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March 11, 2019 6:18 pm

Columbia Student Leaders Vote Down BDS Referendum, Drawing Applause From Jewish, Zionist Campus Groups

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Members of the Columbia College Student Council deate a BDS referendum on March 10, 2018. Photo: Screenshot.

Student leaders at Columbia University on Sunday rejected a controversial effort to divest from eight companies over their ties to Israel, following concerns raised by Jewish and Zionist campus groups.

After a four-hour debate, 20 members of the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) voted in a secret ballot against sending out a campus-wide referendum on divestment, while 17 others supported the proposal and the body’s president abstained on procedural grounds. The measure, promoted by anti-Zionist students affiliated with Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

A previous attempt to pass a similar referendum was rejected by CCSC in 2017 by a margin of 26-5 and one abstention.

Brian Cohen, executive director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, applauded the “great work” of students who worked to defeat the referendum, led by the Hillel group Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel and its independent counterpart, Students Supporting Israel (SSI).

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Both clubs have aimed to raise awareness of the deleterious impact the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign can have on their communities, accusing it of presenting a reductive picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and denying Jewish people the right to self-determination.

They also warned of the campaign’s divisiveness, pointing to the tensions that ran high at Barnard College while SJP and JVP spearheaded a successful divestment referendum there last spring. The measure was later criticized and rejected by Barnard President Sian Leah Beilock.

“While I am relieved that the vote will be the end of BDS on campus for now, damage has been done: these votes polarize campus, and contribute to a difficult environment for Jewish students,” Cohen told The Algemeiner. “I am proud of our students who spoke so eloquently and passionately about Israel, the danger BDS poses both to Israelis and Palestinians, and the negative ways it impacts the campus community.”

SSI president Ofir Dayan said the vote was a big accomplishment for both “what is right and just,” and for the Jewish and Zionist communities at Columbia. “The student council decided to reaffirm their commitment to make them feel safe on campus,” she told The Algemeiner.

Around 150 students had come to watch Sunday night’s proceedings, including many of Hillel and Aryeh’s supporters. Some showed up more than four hours early to secure a spot in the room for the 8 o’clock debate, Dayan said. The majority had to watch a live stream from an overflow room, though many students eventually gathered outside the glass of the main hall to follow the debate in person.

Orit Gugenheim, president of Aryeh, said the atmosphere “was one of high tension and anxiety,” with students from the opposition “pleading that CCSC would follow their mission and protect them from a referendum they denounced as bigoted.”

Aryeh and SSI representatives — who, like SJP and JVP, were given 10 minutes in total to present — also pointed out that as Columbia’s investment portfolio is not public, students do not know whether the companies being targeted by BDS supporters even have ties with the university.

While proponents said the measure would pressure the university to disclose its investments, Columbia President Lee Bollinger — who has repeatedly opposed academic boycotts of Israel —  rejected the idea of divesting the university’s endowment from companies targeted by the BDS campaign as recently as last week.

“This was a purely symbolic effort, meant to claim that BDS was successful at Columbia University,” Dayan argued. “We asked council members whether it was worthwhile to target a whole community of people — Jews and non-Jews who support Israel — just so the BDS website can say they won at Columbia.”

“I think council members understood that this is a divisive issue that people feel strongly about and can’t be reduced to a yes or no question,” she added.

Dayan said the whole episode reinforced her view that the campaign is not grounded in a concern over “responsible investment, as they have no idea what Columbia’s investment policy is. It’s just a way to target pro-Israel and Jewish students.”

A third group that represents parts of the campus’ pro-Israel contingent — a branch of the national lobbying group J Street, which confirmed to The Algemeiner in advance that it would not formally present at the CCSC meeting — likewise warned that divestment can create a difficult climate for the Jewish community.

“[We’ve] seen how BDS on our campus can create a hostile environment for Jewish students by politicizing their identities and obscuring any opinion that does not fall on the strict binary you will hear tonight,” J Street CU wrote in a statement issued on Sunday afternoon. It also argued that the movement has been co-opted “as a boogeyman tactic meant to penalize ANY meaningful criticism of the Israeli government.”

“While we would not oppose boycotting businesses that operate inside the green line and directly contribute to the occupation, we believe that introducing BDS at an American university disporpotionately target Israel as a singular bad actor and is not effective at combating occupation,” the group affirmed.

The “green line” was demarcated by the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Arab powers, and includes internationally-recognized Israeli territory.

When the vote tally was ultimately announced, some students cried in relief, while others began chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” the student-run Columbia Daily Spectator reported. The slogan has been used by Islamist groups like Hamas and other Palestinian nationalists to refer to the establishment of an Arab state in the territory between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, in place of Israel.

Gugenheim said that “a significant amount of Jewish students” approached her since the vote to thank Aryeh for taking a stand against the referendum. “Their reaction further confirms our central preoccupation throughout the meeting: to ensure the Jewish community’s complete safety and comfort, like that of all other students, at Columbia University,” she added.

Despite the vote, the campus debate surrounding BDS is expected to continue, with SJP and JVP holding their annual “Israel Apartheid Week” campaign at the start of April. SSI plans to host its own concurrent “Hebrew Liberation Week” highlighting Jewish indigeneity and plurality.

SJP and JVP did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

This article has been updated to include comments from Orit Gugenheim.

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