Did Hillel board member inappropriately advise Stanford on divestment request?

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine at Stanford say board member of pro-Israel group should not have advised the university on their divestment request. (via Stanford SJP)

A board member of an Israel-aligned group played a key role in discussions which led administrators at California’s Stanford University to reject calls for the college to divest from firms which abet the oppression of Palestinians.

This week, the Students for Justice in Palestine group at Stanford learned that Susan Weinstein, chairperson of the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL) — which evaluated the request to pull university investments in US companies that profit from violations of Palestinians’ rights — was, until late January, concurrently serving as a director on the board of Stanford’s Hillel chapter.

Hillel, a national network of campus centers for Jewish students, staunchly opposes the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and works to silence critics of Israeli policies in Palestine.

Stanford SJP member Sid Patel told The Electronic Intifada on Monday that the group has demanded a new review of the divestment request. The university’s handling of SJP’s push for divestment, he said, “is practically farcical.”

Stanford SJP initiated the divestment request to the university administration in April 2014. In February this year, the Stanford student senate passed a separate divestment resolution.

“University administrations are both blundering and actively manipulating their processes to silence criticism of Israel — and at the same time, the support for that criticism is growing and they can’t shake that,” Patel remarked.

SJP, he said, has built “a tremendous coalition of student groups and student communities who support this divestment request.”

Last week, the Stanford University Board of Trustees stated it “will not be taking action” on SJP’s request to divest the university’s holdings in US companies which profit from Israel’s occupation, “nor will it consider this request further.”

The board’s statement, Stanford SJP notes, “echoes the cautions about ‘divisiveness’ and ‘complexity’ in the positions of the Coalition for Peace (CFP), the main student organization opposed to divestment.”

“Stanford Hillel supported the CFP financially and organizationally,” SJP adds.


Patel said the board’s dismissal of the divestment request constitutes “a betrayal” of intellectual examination “and cowardice totally unbefitting to a university.”

Documents from Stanford University confirm that Weinstein was a member of APIRL at least since the 2010-2011 school year. In an email message seen by The Electronic Intifada, Weinstein told SJP members that she resigned from the Hillel board on 26 January this year.

This means that she served both groups for nine months after SJP initiated its request for divestment in April 2014.

“You have to think that they know that Hillel is organizationally opposed to divestment, and to have [a Hillel board member] chairing the committee that’s hearing our request … it looks so wrong,” Patel said.

He added that several SJP members met with Weinstein and a university official to discuss their concerns. “In that meeting,” Patel said, the official admitted to the SJP members, “ ‘you’re right, this has the appearance of impropriety.’”

Weinstein did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment.

Smearing students of color

Meanwhile, the Stanford Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) has been refuting “baseless accusations” of anti-Semitism leveled by a student senate candidate who sought endorsement from SOCC in a recent election.

Molly Horwitz claimed that she was subjected to questioning during her SOCC endorsement interview in mid-March that singled out her Jewish identity. Horwitz has alleged that a SOCC interviewer asked her, “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?”

There was no corroboration to back up her claim, although mainstream media outlets published Horwitz’s allegations without substantive evidence.

SOCC maintains that no interviewer asked her that question.

The media storm around SOCC’s endorsement process aligns with national efforts by anti-Palestinian groups attempting to conflate support for Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism.

Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (PSLS), says that out of 240 reports of incidents of repression and requests for legal advice, which they collected in 2014 alone, “virtually all of these cases resulted from unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism and unrelenting pressure from Israel advocacy groups to censor and punish those organizing and engaging in speech activities advocating for Palestinian rights.”

PSLS adds that they have taken 135 new cases in 2015, including both incidents of repression and requests for legal advice — more than fifty of which are in California alone.

In a report in The Stanford Review, unnamed “multiple sources” claimed that SOCC forced its endorsed candidates to sign contracts “barring them from associating with specific student groups and campus communities” including Jewish groups.

SOCC says that such rumors are “categorically false.”

In an update to its article, the Review admitted that there is “no mention of Jewish groups” in SOCC’s contract.

