Columbia University to Hold Israel Divestment Referendum; Supporters Chant ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free’
Student leaders at Columbia University in New York voted on Sunday to hold a referendum on divestment from Israel, following a multi-year push by anti-Zionist students and protests from the campus Jewish community.
Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) representatives voted 25-12 via secret ballot in favor of the initiative, which was brought forward by members of Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD).
The measure, which will appear on the Spring 2020 elections ballot, will ask students whether the university should divest “from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians that, according to CUAD, fall under the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid acts against Palestinians,” the student-run Columbia Spectator reported.
CAUD has called on university officials to divest since 2016, drawing opposition from Jewish and Zionist groups on campus. An earlier CUAD attempt to pass the ballot initiative was voted down by the CCSC this past March by a margin of 20-17, and in 2017 by a margin of 26-5.
Following the vote, supporters of the referendum were recorded chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The slogan has been used by Palestinian nationalists — from advocates of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign to members of the US-designated terrorist group Hamas — to refer to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territory between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, in place of Israel.
Ofir Dayan — president of Columbia Students Supporting Israel (SSI), who shared footage of the chants with The Algemeiner — said the call was genocidal by referring to “the elimination of the only Jewish state.”
“The role of student government is to unify people, to teach tolerance and acceptance, not to encourage people to call for genocide,” she said.
Dayan also took issue with “the wording of the referendum,” arguing, “it’s completely not neutral.”
“This has nothing to do with fostering dialogue, with peace or security — it has everything to do with dialogue that does not include Jewish students, does not include pro-Israel students,” she continued. “We’re going to fight this referendum with all our powers, because we understand that the sole purpose of it is to marginalize us.”
The Zionist student group Aryeh also condemned the referendum, calling the CCSC vote “both appalling and reprehensible.”
“Aryeh is deeply disappointed in the CCSC representatives who voted in favor of the referendum, ignoring the overwhelming concern voiced by Jewish students in the room for their safety and well-being on Columbia’s campus,” the group stated. “While we articulated that we believe in both a Palestinian and a Jewish state, CUAD shamefully revealed that they do not believe in the right of a Jewish state to exist.”
“Having to defend the right for Jewish self-determination for the third time in four years has made the Jewish community feel targeted and isolated,” Aryeh added, before applauding “SSI, JStreet CU, and Hillel, and the CCSC representatives who came together and stood up for the Jewish community in the face of such intolerance.”
Supporters of the resolution pointed to its endorsement by several student groups, among them the Black Students’ Organization, Columbia Queer Alliance and Native American Council, and said the referendum would create space to hold important conversations.
“It is not a matter of silencing the opinions people already hold nationally and on this campus,” Siri Ketha, a junior and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, told the Spectator. “In fact, not allowing this question to pass would be a direct impediment to the so-called dialogue you wish to foster. How could dialogue be fostered if this conversation keeps getting confined to this room specifically?”
In a statement released Sunday evening, Columbia’s Office of University Life pointed out that the Student Council’s vote “does not express a view for or against the referendum question,” but rather “seeks the views of Columbia College students.”
Divestment decisions are not made through referendums, but “a process involving the University’s Advisory Council on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), which advises Columbia’s Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University’s endowment,” it explained.
The body, which includes students, faculty, staff, and alumni, “is empowered to review and analyze proposals from members of the Columbia community; if ACSRI agrees to a proposal, it then presents that proposal to the President and University Board of Trustees.”
Columbia President Lee Bollinger has previously rejected the idea of divesting the university’s endowment from companies over their ties to Israel, saying in March, “I don’t support that. … We should rarely, rarely make a decision not to do something unless there is a consensus in the campus that this is wrong,”
“On the issue raised, there is not a consensus; there is a whole host of views about this,” he noted. “On the cases where [change] has happened, there has been a consensus.”
A similar referendum passed at Barnard College in 2018, following a student government hearing that was criticized for excluding the voices of students opposed to the BDS campaign. The measure was later criticized and rejected by Barnard President Sian Leah Beilock.
CAUD and CCSC did not immediately respond to The Algemeiner‘s requests for comments.