Listen: Threats fail to curb student boycotts of Israel

Students from a wide coalition at the University of Minnesota recently launched a divestment campaign to urge the administration to pull its investments in four companies that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

Meanwhile, funds for student activities at Vassar College were threatened by the college’s board of trustees if a boycott amendment was passed.

And in New York City, a major Zionist group is pushing local lawmakers to ban chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.

At the University of Minnesota, over the course of just several weeks, more than 500 student signatures were collected and more than 35 campus groups pledged their support for a divestment resolution to be submitted to the student government.

But on 8 March, student leaders voted to strike the planned presentation of the divestment resolution from the meeting agenda altogether. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UMN says the resolution “was neglected before a discussion even took place.”

Hours before the student government voted to reject consideration of the resolution, the university’s president, Eric Kaler, published an open letter to the campus community deriding the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the divestment resolution itself as “unfairly singling out one government and the citizens of the country in question.”

Kaler added that the global BDS movement “does not seem to distinguish between opposition to the policies of the government of Israel and opposition to the existence of Israel.”

It was revealed that more than 80 state legislators had earlier demanded that Kaler “publicly and resolutely oppose this resolution before this perilous vote is taken.” SJP says the politicians’ pressure was “an unprecedented reach into student affairs and discussion.”

Students say that Kaler took claims from Israel advocates at their word instead of doing a minimum of research into what the BDS campaign actually represents. SJP stated they are disappointed — but not surprised — by Kaler’s statement. “President Kaler fails to distinguish between the actual goals of our campaign and the false accusations that have been attributed to the larger BDS movement,” SJP remarks.

Rula Rashid, president of the SJP chapter at UMN, told The Electronic Intifada in a recent interview that “not one person” knew about the state lawmakers’ contact with the university’s president until much later — “not even the president of student government.”

She added that the president “has never [before] stepped foot into student government” affairs.

For Kaler to tell the students “essentially not to vote for [the resolution], that’s not okay,” Rashid said.

“Viewpoint discrimination”

Since the launch of the divestment campaign in February, SJP, faculty members at the University of Minnesota were the target of attacks. Anti-boycotters defaced campaign materials with swastikas and claimed that the campaign foments a hatred of Jewish people.

At the beginning of the month, Israel advocates on campus countered the divestment resolution with a resolution of their own, one that urged the student government to adopt the US State Department definition of anti-Semitism which conflates criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Jewish bigotry.

That definition is based on a “working definition” of anti-Semitism once considered by a European Union body but later dropped.

Rights group Palestine Legal said that “if adopted, the counter-resolution would likely result in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination against supporters of Palestinian rights” by, for example, prohibiting the Minnesota Student Association “from ‘facilitat[ing], promot[ing], or participat[ing] in any activities that directly or indirectly promote’ anti-Semitism as defined to include viewpoints critical of Israel.”

The counter-resolution was struck down along with the divestment resolution by the student government.

Rashid said that students are undeterred and are currently working on expanding their campaign. “What happened created a stronger solidarity on our campus,” she noted.

“I’m not sure if they knew this, but it fired us up even more. This is something that makes people want to speak out against it. If they think it’s over because they shut it down once in forum, they’re in for a surprise.”

The next student government forum will take place in April, and students say they will bring the divestment campaign back into discussion.

Listen to the full interview with Rula Rashid via the media player above.

Vassar College student funds threatened

In other news on campus divestment and intimidation of student activists, the student association at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, was recently threatened by the college’s board of trustees over a boycott campaign.

A resolution in favor of BDS passed on 6 March. But the board threatened to “remove” student control of approximately $900,000 in funds for student activities if an amendment strengthening the resolution was passed.

The resolution’s amendment would have prohibited Vassar funds from being used to purchase items from nearly a dozen US, Israeli and multinational corporations that profit from Israel’s human rights violations. The amendment failed to obtain a mandated two-thirds majority.

Radhika Sainath, staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Electronic Intifada that this is part of an uptick in efforts by outside political groups to stop BDS organizing on college campuses across the US.

“Vassar’s student government was told in no uncertain words that if they took a principled stance for human rights that they would lose nearly a million dollars,” Sainath said.

She added that a similar incident recently occurred at the Harvard Law School, when a law firm pulled $250,000 in student activities funds after the campus Palestine activism group backed a talk on the suppression of Palestine advocacy in the US.

Zionist group pushes to ban SJPs

Sainath also pointed out that in New York City, the Zionist Organization of America is currently pushing local legislators to investigate and possibly ban 23 separate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine at City University of New York (CUNY) campuses.

A leading right-wing Zionist organization, ZOA repeats spurious claims that Palestine solidarity organizing on campus and criticism of Israel is akin to “anti-Semitic hatred.”

Palestine activists and free speech advocates say that a key strategy of Israel lobby groups has been to urge university administrators to treat criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism as one and the same.

“Here in New York City, the ZOA seems to think that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to students supporting Palestinian rights at CUNY,” Sainath said.

ZOA is one of several pro-Israel groups funded in part by Republican party mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who recently pledged to pour tens of millions of dollars into Israel advocacy and anti-BDS initiatives on US campuses.

Adelson, along with a handful of other wealthy pro-Israel individuals and companies, is currently being sued by Palestinians for his role in financing Israeli war crimes.

ZOA’s allegations have prompted New York City council members to draft legislation in response. If passed, a law would “require CUNY officials to report all incidents of bias at its campuses to the council,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The CUNY administration says it will track claims of bigotry on its campuses.

In a letter to CUNY leadership, Jewish Voice for Peace urges administrators to “resist these attempts by the ZOA to shut down debate” and notes that SJP activists have been targets of harassment, intimidation, threats and racist slander by anti-Palestinian groups and individuals in incidents that have been neglected by the CUNY system.

Legal advocates and students say that such attacks on student organizing and attempts to legislate speech on college campuses are rising in response to the growing popularity of global Palestine solidarity activism and condemnation of Israel’s violations of human rights.

“What we’re seeing is that rather than allowing students to freely engage in debate and the democratic process,” Sainath remarked, “Israel’s staunchest supporters are throwing everything but the kitchen sink to stop it.”

In an effort to resist the current waves of anti-BDS legislation across the US, Palestine Legal, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Jewish Voice for Peace have launched Right to Boycott, an online resource for boycott activists.

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"Vassar’s student government was told in no uncertain words that if they took a principled stance for human rights that they would lose nearly a million dollars."

That is categorically untrue. They were not threatened. The college made clear that they were not going to support BDS. The proposed amendment would have gone beyond supporting the BDS movement to actually denying reimbursement to student organizations that bought products like Sabra hummus and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, and it would have bound the college, and possibly put at risk the college's federal funding, because the student government operates with the college's money. The student government was told that there was a POSSIBILITY that they could be defunded if they passed the amendment, and only if they passed the amendment. The threat had nothing to do with the BDS resolution itself.

You should issue a correction.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).