Columbia’s President has already hinted at efforts to undermine the referendum’s success, claiming that the BDS is tied to anti-Semitism and ignores “similar issues in other countries.”
In a political climate that broadly supports Israel both financially and ideologically, a student group at Columbia University has beaten the odds, passing a referendum that calls for circumspection of its school’s investment in the state.
What makes this accomplishment particularly striking is the fact that Congress and U.S. states are currently considering – or in many cases, have already passed – legislation to do the exact opposite.
Israel protected, free speech threatened
So-called anti-BDS laws, referring to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement for Palestinian rights, are already in place in 30 states and have been introduced or are pending in 12 more. These laws make demands of individuals and companies contracted by the state requiring public employees to sign a document stating that they will not participate in a boycott of Israel in spite of that country’s many well-documented breaches of international law, human rights violations, and possible crimes against humanity. The laws are currently being challenged in several states.
In addition to states, Congress also has a slew of anti-BDS laws on the books or under consideration – this in spite of declarations by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that such legislation is unconstitutional on the grounds that it threatens free speech by “[sending] a message to Americans that they will be penalized if they dare to disagree with their government.”
Journalist Glenn Greenwald points out that states with anti-BDS laws require their citizens to be “literally more loyal to Israel than they are to the U.S., insofar as they may say and do things to their own country that they may not engage in vis-à-vis Israel.”
For its part, BDS asserts that it is a nonviolent, grassroots initiative, describing itself as:
A Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.
Israel is occupying and colonising Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law.
Politicians who oppose the effort frame it as anti-Semitic. Its organizers, however, point out its roots in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its opposition to “all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.”
Justice at Columbia
Columbia University Students for Justice in Palestine SJP reported on the passage of their referendum on Tuesday morning. The referendum called on the school to consider divestment from, “companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians that… fall under the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid acts against Palestinians.”
The student group indicated that 61 percent of students who participated in the vote were in favor of the referendum; 27 percent were against it, and 11 percent abstained.
Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, also released a statement Tuesday morning warning that the referendum would not automatically result in investment policy changes, declaring, “Questions about possible divestment of endowment funds are not decided by referendum,” but through an advisory committee.
Bollinger has recently expressed his view that BDS is tied to anti-Semitism, and that it ignores “similar issues in other countries.” Both arguments are familiar to the BDS movement and are refuted on its FAQ page.
Romy Ronen, vice-president of Students Support Israel (SSI) at Columbia, commented that the vote “is making the majority of pro-Israel students on campus feel unsafe, victimized, and disappointed.”
SJP’s victory follows failed attempts 2017 and 2019 to pass the referendum. The group proclaimed yesterday that “the success of this vote reflects years of organizing and is a testament to the strength and power of the student movement for Palestinian liberation.”
It went on to say:
The student body at Columbia College has made it very clear they want nothing to do with Israel’s practices of settler-colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid.”
In 2019, after President Donald Trump issued an executive order declaring protection for Jewish students against discrimination based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism – a definition that is highly controversial in that it considers criticism of Israel to be a form of anti-Semitism.
The ACLU wrote of Trump’s order that “Anti-Semitism is a real and present problem… People of all faiths must be protected against harassment and discrimination. But the government cannot equate speech criticizing Israel with unlawful discrimination.”
The first case to be filed under Trump’s order was at Columbia, where the Lawfare Project – which provides free legal services for pro-Israel disputes – requested an investigation on behalf of a Jewish Israeli-American student who complained of anti-Semitic discrimination because the university had allowed its SJP group to hold events advocating for Palestinian rights.
The Lawfare Project has brought a number of what Palestine Legal calls “meritless complaints” to various universities.
Palestine Legal also reports that in the last four years, the Israeli government has earmarked over $100 million to fight advocates of Palestinian rights.
Feature photo | Columbia University SJP
Kathryn Shihadah writes for MintPress News and If Americans Knew. She speaks regularly about the injustice and demonization Palestinians face at the hands of Israel with complicity from the United States, especially to Christian audiences. Kathryn has lived in the Middle East for ten years and has traveled extensively. She blogs at PalestineHome.org.