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April 19, 2018 12:58 pm

Barnard Students Endorse Anti-Israel Divestment in Contentious Referendum

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Barnard Hall at Barnard College, New York. Photo: BrillLyle.

Students at Barnard College in New York have voted to ask the administration to divest from eight companies that “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians,” the Student Government Association announced on Wednesday, the eve of the Jewish state’s Independence Day.

The referendum was endorsed by nearly 65 percent of the 1,153 students who voted in the school, whose undergraduate student population is about a third Jewish.

Zionist students have criticized the voting process for excluding voices opposed to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to isolate Israel until it complies with Palestinian demands.

The referendum was first introduced during an SGA meeting on March 19, during which Columbia-Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine asked representatives to support divestment. The SGA voted instead to launch a student body-wide referendum on the matter, including it in a broader elections ballot.

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Members of pro-Israel groups say they were only informed of the meeting the evening before, and did not have an opportunity to present their case before the SGA voted to allow a referendum.

“We had basically a day’s notice to think about what [the presentation] would mean, to make sure that people would feel safe going into that, and to make sure that people would have sufficient counter to [the presentation] even though there wasn’t an opportunity given to present,” Talia Rubin, president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, told the Columbia Spectator at the time.

The students were allowed to raise their opposition at an SGA meeting the following week, after the referendum was launched.

A representative for Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), Marla Solow, argued however that BDS should not be part of a two-sided debate.

“We don’t want to present the issue as though there are two sides that need to come together because there is such an unequal balance of power,” Solow told the Spectator. “The idea that it can be an equal-sided debate misrepresents the situation and the power dynamics at play. You don’t want to normalize Israel’s violence.”

Aryeh, a non-partisan student group that supports the two-state solution, criticized “the unjust manner” in which the divestment campaign was structured, calling it “dishonest and opaque.”

“The decision to initiate a referendum was made behind closed doors without hearing formally from any pro-Israel students — and in contradiction to repeated assurances that no decision or vote would be made during that session,” the group wrote. “When Aryeh was finally able to speak at SGA, our one request — for a fair and unbiased referendum — was ignored, as SGA elected to put forward an unsourced text that included CUAD’s arguments and propaganda, in many cases word-for-word.”

Aryeh argued that presenting one-sided materials to students who had “no prior knowledge of the conflict” swayed the vote in favor of BDS.

Columbia’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel also expressed its disappointment, noting that “supporting BDS is much more than just requesting to divest from a few companies. It is an attempt to delegitimize and demonize the Jewish State and its People.”

“It has been proven that where BDS passes, an increase in anti-Semitic acts quickly follows,” the group added.

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.

CUAD celebrate the referendum’s results on social media as an expression of solidarity with Palestinians. “Thank you for standing for justice,” it wrote, “thank you for standing with Palestine!”

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