SUA Appeal Overturns 2014 Divestment Nullification

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About 70 people attended the SUA meeting on Nov. 18, when the divestment appeal was discussed. Photo by Calyse Tobias.
About 70 people attended the SUA meeting on Nov. 18, when the divestment appeal was discussed. Photo by Calyse Tobias.

With a 28-5-7 vote, the Student Union Assembly (SUA) approved Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) appeal of former SUA Chair Shaz Umer’s controversial decision to nullify a divestment resolution passed in May 2014. The University Socially Responsible Investment Resolution (USRIR), which calls for the UC to divest from companies “complicit in the severe violation of Palestinian human rights” is in effect as of SUA’s meeting on Nov. 18.

The decision took more than two hours of discussion and presentations from SJP and Slugs for Israel (SFI), including questions from students in the crowd of about 70. The appeal didn’t address opinions about divestment, but solely on due process and whether Umer’s action in 2014 was constitutional. During that meeting, USRIR passed, but under unclear and allegedly illegal suspension of bylaws.

In May 2014, when the resolution was one vote shy of passing the required two-third majority, a member motioned to suspend the bylaw to lower the approval to a simple majority. The motion to lower the threshold passed by exactly a two-thirds majority, allowing the resolution to be voted on again. The resolution, only needing a simple majority in the second vote, passed 22-14-1.

Two days after the resolution supposedly passed, Umer decided to review USRIR and the bylaw’s suspension after objection from pro-Israel student groups. This review carried on for 17 days, and Umer ruled that the incorrect bylaw had been suspended, rendering the resolution’s passage invalid.

SUA follows Robert’s Rules of Order, a notoriously complicated set of governing practices used to make decisions. The legality of motioning to suspend a bylaw and was one point of contest regarding Umer’s decision. SJP maintained that the resolution should be valid, according to the details of the bylaw.

Students for Justice in Palestine members Katherine Berjikian, Boian Boianov and Melissa Otero (left to right), present their appeal at the SUA meeting on Nov. 18. Photo by Calyse Tobias.
Students for Justice in Palestine members Katherine Berjikian, Boian Boianov and Melissa Otero (left to right), present their appeal at the SUA meeting on Nov. 18. Photo by Calyse Tobias.

SUA president Julie Foster said she felt both sides had the opportunity to voice their concerns in this week’s meeting, but either might feel like they hadn’t finished expressing their full thoughts.

“That’s the flaw of Robert’s Rules and parliamentary procedure,” Foster said. “They are designed for us to take action and not to have a facilitated discussion. SUA’s responsibility is to take action. People [were able to] voice their concerns at the senate meetings.”

After SJP presented the appeal last week, the decision was tabled to this week’s meeting. In the meantime SUA representatives discussed the appeal in their respective college senate meetings and SJP representatives attended some to answer questions. After the appeal passed, SJP members Camellia Boutros and Melissa Otero said despite people pushing the conversation toward divestment and away from the legality of Umer’s decision, there’s an overwhelming relief after the resolution’s passage.

“It’s really good SUA was so concerned about democratic process, because that’s really important and it’s important to know there is due process at this school,” Boutros said.

Five of the six elected SUA officers voted to pass the appeal.

During heated parts of the discussion, more than 20 students would be on stack to comment but when a motion was made it had to be voted on, and the stack discontinued. “Call to questions” were frequently made to claim repeated back-and-forth argument. SUA’s community agreements allow for “points of privilege” to include allowing people to educate others on using inclusive language or voicing that they were offended by certain arguments. Those take precedent over people on stack, and raise issues regarding personal concerns of members and attendees.

Stevenson representatives Kyra Brandt, Daniel Bernstein and Gema Rodriguez (left to right) were three of five votes opposing the appeal that reenacted the divestment resolution from 2014. Photo by Calyse Tobias.
Stevenson representatives Kyra Brandt, Daniel Bernstein and Gema Rodriguez (left to right) were three of five votes opposing the appeal that reenacted the divestment resolution from 2014. Photo by Calyse Tobias.

“As for the space, I feel like many students were incredibly silenced throughout the meeting last night, from all sides of the appeal,” said elected Stevenson College representative Daniel Bernstein in an email. “The use of the ‘call to question’ was taken advantage of and utilized as a means to cease conversation on important issues.”

Fellow Stevenson College representative Gema Rodriguez said she believes divestment isn’t even a resolution SUA should consider.

“My understanding of the SUA is that we are a body of students elected to represent our college and eventually the student body as a whole,” Rodriguez said in an email. “I believe that by voting in the matter of divestment we are neglecting and oppressing bodies, because there will never be a situation in which both parties are satisfied when it comes to a yes/no vote.”

In the beginning of its presentation, SFI suggested the idea of a neutral, third-party judiciary committee to review the appeal. Foster said creating the committee would be a long process, since it would require the creation of a new bylaw, but also that even a third-party committee might struggle to remain neutral.

During SFI and SJP’s presentations, both organizations said they would feel unsafe if the vote did not go in their favor. SFI pointed to anti-Semitic incidents on campus and UC-wide, and said at universities where BDS [boycott, divestment and sanction] resolutions have passed, Jewish students have felt more unsafe. SJP discussed incidents at events on campus last year, like its mock Israeli military checkpoints around campus, where they said its members were threatened.

In a letter from Chancellor George Blumenthal dated May 20, 2014, he wrote that USRIR “may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.” The letter, which was part of SFI’s presentation, marked another controversial point of the meeting since some SUA members who were on the assembly two years ago said they had never seen it. Scott Hernandez-Jason, UCSC’s news and media director, confirmed the letter’s validity after the meeting.

During the meeting SJP member Boian Boianov said the reason the appeal is so controversial is because it makes powerful people, like administrators and regents, feel uncomfortable.

“If you would have voted for this appeal if it was anything else besides divestment, you’re doing the same thing [former SUA Chair Shaz Umer] did,” SJP member Katherine Berjikian said in the meeting. “You’re saying that there are two sets of bylaws and two sets of rules — one for controversial things and one for non controversial things. You’re saying that the SUA bylaws exists vaguely and only for things that don’t matter. This really does matter.”

Stevenson College SUA representatives said they will discuss their next steps during their senate meeting this week. Their main option to overturn this decision would be to propose a new resolution that nullifies USRIR, which would have to pass through SUA.