Activists at Northeastern University in Boston say they have been silenced by their student government after it blocked a divestment referendum from appearing on an upcoming election ballot.
The referendum would have asked students whether they would support divestment from four US companies that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ rights.
More than 900 undergraduate students signed a petition in support of putting a divestment referendum up for a vote. The signatures were presented to the student government during a three-hour hearing on 16 March.
However, the Northeastern Student Government Association voted to prevent the referendum from appearing on the ballot in a move students say is a direct affront to campus democracy, free speech and open debate.
Sean Hansen, president of Northeastern’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, told The Electronic Intifada that there is a lot of support for divestment on campus. The student government’s decision to block the referendum “was not representative of the student body in any way, shape or form.”
In February, Northeastern’s student government announced it would reject the referendum, citing “adherence to university policy” on “bullying,” “harassment” and creating a “a hostile, threatening, intimidating, humiliating, or abusive environment,” ostensibly toward Jewish students.
These claims echo talking points given to anti-divestment campaigners by off-campus Israel-aligned political groups.
Northeastern SJP say that 32 Boston-area community organizations and more than 5,000 supporters across the country signed various petitions urging the student government to allow the divestment referendum to appear on the election ballot.
The student government then decided to allow Northeastern SJP to go forward with their petitioning. But, according to Hansen, the student senators “stacked” votes against the referendum and repeated pro-Israel assumptions that the initiative would cause Jewish students emotional distress and could “bring anti-Semitism to the campus.”
Northeastern SJP activist Sofia Perez, who also attended the hearing, said that student government senators “were inherently against” putting a divestment referendum up for a campus-wide vote. “They said, ‘our donors are not going to like this,’” according to Perez. “People were saying that [bringing up Palestine] hurt their feelings and that it was one-sided. But we said that human rights violations and apartheid are not our opinions. These are facts defined by the United Nations.”
“There’s no justice”
Hansen explained that a Palestinian student active with Northeastern SJP attended the hearing but was largely ignored by the student government.
“Not once did anyone other than us talk about what it felt to be Palestinian on the campus, and whether or not [Palestinians] should have a say in supporting their own oppression. It was all about other students’ comfort,” he said.
Hansen added that it is highly unlikely that the Northeastern administration will take issue with the way the referendum was suppressed.
“We have a Raytheon amphitheater,” he explained, referring to the public event space named after the US weapons company that supplies arms to the Israeli military.
The university has previously singled out Northeastern SJP. They were suspended last year after a direct action during Israeli Apartheid Week and there are current restrictions on the group’s event planning and access to resources.
“[Northeastern University] has proven over and over again that free speech is not something they’re interested in protecting on campus,” Hansen said. “What they’re interested in is protecting their interests, and making it seem like they’re protecting free speech.”
“Backroom procedural tactics”
Attorneys with Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sent a letter to the Northeastern student government before the hearing, cautioning it against “calls to suppress student democracy on campus.”
They say that preventing the Northeastern student body from voting on the divestment resolution violates free speech rights.
“We urge you to stand firmly in support of student democracy, and to refuse to accede to demands to prevent students from voicing their opinion on this critical issue,” the groups state.
Radhika Sainath, staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, ”The referendum process is all about students voicing their opinion on matters important to them — here, whether their tuition should go to companies profiting from Israel’s human rights abuses.”
“The use of backroom procedural tactics to stop divestment initiatives reveals a fundamental fear on the part of pro-Israel groups that if given the choice, college students will vote for Palestinian rights,” she added.
“Too long suppressed”
The Husky Environmental Action Team (HEAT), an on-campus student environmental justice group, made a statement in support of Northeastern SJP.
“Besides the violations of free speech that are blatant in this process, the issue of the Israel/Palestine conflict is one that our campus has too long suppressed,” the group stated.
HEAT said that it views Israel’s occupation of Palestine as an environmental issue, as Israel controls Palestinians’ access to clean water. The group also denounced Israel’s “greenwashing” campaigns — public relations efforts to hype the state’s environmental initiatives and “green tech” industries while it destroys Palestinian natural resources.
Meanwhile, students say that though this was a troubling setback for this current referendum campaign, Northeastern SJP is not backing down. Perez told The Electronic Intifada that the group will campaign for allies to join the student government in order “to change this process.”
The group is also marking its victories.
“This whole process was a success because we told over 900 people about what these companies [targeted for divestment] were doing,” Hansen said, ”and I have no doubt we would have won divestment if we had gone to a vote. No doubt.”