Petition, potential ASSU bill spark divestment debate

May 7, 2010, 1:08 a.m.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the Daily incorrectly reported the vote count on the 2007 ASSU divestment bill as five votes against, three in favor, and five abstentions. In fact, five Senators voted in favor, three against, and five abstained. The bill did not pass because it did not win the necessary two-thirds majority vote.

A years-old debate is rising again regarding student efforts to lobby the University to divest from companies thought to be contributing to human rights violations in Israel.

Students supporting divestment and students proposing investment in human aid projects in the region have organized campaigns whose public presence has grown visibly over the last week, fueled by a potential ASSU bill and a flyer campaign. The debate recalls past battles over divestment at Stanford — one decades ago against apartheid in South Africa and another three years ago, when the Undergraduate Senate voted on but failed to pass a bill asking the University trustees to reevaluate Stanford’s investment choices.

Senate Dissolution Postponed

On Tuesday, the Senate voted down a bill that would dissolve the current Senate on May 11 to make way for the senators-elect, effectively postponing the transfer of office until the eighth week of the quarter, two weeks behind schedule.

Although senators cited reasons such as finalization of appropriations transfers, a green events checklist and an ethics bills as rationales for postponing the switch, Senator Mohammad Ali ’10 called the postponement mere “political theater” and said the real reason for waiting was to avoid letting the new Senate vote on a potential divestment bill.

As dictated by its bylaws, the Senate is required to wait a week before passing new legislation, and since the Senate is not required to meet past the ninth week of the quarter, the postponement of dissolution bars the incoming Senate from passing any legislation before the end of the academic year.

Although no divestment bill has actually been authored, organizers of Campaign Restore Hope (CRH), a campaign for divestment from four specific companies in the region, have made their intentions clear by distributing petitions to many dorms on campus.

The petition asked students to write a sentence of support for the initiative and to deliver the petition to their “dorm representative or RA.” Its listed goals included “[passing] an ASSU bill urging our University to disinvest from these companies.” The petition also lists four specific companies — two Israeli, one Egyptian and one Palestinian, according to Fadi Quran ‘10, a CRH organizer.

Quran said CRH hopes to introduce a bill to the incoming Senate. He characterized the senators-elect as more likely to pass the bill than the current Senate, calling current senators “more isolationist,” or more likely to deal strictly with campus issues.

“I think most of the incoming senators truly care about human rights issues, and I think they’ll probably support the bill,” Quran said.

Ali, also an organizer for CRH, said the Senate may also want to delay legislation until next year because many of the original organizers of the 2007 divestment bill will then have graduated. He expressed concern about the connection between postponing dissolution and a pending bill.

“Connecting a potential divestment bill with postponing the Senate dissolution is unethical,” Ali said. “Making the incoming senators wait to start their term denies them experience and is putting them at a severe disadvantage.”

Two Campaigns Develop

After the Senate’s decision on Tuesday not to dissolve on May 11, it remains unclear if CRH will continue to press for a Senate bill encouraging the University to reevaluate its investments.

“We haven’t made our final decision yet,” Quran said on Thursday. “The most important thing in the next four weeks is educating the campus on our goals and proposed solutions.”

In the meantime, Invest for Peace (IFP), a student coalition with ties to Stanford Israel Alliance (SIA), has begun a campaign to encourage students to support on-the-ground relief in the region. IFP created a blog and a Facebook page earlier this week. CRH has a similar Web presence.

CRH’s goals, as explained on its website and petitions, include three efforts: educating the University on the issue to increase dialogue, ensuring the University is not aiding companies that are committing human rights violations and developing “new creative ways to help end this conflict.”

In addition to distributing petitions to residences earlier this week, CRH held a teach-in on Thursday evening in Toyon Hall — part of the coalition’s education-outreach effort.

CRH has also expressed plans to present a research document to Stanford’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility (APIR), a board that advises the University trustees on investment choices.

On Monday, Quran said CRH planned to present a document sometime “in the next one or two weeks” with research information about companies that potentially were violating human rights. He said on Thursday, however, that CRH’s plans have been changing rapidly in the past week as the situation evolves.

CRH is also expanding the number of companies it is researching beyond the four specified in the petition.

Ali said on Monday that CRH was “more hopeful” about making progress with APIR, and called the possibility of a Senate bill passage a more “symbolic” action.

