SGA legislators vote against divestment bill after hours of debate

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A student addresses SGA legislators from the podium while hundreds look on from their seats and others wait in line to speak. Elana Morris/Mitzpeh.

By Elana Morris
For Mitzpeh
@Mitzpeh

This university’s Student Government Association voted against a bill to divest from certain Israeli companies in a 9-25 vote with two abstentions Wednesday night.

Though the bill did not explicitly align itself with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, it advocated to disassociate from Israeli companies and business negotiations and has been connected with the broader movement known as BDS.

The session started at around 6 p.m. in the Colony Ballroom at the Stamp Student Union, but the vote occurred much later, near 11 p.m. Around 400 students showed up to the event, packing into the ballroom and converging in groups largely separated by the clothing they wore: tzitzit peeking out from t-shirts, prayer-scarves and tops emblazoned with the name of the school, sometimes in Hebrew.

BDS is a movement which aims to suspend negotiations with Israeli companies and organizations in the interest of standing against the displacement and occupation of Palestinians, along with human rights abuses.

However, many Jews and Israelis worry that the BDS campaign has encouraged anti-Semitism through anti-Israel sentiment.  Throughout Israel’s existence, American and Israeli Jews have speculated on the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.  It is a correlation with a long and fraught history.

Omar Barghouti, BDS’s founder, cuts a controversial profile in this history.  Barghouti lives in Israel permanently, and has publicly rejected the concept of Jewish sovereignty.  The U.S. government recently prevented him from entering the US on a book tour, the reasons for which are unclear.  

Over the last few years, the BDS movement has gained traction on college campuses throughout the country. The Israel-Palestine debate remains a flashpoint in the conversation on anti-Semitism and the increase of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. (anti-Semitic hate-crimes rose 37% in 2017 according to an FBI report).  In colleges particularly, the issue has become increasingly divisive.  

The SGA bill, known colloquially as DivestUMD, proposed that this university divest from companies which do business with Israel. It compared Israel to Apartheid South Africa and claimed solidarity with three other Big Ten schools whose Student Governments have passed BDS resolutions: Northwestern University, the University of Michigan and Rutgers University. None of these universities’ administrations have taken any actions suggested by the resolutions.

Jewish organizations on and off campus have criticized this university for holding the vote during Passover, preventing some Jewish students who go home during the holiday from attending the session.

But there was no shortage of representatives from all walks of campus who attended the session. The holiday was only mentioned a handful of times, falling to the wayside as the discourse bled into its fourth and fifth hour.

Senior archeology major Lamees Alkibsi came to support the pro-BDS side, but she emphasized that she was unaffiliated with any organization.

“Even though I’m pro-BDS and pro-Palestinian rights, I’m here to see the opposition side, because I’m more surprised as to why they’re against this bill,” she said.  “I understand BDS is an international campaign, and it can go from both sides of extreme.”

Alkibsi emphasized that she felt the bill wasn’t necessarily partisan. “I feel like our bill is very specific to organizations,” she said.  “It doesn’t bring up Israelis, it doesn’t bring up the political divide… it’s just the organizations that are directly profiting from human rights violations.”

Junior special education major Mia Kaufman attended to voice her dissent of the bill.

“The resolution that’s proposed has a lot of anti-Semitic implications,” she said. “Like on other campuses when it’s passed… it’s led to increased amounts of anti-Semitism.”

In January 2015, two days after a divestment bill was passed, swastikas were found painted on the building of a frat house at UC Davis. Students mentioned the incident several times during the session.  

Before the session began, a group of young Jewish men—and a few women—stood facing the wall of the ballroom, murmuring in hushed voices and praying with knees bent.

Minutes later, a different group, some of them sporting head scarves, gathered into four rows on the opposite side of the room and knelt down as a man in a red-and-white button-down shirt led them in prayer.

The session began with two hours of a town hall-style forum, during which undergraduate students had two minutes to give statements for or against the vote. At about 8 p.m., their time to speak was reduced to one minute each because there were still many students in line who hadn’t spoken.  This section was followed by an hour of debate among the SGA representatives themselves.

The speaker of the SGA legislature, Noah Eckman, urged students to be respectful, orderly and civil during the session.  He invited any students at this university who would like to voice their concerns up to the podium. What looked to be about a third of the student body rose, accompanied by the sound of multiple gasps, and swept into a line which snaked around the room. The students walked to the podium one by one, stated their name, major, year and place of residence, and launched into impassioned speeches.

Those speaking against the bill invoked personal family stories, spoke on the importance of diverse political discourse and espoused the practice of having discussions which hinge on complex, multi-sided narratives, rather than simplistic explanations.  Many students who spoke had spent some time in Israel or lived there. They reflected on the experience of bomb threats, life in the West Bank and candid conversations with fellow Jews, Palestinians and Israelis. Some criticized the wording of the SGA bill, or critiqued specific items in its text which they said made claims lacking evidence or nuance.

Freshman psychology and economics major Jacob Glassman spoke first on the bill.

