The BDS debate that wasn't

Joel Reinstein reports on the University of Minnesota's assault on campus democracy in order to shield Israel from criticism of its human-rights abuses.

Supporters of divestment at University of Minnesota  (Nora Nashawaty)Supporters of divestment at University of Minnesota (Nora Nashawaty)

A MULTIRACIAL student coalition at the University of Minnesota (UMN) was silenced earlier this month when university President Eric Kaler interfered in the affairs of the student government when he called for a vote on divestment be quelled.

But what students didn't find out until later was that Kaler was acting on behalf of 81 state legislators who sent him a letter demanding that he stop the vote on divestment from taking place.

Hundreds of students had packed the March 8 meeting of the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) forum, which was slated to discuss a resolution calling on UMN to divest from companies profiting off the state of Israel's human rights violations, as well as a counter-resolution attempting to ban divestment as "anti-Semitic speech." The #UMNDivest resolution had been proposed by Minnesota Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and was supported by 35 organizations as well as hundreds of students.

But the resolution was never discussed. Instead, MSA voted to strike both #UMNDivest and the counter-resolution from its agenda.

The decision came after 81 Minnesota state legislators quietly sent a letter to President Kaler and the UMN Board of Regents, urging Kaler to reject divestment. He obliged, publishing a statement on the very morning of the vote. That statement was cited as the reason for striking both resolutions.

This violation of campus democracy generated outrage among students, with many MSA members complaining that they weren't aware of the letter from Minnesota legislators. MSA's president and vice president harshly criticized Kaler, citing past student grievances and threatening to pull student government support for an annual fundraising event.

For its part, #UMNDivest isn't going anywhere. "We're bringing it up again," said SJP President Rula Rashid. "They shut us down, and that's not okay."

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MORE THAN 30 organizations united for the initial launch of #UMNDivest on February 15, and more student groups joined the effort after the launch. A sampling of the endorsers shows the diversity--Jewish Voice for Peace, the Black Student Union, Amnesty International, the Asian-American Student Union, the Disabled Student Cultural Center, the Women's Student Activist Collective and the Queer Student Cultural Center were all among the groups backing divestment.

"It's important to run these campaigns to raise awareness and talk about issues we don't normally talk about in student government," Rashid said. "It's not just something happening on the other side of the world. For us to be going to a university that's investing in companies profiting off of human rights violations, specifically in Palestine, that's not something we want our university invested in."

Like the wave of student divestment campaigns across the country and around the world, #UMNDivest is a response to the 2005 Palestinian call for an international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and ceases its violations of Palestinian human rights.

More than economic leverage against the Israeli regime, BDS campaigns are vehicles for shedding daylight on Israel's violations of international law and human rights, and they provide a platform for Palestinians to demand their right to exist in public discourse from which they're otherwise excluded.

Student divestment campaigns in particular expand student democracy, as diverse coalitions of students fight administrators and wealthy donors for a say in how their own school is run.

#UMNDivest demonstrated exactly that kind of grassroots engagement. SJP had originally aimed for the final MSA vote to take place on March 29, with plans for weekly informational workshops on each of the target companies: Caterpillar, Elbit Systems, G4S and Raytheon. Before launching, they reached out to several progressive student organizations for endorsements.

The campaign succeeded in creating a buzz on campus. "Everybody is talking about it," noted Rashid, "and we've been covered every day in the Daily, the student newspaper. It's something that people are asking about."

It didn't take long for anti-Palestinian groups to employ their usual tactics of anonymous slander and intimidation. Hardly a week after the campaign launched, the "Academic Engagement Network" shared a mock image of the #UMNDivest logo with a swastika, describing SJP as "the premier Jew-hating group on campus." The creator of the image remains unknown.

SJP's educational initiatives were then cut short when Students Supporting Israel (SSI) submitted a resolution calling for the university to adopt the U.S. Department of State's definition of anti-Semitism, which falsely equates Israel with Judaism and thereby considers "delegitimization" of Israel to be anti-Semitic.

