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March 12, 2018 5:02 pm

University of Minnesota Students Narrowly Pass Pro-BDS Referendum That ‘Fuels Discrimination’ Against Jewish Peers

avatar by Shiri Moshe

The University of Minnesota campus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

University of Minnesota students have narrowly approved a divestment referendum targeting Israel, which has been condemned for exacerbating divisions on campus, the school elections commission announced on Sunday.

The non-binding measure — proposed by Students for Justice in Palestine — passed by 217 votes, with 3,392 students in favor and 3,175 against.

It urged the Board of Regents to divest from companies including G4S, Raytheon, Elbit Systems, and Boeing, claiming they are “1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, 2) maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers, or 3) violating Indigenous sovereignty.”

SJP’s campaign to promote the referendum, UMN Divest, received support from student groups including the Queer Student Cultural Center, La Raza Student Cultural Center, Asian-American Student Union, and Black Student Union.

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The campaign tied divestment from Israel to a number of demands, including the abolition of the UMN Police Department and an end to public surveillance.

Benjie Kaplan — executive director of UMN Hillel — said that Jewish students became aware that the referendum would appear on the ballot on March 2, and then quickly organized a social media and “get out the vote” campaign in opposition.

“Unfortunately, throughout the past week, we have seen the harmful effects that BDS can have on campus climate,” he wrote following the referendum’s passage. “Several students were repeatedly subjected to hateful comments and vitriol that have no place at the U or any university.”

Leeore Levinstein — president of Minnesota Hillel — similarly told the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper last week that the referendum “has bred discrimination and silencing of the Jewish community.”

“The community I love has been attacked,” she added on social media on Wednesday. “My friends have been slandered. It is so disheartening that when a community comes out to ask for support, they are met with this type of hatred, especially on a college campus.”

Minnesota Hillel expressed its concerns over the referendum to the All-Campus Elections Commission (ACEC) late last month, while UMN Divest was still collecting the necessary signatures to place its referendum on the election ballot.

In a complaint, Hillel charged that SJP’s proposed contribution included “wording that would influence students to vote ‘yes,’ while excluding information that would influence them to vote ‘no.’”

It pointed out that UMN policy prohibits discrimination based on religion and national origin, and that Israel is the only nation named in the referendum “for censure.”

“When the Jewish nation is targeted in this way, it inherently targets the Jewish people and the Jewish community on campus directly,” the group observed.

Hillel added that students who objected to the proposed referendum would not be given any opportunity “to express their argument and have it meaningfully heard,” as once the sponsoring group gathered more than 400 signatures, the question would be placed on the ballot without public discussion.

When divestment from Israel was debated on campus in 2016, it continued, the Minnesota Student Association voted to remove the resolution from its agenda.

The referendum has faced opposition beyond the Jewish community, with UMN President Eric Kaler warning on Wednesday that it “is exacerbating tension and fueling discrimination toward Jewish students.”

Following the measure’s passage on Monday, Kaler released a second statement underscoring both his and the university’s rejection of “the action advocated in the referendum, which echoes, in part, the language and sentiment of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

He advised students and faculty to be “extraordinarily wary about such boycotts,” reiterating concerns he first raised in 2016, when the university faced a failed SJP divestment campaign.

“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,” Kaler pointed out.

The referendum was likewise rejected by the editorial board of the Minnesota Daily, which noted that the “full text was not publicly available until closer to March 5,” less than a week before voting ended.

“This referendum lacks discussion and debate,” the board argued. “The time granted for the student body to debate and review the referendum was not long enough. Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a vastly polarizing issue with no platform or venue to productively reconcile or address the differences in opinion.”

UMN SJP, in turn, has defended its campaign from accusations of anti-Jewish discrimination and bias, claiming on its homepage, “BDS opposes all forms of racism and oppression, including anti-Semitism.”

“BDS has only three overarching goals,” it added, “none of which mention genocide or destruction of the Jewish people as is often claimed.”

The group did not address criticism that the implementation of these BDS demands would result in the destruction of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, an objective publicly acknowledged by the campaign’s leading advocates.

SJP also appeared to dismiss concerns that divestment creates “unsafe spaces for Jewish students,” suggesting that “it might be unpleasant for some students to hear facts about Israeli oppression or criticism of the policies of the Israeli state, but discomfort is not the same thing as threats to safety.”

It asserted, instead, that “campuses are often not safe spaces for Palestinian, Arab or Muslim students, especially if they support Palestinian rights.”

Studies have shown that activity related to BDS and the presence of an SJP branch are each strong predicators that a campus suffers from a hostile climate toward both Jews and Israel.

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