A BDS initiative in California

Activists in California are organizing for a ballot initiative that would require the state's massive retirement funds to divest from Israel.

California activists have launched a "Divest from Israel" ballot initiative to require the state's huge retirement funds for public employees and teachers to divest from "corporations providing equipment and services to Israel that are used in the violation of human rights and international law, including but not limited to the building of the 'Separation Wall' and settlements."

Chris Yatooma, a part of the organizing effort, spoke with Kitty Lui about the initiative.

Solidarity activists hold a press conference in California calling for the state to divest from Israeli apartheidSolidarity activists hold a press conference in California calling for the state to divest from Israeli apartheid

THIS IS the first ballot measure in the U.S. to require a state agency to divest from Israel and companies that do business with Israel. How did this initiative come about?

THE ISRAEL Divestment Campaign (IDC) is not formally a part of the global BDS campaign, but those of us working on the campaign drew our inspiration and guidance from the BDS movement. We decided on an initiative in California because of its political demographics--large, liberal, progressive communities, and large Arab and Muslim communities, all of which provide the necessary foundation to support such an effort.

THE INITIATIVE specifically calls for the divestment of California's public employee and teacher pension funds from Israel. How much of these pension funds is currently invested in Israel, and what are some of the companies that are targeted for divestment?

WE DON'T have an exhaustive list of all assets held by these two pension funds. However, we have identified over $2 billion in assets held by companies that either supply settlement equipment or military equipment to Israel.

Caterpillar, Motorola, Northrop Grumman and General Electric are some of the larger holdings in the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) and California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) portfolios.

THE BDS campaign is employing strategies used successfully by the global movement against South African apartheid, and the California initiative has been endorsed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leader of the movement to end South African apartheid. In your opinion, what lessons from that movement are relevant today?

THE FIRST lesson is that peaceful, nonviolent economic boycotts can change government policies. South Africa taught us that.

Second, boycotts and divestments take time. Recall that Black South African leaders started asking the international community to join boycotts of South African apartheid in the 1950s, and that worldwide divestment and boycotts culminated some 30 years later in the 1980s.

A similar call from Palestinian leaders occurred a mere five years ago, so the South African experience must teach us, as hard as it is, to stay patient and to persist.

WHAT IMPACT did the massacre committed against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, during which Israeli soldiers murdered nine activists, have on the BDS campaign?

ISRAEL'S DECEMBER 2008 Gaza massacre and the 2010 attack on the freedom flotilla have played a tremendous role in awakening Americans to the plight of the Palestinians.

Many of our petition circulators, especially the ones who have been surrounded by this issue all their lives, have commented about how much more empathy and understanding the general public seems to have about the level and severity of the human and civil rights abuses heaped on Palestinians, and have been much more willing to engage circulators on the subject and sign the petition.

WHICH ORGANIZATIONS and activists have endorsed the California initiative? How many signatures have organizers collected so far?

FOR A complete list of all the organizations and individuals who have signed the petition, please see our Web site, IsraelDivestmentCampaign.org.

Two and half months into the campaign, we don't have a realistic count of the signatures gathered. In early December, we plan to hold a statewide conference call with our county and regional coordinators to see how many signatures we have gathered at that point. Still, because most of the petitions are being circulated via the Web site and e-mail attachments, we won't have a good grasp of the numbers until mid-January.