IFP’s goals also include educating the University on the subject, as well as channeling discussion “toward effective action” and inspiring students to support on-the-ground efforts in the area. IFP is co-sponsoring Challah for Hunger this week, and its next goal is to raise $1,000 by next week for relief efforts.

IFP organizer Yishai Kabaker ’10 said IFP works to “guide people to donate for the cause,” characterizing the campaign as “grassroots.”

“We don’t think we need to go through the ASSU,” he said.

IFP expressed concern with CRH’s petition, saying the research points for some of the companies were not properly substantiated through the citations provided.

Kabaker said while IFP supports CRH’s efforts to increase dialogue and awareness of the issue, “IFP is fundamentally opposed to divestment, which is part of Campaign Restore Hope’s goals.”

Quran, however, called any official action to disinvest from possible human rights violations “may be just symbolic, but still important.”

“If you can give 50,000 students hope, that’s a miracle,” he said. “The only thing [CRH cares] about is ending human rights violations.”

Divestment and Universities Collide

It’s not a new phenomenon for universities to take a stance on international issues through divestment. In 1977, Stanford divested from companies in South Africa in a show of solidarity against apartheid, and again in 2005 from companies invested in Sudan.

In 2007, a divestment bill pushed by Omar Shakir ’07, then president of Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel (SCAI), made it to a vote in the Senate, but failed to pass. Five senators voted in favor, three voted against and five abstained from voting on a bill that encouraged the University trustees to reevaluate Stanford’s investment choices in Israel. The bill did not pass because it did not gain the necessary two-thirds majority vote.

“[The 2007 divestment bill] effectively dominated Senate discussion for four or five weeks and put any other agenda on hold,” said Senate Parliamentarian Alex Katz ’12.

In April, UC-Berkeley’s student government also voted on a bill urging the school to divest from two contractors with the Israeli military. The debate sparked intense debate on the campus and attracted media attention nationwide. The student senate voted 16-4 in favor of the bill.

“Berkeley’s [pro-divestment] campaign had good goals in mind but didn’t consider how emotional the subject is, which made the situation worse,” Quran said, noting that CRH hopes to make discussion of the issue more “comfortable” with the campaign’s approach.

One senator-elect, Rebecca Sachs ’13, said she did not think a divestment bill in the Undergraduate Senate would meet support — “not after the way it met such resistance at Berkeley.”

“I’m incredibly disturbed and scared that it’s coming up again,” she said. “It’s such a divisive issue on campus.”

Current senators differ on whether or not divestment is an issue that the Senate should consider at all.

“Senate has no mandate to legislate on this issue,” said Senate Chair Varun Sivaram ’11. “It’s not a campus issue, and there’s no clear campus sentiment. The incoming Senate is 14 new freshman senators who campaigned on campus issue advocacy. There’s no significance to passing the bill.”

But Ali stressed that a bill’s passage could have symbolic significance that should not be ignored.

“This has been done before, with South Africa and Sudan,” he said. “The students have a voice — and we’re the most likely group to alter the status quo.”

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, weighed in on the issue, saying he found the issue of divestment an “inappropriate” issue for student government.

“It’s extremely divisive,” he said. “It’s hurtful to one community either way.”

He doubted the University would take action even if a bill passed the Senate.

“I don’t think the University will agree to divest — look at what happened at Cal,” he said. “The University has made it clear that divestment would only happen rarely and in response to a clear impetus. It might happen, but in this case, I can’t see that it would.”

After the senators-elect were chosen in April, Diamond took them to dinner, during which he discussed the issue of divestment and put forth an argument that divestment was an inappropriate strategy in Israel.

“I presented to them thoughts on divestment and provided a historical perspective,” Diamond said. He held a similar dinner with senators this time last year.

“The dinner covered how divestment was a compelling and appropriate strategy for apartheid in South Africa, but I believe it should be a rare strategy in this type of situation,” Diamond said. “It’s certainly not a one-sided and uncomplicated defense of Israel.”

Contact Ellen Huet at [email protected].

Ellen Huet is currently a senior staff writer at The Daily; she joined the staff in fall 2008 and served one volume as managing news editor in fall and early winter of 2010-2011. Reach her at ehuet at stanford dot edu. Fan mail and sternly worded complaints are equally welcome.

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