The resolution would have amounted to a ban on BDS, in spite of the well-established legal precedent that boycotts are a form of protected free speech. By submitting a counter-resolution slated for March 8 instead of simply opposing divestment, SSI forced #UMNDivest to move up its resolution and cut off three weeks that could have been used for public discussion.

The SSI resolution also provided a cover for President Kaler to appear "evenhanded" in opposing both BDS and the anti-BDS resolution. On the morning of the vote, leaving no time for SJP or student government representatives to react, Kaler released a statement rejecting both divestment and the anti-divestment resolution. "I respect this student exercise of the right of political participation," he wrote, "including the right to offer these resolutions and to debate them freely."

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BUT WHEN the letter signed by 81 state legislators to Kaler and the UMN Board of Regents later surfaced, it revealed that Kaler wasn't being forthright about the real reason for his statement. The letter demanded Kaler's public opposition to #UMNDivest, stating:

[S]ome of the most hostile opponents of Israel are using the University of Minnesota to advance their conflict with Israel including a "divestment" resolution scheduled for a vote before the Minnesota Student Association on March 8, 2016...Moreover, at its core, the goal of BDS--no matter the words or machinations of those behind the resolution--is the delegitimization and ultimately, as some BDS leaders have openly called for, the elimination of Israel.

Rather than defend the rights of UMN students from this attack by elected officials--much less actually support the rights of Palestinian students whose own university funds violence against their families in Palestine--Kaler obliged the lawmakers' demand that he be their mouthpiece on campus and reject divestment.

This is the kind of pressure that was being exerted against divestment when hundreds of students packed the March 8 meeting of their student government, expecting to have their say on #UMNDivest. Early in the meeting, a motion was raised to strike both divestment and the counter-resolution, citing Kaler's letter. It passed 34-31 with 11 abstentions. According to Rashid, the senator who raised the motion had privately expressed support for #UMNDivest, even offering advice on how best to present it. But on the night of the vote, that senator told Rashid they "didn't want to choose between being anti-Semitic and anti-human rights."

Members of MSA "try to shy away from taking a stance on things that matter," Rashid explained, "because they're uncomfortable with the fact that these issues are bigger than what we usually deal with in student government. Their discomfort really drove their decision."

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IF KALER thought his decision to muzzle MSA would be seen as neutral, pro-Israel media outlets--including Algemeiner, the Times of Israel and Legal Insurrection--didn't see it that way in the least. All declared victory with characteristic bluster (apparently unconcerned that the counter-resolution supposedly against anti-Semitism had also been struck from the agenda), and were ecstatic that students were denied a chance to speak to issues directly affecting their lives.

Since the vote, MSA President Joelle Stangler and Vice President Abeer Syedah have both published statements on Facebook condemning Kaler for his interference with MSA. Citing his repeated failures to address student concerns--including racist profiling in campus safety alerts, the delay of an affirmative consent policy, and insufficient resources for students' mental health--Stangler stated that she no longer believed in "partnership" between student activists and administrators:

I'm done being told that there are "many stakeholders," when students are not being treated as one. I'm done hearing "governance is shared" when we are not getting our fair share. I'm done acting like the interests of 12 regents or 201 legislators are inherently more important than 30,000 students.

Promising that she and Syedah would meet with Kaler to demand that he take students seriously, she concluded, "If he doesn't, I'm not opposed to pulling the plug on Support the U Day, a student lobbying day that helps administration. Because what have we learned? Ultimatums work."

Syedah's statement went straight to the bread:

President Kaler believes his $600k+ salary makes sense because he's the "CEO" and the U is a "business." Well, students' tuition dollars, fees and donations make us one of his biggest customers. That's why I'm confused about his conscience and position at the university because, woe is me, it seems like he's more concerned with Regents and Legislators who are often the reason our pockets are empty.

In exposing the cynicism of authorities and galvanizing grassroots student activism, #UMNDivest has already accomplished some of the key goals of a BDS campaign. Like all divestment campaigns, it's also forced a public discussion that Israel and its supporters are desperate to stifle. "Our goal was to educate people," Rashid noted in describing the campaign's accomplishments. "People went home thinking about Palestine, and that's why we're doing this."

And it's not over yet.