NEW YORK – Students at Barnard College just voted overwhelmingly to ask the school’s administration to divest from and boycott eight companies that do business with Israel and profit from the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Barnard, a women’s college that is part of Columbia University, passed the referendum by a 64 to 36 percent margin, with about half of the school’s students participating in the vote — a turnout much higher than in previous votes on the subject, perhaps reflecting Israel’s recent shooting of more than 2,000 unarmed Gazan protesters.
The result of the vote is being hailed as a major victory for Palestinian-rights movement BDS, the campaign to boycott, divest and sanction Israel for its violations of international law in Palestine.
The referendum had been written by Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine and urged the school’s administration to divest entirely from companies that “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.” It specifically singles out companies like Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Mekorot and Hyundai, among others, for violating international law in relation to Israel’s policies as they relate to Palestine. The referendum explains each company’s relationship to the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces.
The news of the vote came as a particular surprise given that Barnard has the highest population percentage of Jewish students among secular colleges in the United States. Fully a third of its student body is Jewish, meaning that a significant number of those Jewish students either supported the referendum or were uninterested in actively opposing it.
The results of the vote have been taken as a sign by some that even American Jews are uninterested in supporting Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip. Indeed, Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman recently announced that she would be boycotting public events in Israel as a result of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though she indicated that she was not a BDS supporter.
Intense counter-pressures lead to dismissal of two-to-one vote as “not consensus”
Though no college or university has actually divested from Israel, Israeli companies, or foreign companies active in Israel as a result of a pro-BDS referendum, Barnard had the potential to be different, as it was the first school in the United States to divest from companies that reject climate change science – in response to a campaign that was also built from student pressure.
However, unlike in that case, the school’s administration came under intense pressure to ignore the results of the divestment referendum, as more than 2,000 of the school’s alumni and some of the members of its Board of Trustees have signed a petition asking that it reject calls for divestment. That petition called BDS “a hateful movement” that “stifles discussion.”
That pressure led the college to reject the referendum results on Monday, when the school announced that it would not divest if asked to do so by the Student Government Association. Barnard’s president wrote in an email Monday that student participation in the referendum did not represent student consensus on the issue, even though the referendum was the most well-attended in the college’s history.
While the school administration will not move forward with the call to divest, it has nonetheless caused concern among pro-Israel activists that the results will embolden BDS activists, as the vote has been hailed as a major victory for the movement.
However, student-led BDS initiatives may come under fire in the near future if President Donald Trump’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, Kenneth Marcus, is confirmed by Congress. Marcus, a vehement opponent of BDS, has sought to essentially ban BDS from college campuses and to eliminate criticism of the Israeli state from educational institutions nationwide.
Watch | Boycotting Israel May Soon Become Illegal Across US
Top Photo | A display erected by students at Barnard College and Columbia University in protest of Israeli apartheid. (Photo: Godland)
Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.