are people standing up for Israel,” said SDI President Melissa Rauch. “It also sets up an opportunity to have more people become informed about Israel and why it’s such an important country to sustain a relation with.”

Rauch found that engaging student leaders is more rewarding and beneficial in the long term than responding to individual instances of anti-Israel sentiment.

UCI’s Narvy said that pro-Israel students at his school intend to take a proactive interest in student government meetings in order to prevent future anti-Israel activity in that setting.

“I would recommend that students who have legislative councils that may endorse BDS have at least one student attend all legislative meetings to prevent a surprise vote,” he said.

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