BDS’ big night: Loyola student government passes divestment, U. Mich votes it down

Alex Kane | Mondoweiss | 27 mars 2014 | It was a big night for proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Yesterday, by a 12-10 vote (with….

Alex Kane | Mondoweiss | 27 mars 2014 |

It was a big night for proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Yesterday, by a 12-10 vote (with 9 abstentions), Loyola University’s student government passed a resolution for a second time that called on their school to divest from corporations involved with the Israeli occupation. ”One thing I want to say our senators: they did something remarkable this week,” Sharif Abdallah, a Loyola Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) board member and a student senator herself, told me in an interview. “The beacon of justice has taken a firm stand on campus.” Loyola’s student government president still has to decide to affirm or veto the bill, though the school has said the resolution is not in line with their position. An estimated 200 people attended the Loyola vote.

The resolution at the Jesuit university in Chicago calls on their school to investigate whether they are investing in corporations like Caterpillar that are complicit in human rights abuses–information the school did not immediately furnish. Abdallah said senators had been told by the school that they were invested in Raytheon, which produces missiles used by the Israeli army. Before the vote, an open letter composed by Jews in support of divestment was circulated.

But in a debate that captured the most attention and sparked nationwide media coverage, the student government at the University of Michigan rejected a divestment measure by a 25-9 vote.

The University of Michigan debate, which followed a student sit-in at the Central Student Government (CSG) building in reaction to a previous vote that tabled discussion on divestment, featured emotional pleas on both sides and a raging debate that lasted for nearly six hours. The University of Michigan’s Hillel chapter and Students Allied For Freedom and Equality (SAFE), the group that pushed the resolution, mobilized students to oppose and to support the divestment resolution. Hundreds of students packed a ballroom, with hundreds in an overflow room and over 2,000 watching a live stream of the debate. You can watch the whole thing here:

Despite the loss, SAFE members are pleased that they sparked a campus-wide debate. ”It was a huge victory. Despite the fact that the resolution didn’t pass, the real purpose of one, proposing the resolution and two, staging the sit in, was not entirely geared towards passing the resolution,” said University of Michigan law student and SAFE member Andrew Dalack. ”It was to get people talking about Palestinian self determination and the role that divestment could play in achieving that.” Now, pro-divestment students are focusing on upcoming student government elections–some SAFE members are running–and are discussing ways to bring divestment to the attention of the University of Michigan Regents, which oversees the school’s investments.

Opponents of the call to divest from companies like Caterpillar and United Technologies, which are complicit in Israel’s occupation, made various arguments last night in Ann Arbor: that there was no campus consensus on divestment; that SAFE’s resolution was “filled with falsehoods”; that “divestment from Israel was antithetical to peace,” as a student named Andrew Bronstein said; and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Noam Chomsky opposed BDS. (Abbas has come out against the BDS movement, while Chomsky has voiced concern about an academic boycott but has supported divestment initiatives and encouraged Stephen Hawking to boycott an Israeli conference last year.)

As the Michigan Daily‘s Will Greenberg and Kristen Fedor reported, the executive officers of CSG are not permitted to vote on the resolution. But they were permitted to speak on it. CSG vice president Bobby Dishell, who has spoken at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, said he was against the bill.

Author and journalist Max Blumenthal, who attended the debate and was SAFE’s guest speaker, strongly supported the call for divestment. ”The resolution, and its legitimacy, should be self-evident. It should be self-evident that we should want to challenge militarism on campus and end this reprieve for the military-industrial complex,” said Blumenthal, who lambasted the regime of privilege Israel grants Jews at the expense of Palestinians.

After Blumenthal spoke, an international relations professor, Yael Aronoff, spoke on behalf of Hillel and made a point of saying she supports human rights and opposes West Bank settlements. She said it was a complex conflict, and that the student government shouldn’t have to pick sides because it was a conflict of “right vs. right.” She also claimed that only 150,000 Palestinians were expelled in 1948, and that the others left for different reasons. (750,000 Palestinians were expelled and never allowed to come back in 1948.)

A third guest speaker, history professor Victor Lieberman, was supposed to give an objective overview of the conflict. But SAFE members were upset at that, saying he was biased–and that showed in his presentation. Lieberman made claims like Israel withdrew from Gaza; that Abbas had said no to a peace deal with Ehud Olmert, a claim contradicted by the reporting of Bernard Avishai in the New York Times magazine; that the 1967 war was about deterring an attack meant to destroy Israel, ignoring that Israel attacked first; and that the BDS movement encourages Israeli emigration.

Loyola’s debate was also characterized by outside forces mobilizing to defend or defeat the resolution that passed last week. In that vote’s aftermath, pro-Israel students claimed that there was no opposition heard and that it was undemocratic, though SJP says they had been very public about the resolution for weeks. Sharif Abdallah said that the student government president told her he had met with members of StandWithUs and the Jewish United Front, who urged them to oppose divestment.

“The fact that senators were able to stand resilient in the face of that was brilliant,” said Abdallah.