“This bill does not contain a single source supporting its claims regarding specific human rights violations in Palestine,” he said.  “However, to allege that entities have committed gross human rights violations without evidencing those claims within the bill is not only irresponsible, but also slanderous and reprehensible. This bill would not be acceptable to submit to any class in this university.”

Senior studio art major Sarah-Leah Thompson attended the session to voice her concern over the bill. She is a resident of California and said she decided to come to Maryland to avoid the presence of BDS on UC campuses where, she said, “there’s just a lot of activity that makes Jewish students feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.”

Sophomore communications major Noa Rossberg echoed Thompson’s sentiments.

“I feel that BDS is blatant discrimination,” she said. “And that is not how you solve discourse; that is how you fuel the fire.”

Those in support of the bill spoke on the importance of human rights issues, intersectionality, and taking a stand against neutrality. Many of them were Palestinian. A few mentioned the experiences of their parents, families or friends, and many compared the modern state of Israel with the South African apartheid state. A handful compared the values of Black Lives Matter to those proposed by the bill. Most vehemently denied that BDS is an inherently anti-Semitic movement.

Senior sociology major Devorah Stavisky, a Jewish student and participant in Jewish life on campus, spoke in support of the bill.

“I believe that this resolution is not an immediate threat to the state of Israel,” she said. “I want to state that I am not in agreement with all of the ultimate goals and strategies of the wider BDS movement, and I recognize the truth in many students feeling that this bill threatens their identity as a Jew.  But that truth is not my truth.”

Sophomore Shiv Shukla also came in support of the bill. He said he wanted this university to divest “from these companies that are profiting off of human rights violations of Palestine and Yemen and many other countries around the world.” Shukla said he’s been involved in the movement for a couple months, and wasn’t aware of it before taking a class about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

As the night dragged on, seats began to empty as students left the ballroom. Elana Morris/Mitzpeh.

A rigorous debate among the SGA legislators followed the student testimonies. Each side was given 30 minutes to debate; one member moved to shorten the debate to 50 minutes, which would have been 25 minutes per side, but the motion was denied.

SGA Off-Campus Neighboring Representative Jinwook Hwang took a moment to read a few of the emails that he had received from constituents urging the SGA to vote for either side of the bill.

“Why did we get this many emails calling for us to vote no, even more overwhelmingly so than the ones calling for us to vote yes?” he asked. “There were about 430 students… in the off-campus neighboring district calling to vote against the bill. That is more off-campus neighboring students than those who voted in the election: why?”

Hwang suggested that the BDS movement inherently alienates Jewish students, and in voting for it, the university would “lose the image of the inclusive campus.”  Hwang encouraged the committee to vote “no” against the bill.

“Why are we even considering this bill?” he asked the committee and attendees.  “Make no mistake… the bill has connections to the BDS movement, the founder and strong advocate of which has been criticized in the past for calling for an end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state…. This bill shuts down all dialogues.”

SGA Public Policy Representative Maleeha Coleburn took a strong stance on the other side of the issue.

“The worth of the human person should be valued over the monetary profits gained from interacting with such companies,” she said. “This bill is about human rights, it is about being on the right side of justice, it is about advocating for the marginalized people in Palestine. It’s not about attacking Israel, it’s not about attacking Jewish people or saying that Israel is not a legitimate state….”

Coleburn attempted to frame the bill in a more universal light. “I want you to take Jewish people out of the equation,” she said.  “If this bill was about defending the people in Myanmar or Syria… would you not support this bill?”

Agriculture representative David Stein presented a contrasting perspective, claiming that the bill could not be contextualized within the framework of wide-scale human-rights violations.

“This is not a vote on whether you are for or against human rights violations,” he said.  “Those who oppose this bill proudly stand against human rights violations no matter where in the world they occur. We oppose this bill because of the movement this bill is so directly connected to. This is a BDS bill, even if it is not calling for the sanctions or for the boycott… it cannot technically [boycott] under these bylaws… voting for this bill is voting to support the BDS movement- and all it represents.”

Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences Representative David Rekhtman took a more numerical approach to defending the side against the bill.

“As the CMNS rep, I feel responsible for advocating for numbers,” he said. “In terms of the people who spoke earlier, there were 55 people who were for this bill, and 74 who were against- plus or minus two… I needed to go to the bathroom.”

As the debate drew to a close, there was a motion to increase the time; it was enthusiastically denied.

At nearly half past 11 p.m., the SGA members finally ended their debate and took a vote by roll call.  A rustle was heard throughout the room among those who were still present. The SGA legislators officially rejected the bill. After the vote was decided, a minor chorus of coughs broke out, held in during the tense moment of decision.

After the bill was shot down, Shukla said he remained hopeful.

“We were happy that we got nine votes in favor,” he said. “That’s definitely progress. I think …. more legislators will come to our side and realize this might be the right thing to do, and hopefully it passes in the coming years.”

Mitzpeh attempted to speak with more representatives of the pro-BDS group, but encountered difficulty. Most were unwilling to give a statement or pointed towards peers who were similarly hesitant.

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