BDS activists blocked at University of Toledo

Katrina Bacome reports on the efforts of Palestinian solidarity activists to get a fair hearing for their divestment proposal--and the underhanded tactics of their opponents.

SJP Steering Committee member Nadeen Sarsour speaks in support of the divestment resolution (#UTDivest)SJP Steering Committee member Nadeen Sarsour speaks in support of the divestment resolution (#UTDivest)

THE UNIVERSITY of Toledo (UT) chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (UT SJP) paid close attention in February to the announcements that student governments at both Stanford University and Northwestern University had passed resolutions calling for divestment from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

These are important victories for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. On the very night that Stanford passed its divestment resolution, however, University of Toledo students were being locked out from participating in the divestment proceedings on their campus.

Before it presented a proposed resolution to the UT student government for a vote on February 17, UT SJP had been dealing with increasingly absurd maneuvers from the student government, designed to strangle any hope of democratic process or an open debate on the issue of divestment.

In a statement to the Toledo Blade, University of Toledo Hillel voiced opposition to the resolution on the grounds that divestment would cause "hostility against the small Jewish community at UT." This statement, along with claims about potential violence, would be used gratuitously throughout the week, playing on racist and Islamophobic stereotypes of divestment supporters to undermine the work of the multiracial student coalition behind #UTDivest.

On February 15, members of UT SJP and Hillel received an e-mail from UT Student Body President Clayton Notestine, in which Notestine stated, "Some universities lose control because they allow guests who don't represent the student organizations to protest or speak during meetings." Because of this, Notestine claimed, the student government had come to the decision to allow only two groups, SJP and Hillel, to attend the meeting.

The e-mail went on to say that the student government understood that by only allowing UT SJP and UT Hillel to speak, they were creating the implication that divestment was a religious issue. The e-mail outlined rules for the proceedings, including a strict 10-minute time limit and a requirement that members of one group leave the room while members of the other gave their report.

Defending the student government's position, Notestine sent another e-mail in which he alleged that the biggest concern was "ensuring safety and productive debate." Notestine argued that restricting attendance was necessary because "[o]therwise, we risk increasing the chances for violent protest," among other things.

This was not the last time Palestinian rights activists heard the same line--during the divestment meeting itself, student government representatives and members of UT Hillel used language about "violence," cloaking the cowardly decision to stifle discourse on campus with their supposed concerns of student safety.

Shahrazad Hamdah, a Palestinian-American member of UT SJP's steering committee and one of three students who presented in favor of divestment, explained her concerns over the way the student government framed the issue prior to the debate:

I definitely feel as though #UTDivest and our supporters were treated as rowdy and potentially dangerous. This was heightened by UT Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo making false and unfounded claims that our movement somehow poses a threat to Jewish students...I feel that it arises out of bigoted, racist ideas of Arabs and Muslims.

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PAINTING PRO-Palestine activists as violent is not a new tactic, but the viciousness of attacks on organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine is alarming. On February 22, posters surfaced at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) that bore the text "Students for Justice in Palestine #Jewhaters." The poster depicts two large men with rifles, standing over a kneeling, blindfolded person.

These attacks on #UTDivest supporters are reprehensible--and downright dangerous when they are allowed to fester. Only three years ago, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, where some supporters of #UTDivest worship, was the target of arson. The terrorist who committed this act declared in court when he pled guilty: "Every day you turn on the TV, you see Muslims trying to kill Americans."

By adding to the prevailing idea that anyone who supports rights for Palestinians or Arabs in general is violent and dangerous, the UT student government is adding to the ever-present threat of violence against Arab and Muslim students at risk. This stereotype has contributed to the sharp increase in hate violence directed at Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslim, in the post-9/11 world.

Another major concern for UT SJP is that the UT student government admitted it implied that divestment was a religious issue. Shahrazad Hamdah spoke passionately during the divestment meeting, countering the narrative of religious conflict which the student government had all but endorsed. As Hamdah said in an interview: "The misrepresentation of #UTDivest as being religious or that the controversy stems from religion is definitely a way to curtail the movement. The opposition has been perpetuating this and dismissing the fact that the pro-Palestine cause is comprised of all faiths."

When the meeting actually began, divestment supporters and those opposing the resolution were ushered into separate rooms to watch a livestream of the proceedings. At the behest of opponents of divestment, who had the gall to call their coalition "UT for Peace," 10 police officers were divided between the meeting room and two viewing rooms.

There was a coin toss to determine which group would have their presentation first. UT SJP won and decided to go second. While members of UT Hillel made appeals based on their support for Israel, UT SJP members Shahrazad Hamdah, Derek Ide, and Rob Abdelhoq presented eloquently on the desperate situation that Palestinians face living under Israeli apartheid. The #UTDivest team was well prepared, but even they could not have anticipated what would happen next.

Nearly two hours into the meeting, representatives of the Student Judicial Committee (SJC), tasked with deciding the constitutionality of the divestment resolution, took the floor. They announced that after hearing debate on the issue, they had voted 5-4 to rule the resolution unconstitutional. This decision ended the portion of the meeting dedicated to debating divestment abruptly, leaving #UTDivest supporters bewildered.

The committee's objection was that because the divestment resolution had opposition, and because UT SJP had not worked with that opposition to produce the resolution, the measure could not represent the student body and therefore should not be voted on.

UT SJP steering committee member Derek Ide was stunned by SJC's decision. Privately, UT SJP had been assured by the student body president and the SJC Chief Justice that they would have no trouble with the resolution on constitutional grounds. As Ide explained:

The claim is that one justice was "swayed during the debate" to the unconstitutionality of the resolution... [The] Senior Vice President of Student Affairs proclaimed that the administration had nothing to do with any student government decision. Yet multiple sources within SG have privately expressed otherwise.

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FOR NOW, divestment has been defeated at UT in a staggering display of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment that should be an embarrassment to the university. The racist tactics of the so-called UT for Peace did not end with discrimination against Arabs and Muslims, however.

In the days following this shameful shutdown of student's political process, Derek Ide found out about another racist attack on the #UTDivest campaign. A picture on Ide's Facebook page was reported as a "threatening #UTDivest photo," which "intimidated" the opposition. The picture, taken at a local gym, featured Ide, wearing a #UTDivest shirt, standing with three young Black men in front of workout equipment.

As Ide said:

We absolutely believe that these sort of backhanded tactics are manifestations of anti-Black racism. This long, racist trajectory on behalf of defenders of Israeli apartheid is unquestionable, from Black migrants forced to take birth control against their will to the excessive level of anti-Black racism and violence in Israel. We aren't surprised at these tactics in the least.

UT SJP is already formulating a strategy to give divestment its day in an open and democratic procedure. Ide explained #UTDivest's next steps: "[This] has only galvanized #UTDivest supporters to push through the obstacles, and in this manner has done our side a great victory. The resolution will be coming again, and soon, as well as a referendum in which the entire student body is allowed to participate."

For now, the #UTDivest campaign is asking supporters to sign and circulate a petition asking for transparency and democracy in UT student government procedure.

The struggle for divestment at the University of Toledo is far from over. This spectacle posing as a student government meeting has inspired those who fight for justice in Palestine to push this debate into the open, to expose administrators who interfere in student political life, and to win divestment from those who enable and profit from Israeli apartheid.