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April 25, 2019 5:08 pm

University of Maryland Students Reject BDS Following Five-Hour Passover Hearing

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An SGA meeting at the University of Maryland on April 24, 2019. Photo: Screenshot.

Student leaders at the University of Maryland, College Park, rejected a resolution supporting the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel on Wednesday night, following a five-hour debate.

The Student Government Association (SGA) voted 25-9 with two abstentions against a resolution brought forward by Divest UMD, which called for the administration “to divest from companies engaged in human rights violations in Palestine.”

Some criticized the decision to submit the resolution shortly before the holiday of Passover, when many Jewish students would be either away from campus or busier than usual due to holiday celebrations.

“To schedule a vote attacking the Jewish state in the midst of this Jewish holiday reeks of antisemitism,” Jeffrey Herf, a history professor at UMD, wrote in an unpublished letter sent last week to the editor of the student-run Diamondback.

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Deborah, a freshman member of Terps for Israel who asked to be identified only by her first name, said that while some students may have been preoccupied due to the holiday, most were back on campus and able to engage as the debate took place on chol hamoed — a time when most holiday restriction are lifted. She indicated that the date of the hearing did not make her feel limited in her participation, only that it was “more stressful time-wise.”

Divest UMD has rejected accusations that it had deliberately sought to hold a BDS debate near a Jewish holiday, and expressed willingness to push the hearing to a later date, if the SGA permitted. Yet in a Wednesday statement, SGA said delaying the vote would not be possible, as “today was the last day to hear resolutions for this legislative session.”

The debate over the resolution ultimately attracted around 400 students, 74 of whom testified against the bill, while 55 spoke in favor, an SGA representative told the Diamondback.

At the time of the hearing, the resolution was endorsed by a dozen campus groups led by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which in 2017 introduced a divestment bill that failed to be debated by SGA. A petition circulated by Divest UM in support of the measure also gained more than 650 signatures, while one shared by the Terps United Against BDS coalition surpassed 1,080.

Addressing SGA members, one Jewish student said the resolution and the support it was given by an LGBT+ campus group had “already begun creating divides” among his community.

“This bill has created conflict in organizations I’m involved with and will continue to damage our campus climate,” he said.

Other students expressed concerns over the impact the measure could have on their communities, among them Tamara Soleymani — president of Kedma, which represents 500 Orthodox UMD students — who emphasized its capacity to alienate and marginalize her constituents.

“My uncle was 15 when he was tortured at the hands of the Iranian government simply for being Jewish,” she shared. “My dad was 16 when he fled from his home alone and penniless. Their cousins escaped in the middle of the night on the backs of donkeys.”

“Israel saved my family’s lives and the lives of many others,” Soleymani continued. “This bill perpetuates a singular and narrow minded narrative that demonizes Israel and places the blame of the conflict solely on Israel.”

Supporters of the resolution, in turn, described it as an effort to address concerns over human rights violations affecting Palestinians.

Maya Ismael, a junior who said she faced discrimination and intimidation on campus due to her Palestinian identity, argued that her “family in Palestine is being systemically oppressed and cleansed from their ancestral homeland in the name of a settler-colonial state.”

“The state sponsored violence is aided by the companies … we’re discussing today,” she said.

“Twenty years from now, do you want to look back and regret not having been on the right side of history?” another student asked.

The bill also drew comment prior to the debate from federal lawmakers representing Maryland, among them Sen. Benjamin Cardin and seven of the state’s eight representatives, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Rep. David Trone, Rep. John Sarbanes, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Rep. Andy Harris.

In a Tuesday letter to SGA president Jonathan Allen, the lawmakers noted that “BDS singles Israel out for economic boycott and quarantine in a selective way almost certain to deepen animosity both at home and abroad,” and called the resolution itself a “seriously imbalanced and one-sided” effort.

Objections were also raised by 10 former presidents of UMD’s Jewish Student Union.

“BDS stifles conversation among campus stakeholders and creates an environment that can lead to antisemitism at a time when attacks against Jewish Americans account for a majority of the religiously motivated hate crimes in our country,” they wrote in a joint letter.

“At schools across the country, from the University of California, Davis to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to Cornell University, SJP’s efforts to pass BDS have been immediately followed by targeted attacks against Jewish students at those universities,” they added.

In a statement on Thursday, Divest UMD said that while it was “disappointed at the outcome of the vote itself,” it was heartened by the progress made during the campaign.

“We are confident that we are getting closer and closer to passing divestment … in the coming semesters,” the group said. “In our minds we won. Because we gave a voice to not just the Palestinian people, but marginalized groups all over the world.”

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