Last week a referendum that included divestment from Israel passed by a narrow margin at the University of Minnesota.
Below are ten points about what happened that ought to cool the euphoria of the referendum’s supporters and reassure Jewish students and their allies.
1. The referendum read as follows:
Should the students of the University of Minnesota demand the Board of Regents divest from companies that are
1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights,
2) maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers,
3) violating indigenous sovereignty?
Written with an “or” clause, there’s no way to know if the majority of students who voted ‘yes’ agreed with the first clause, divestment from Israel. You need only agree with one of the three points to vote in favor of the whole thing.
2. The leading language of the referendum likely caused many students to vote ‘yes’. After all, who is in favor of violating indigenous sovereignty? How many students want immigrant detention centers? These issues alone are enough to generate support for the referendum. So did BDS ‘pass’ at the U of M, as its supporters intended? Or did that issue simply come along for the ride?
3. At a university with over 50,000 students, 3,392 voted in favor of the referendum and 3,175 voted against it. It passed by only 217 votes.
4. Time was the enemy of the referendum’s supporters. The referendum was approved on Friday afternoon, March 2, with voting to begin on Monday, March 5. Why was there no opportunity for discussion or debate? Why was there no chance for students to gain understanding of a complex issue? Any argument that has merit should be able to withstand scrutiny. Why the hurry unless BDS proponents knew their referendum couldn’t withstand extended scrutiny?
5. The University’s President Eric Kaler repudiated the referendum in a powerful message—one of the strongest statements on the subject issued by a university president.
Stating clearly that the University does not support the referendum, and adding his own personal opposition, Kaler admonished:
My concerns are heightened by the fact that the global BDS movement does not seem to distinguish between opposition to the policies of the government of Israel and opposition to the existence of Israel.
The University’s newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, opposed the referendum as well.
6. The referendum and the hasty process by which it was brought to a vote created division and discord on campus. That’s what happens when you single out Israel for divestment. Benjie Kaplan, UMN Hillel director, said; “This polarization of groups on campus does nothing to help efforts towards peace. It only creates divisiveness, anger, and resentment for the people most invested in the future of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Kaler warned that the referendum was “fueling discrimination against Jewish students,” and damaging the ability of the University community to work together for “peace and reconciliation” between Israelis and Palestinians. “We won’t solve this problem alone, but surely we can be better than a place where unhelpful rhetoric is hurled from side to side.”
7. Jewish students and their allies rose to the challenge, working against the clock to get out the vote. They worked with purpose, passion, and pride. They know that solutions come from effort and engagement, not hate and hysteria. They took the high road, not the hate road.
8. These students will continue to build a strong and vibrant Jewish life on campus, which includes standing up for Israel. The pro-Israel core is growing. A group of leaders who defeated BDS twice in 2016 were able to mobilize and engage a new generation of pro-Israel students around a cause, marshaling campus allies beyond the Jewish community.
9. The referendum is at odds with the 2017 passage of bipartisan anti-BDS laws in Minnesota (and elsewhere). A Gallup poll last week shows sympathy for Israel is close to an all-time high.
10. The last point may be the one that matters most. Passing this resolution did nothing—nothing—to improve the lives of Palestinians or anyone in the region.
So there you have it. A poorly worded, convoluted, one-sided referendum is rushed to a vote and passes by the slimmest of margins. It increases discord on campus, is denounced by the University’s President, and will not be implemented by the Board of Regents. Not a single Palestinian or Israeli stands to benefit from this divisive action.
If that’s your idea of victory, how would you define defeat?
With thanks to my wise friend and colleague Holly Brod Farber for her help in framing this article.