“False equivalency”

The Anti-Defamation League, a leading Israel lobby organization, immediately condemned SOCC and pointed to growing support for divestment initiatives on campus as a reason for the “flourishing” of “anti-Semitism.”

In a letter to the associate dean, the ADL claims that “BDS resolutions foster divisiveness in the campus community and create an atmosphere in which anti-Semitic expression may flourish.”

Jewish students in support of divestment wrote an opinion piece for The Stanford Daily, another campus newspaper, “rejecting the false equivalency” between anti-Semitism and support for Palestinian rights.

“The subtext is clear: We cannot discuss divestment from the occupation of Palestine on campus without eventual accusations of anti-Semitism, whether that discussion is in an endorsement interview, in a dormitory or in the undergraduate senate,” write Stanford students Melanie Malinas and Emma Hartung.

“As Jews supportive of divestment, we challenge the notion that the discussion of divestment is inherently anti-Semitic or necessarily leads to anti-Semitic acts,” they add. “It is the silencing of open discussion on Israel/Palestine within and outside of the Jewish community by mainstream Israel advocacy organizations such as Hillel and the ADL, as well as by individual students, that is truly discriminatory.”

In a strong statement posted Friday night on their website, SOCC again refuted Horwitz’s claims.

“The claims made by Molly Horwitz regarding her SOCC interview are baseless and refuted by the documentation and testimony of the nine other students present at her interview, who represent the leadership of the Black, Asian, Muslim, Native and Latino communities on campus,” the statement adds.

SOCC writes that Horwitz “falsely alleged that her Jewish heritage played a role in her not receiving a SOCC endorsement, a notion which, if true, would fundamentally violate SOCC’s values of diversity and cultural celebration.”

The group’s decision not to endorse Horwitz stemmed from her “lack of familiarity with SOCC communities,” SOCC adds. It says that out of the six student organizations that comprise SOCC, Horwitz could not identify a single group.

Singled out for vilification

Maria Diaz-Gonzalez, a member of Stanford’s chapter of MEChA — the national Chican@/Latin@ student organization and a coalition partner of SOCC — told The Electronic Intifada on Monday that as an endorsing body, SOCC is a powerful coalition on campus.

Even amid the slew of false allegations against it, most of SOCC’s endorsed candidates were elected to the student government.

However, SOCC has historically been vilified, especially by The Stanford Review, she said.

“Every year, SOCC is singled out as an endorsing body that receives a lot of criticism and attacks by campus publications and otherwise,” Diaz-Gonzalez explained.

Whether campaigning on national and international issues of race or human rights, she said that the university itself has a history of asking SOCC constituents “for dialogue or for civility as a way to silence us when we’re trying to bring these difficult issues to the table.”

Calls by university officials for “civility” have become tools to crush academic inquiry and debate on campuses — especially around criticism of Israel.

SJP’s Sid Patel remarked that “Stanford peddles its diversity to the world while taking a hostile attitude toward [students of color] on campus.”

Speaking “truth to power”

Diaz-Gonzalez said that following initial reports in the Review condemning SOCC and repeating Horwitz’s claims, “I was surprised and pretty disappointed that more reputable sources” — like The New York Times, for example — “would follow in the Review’s footsteps, taking these very serious unsubstantiated claims that affected our groups and our community and running with them.”

Diaz-Gonzalez said that because of the growing support around the US by students in favor of divestment campaigns, it is not surprising that anti-Palestinian organizations are targeting student governments.

Because SOCC’s constituent groups were supportive of the divestment push on Stanford’s campus — and the growing alliances that students of color in the US have with Palestine solidarity campaigns — Diaz-Gonzalez said that “we’re all being put into this uncomfortable position of being labeled ‘racist’ for speaking truth to power.”

“At the same time,” she continued, “I do not believe that this delegitimizes our efforts or our organizations at all. We expect the response that comes when people speak truth to power and when we stand in solidarity with peoples who are oppressed — peoples who mainstream media, and more powerful nations like Israel and the US, do not want to listen to.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Palestine Solidarity Legal Support had taken eighty new cases in 2015. That number has been updated to 135.

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