This week, student government at the University of Minnesota was faced with a resolution calling for divestment from four companies doing business with Israel. The Minnesota Student Association (MSA) did not vote in favor of the resolution. They did not vote against it. They chose, instead, to drop the divestment resolution from their agenda, delivering a vote of: “No thanks”.
I sat in the packed campus auditorium as this surprising turn of events occurred.
As soon as the meeting was called to order, a member of MSA made a motion to remove the divestment resolution from the agenda. That resolution had been sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and over thirty other student organizations. The motion also called for striking a resolution against anti-Semitism, sponsored by UMN United, a coalition of pro-Israel student groups led by Students Supporting Israel (SSI), in response to the divestment measure.
In the ensuing discussion, MSA leaders decried the massive amount of time that the focus on divestment from Israel had taken, and that as a result, issues directly affecting student life on campus had been neglected. They thought that dealing with divestment from Israel fell far outside their appropriate role as leaders of campus government.
Furthermore, MSA leaders felt that they lacked the depth of knowledge needed to make a sound decision regarding such a complicated, geopolitical issue.
Most saliently, with passions running so high, the leaders thought that voting on the divestment and anti-Semitism resolutions would only serve to further divide the campus. Seeking consensus, or at least trying to dial down conflict, is part of Minnesota’s cultural DNA. These leaders wanted to avoid cementing conflict in resolutions.
A statement issued earlier in the day by U of M President Eric Kaler, opposing both resolutions, was read aloud during the discussion by proponents of the motion to strike the resolutions.
The University does not endorse measures advocated in the SJP resolution, which has been offered in support of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS Movement, while not directly mentioned in the resolution, has called for a comprehensive academic, cultural, economic and consumer boycott of Israel. In general, our university should be wary about such boycotts, given our core values of academic freedom and our commitment to the free exchange of ideas, uncertainty about the impact of such efforts, and concerns that we may be unfairly singling out one government and the citizens of the country in question. In this case, 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.
While condemning anti-Semitism in no uncertain terms, Kaler nonetheless felt that the resolution against anti-Semitism “may limit the prospects for constructive campus dialogue, in light of its possible implication that supporters of the disinvestment resolution are also supporters of anti‐Semitism.”
Thus, Kaler could not support either resolution.
Leaders from SJP were aghast that the divestment issue might be stricken from the agenda without giving it the second hearing for which both sides had prepared (on the previous Tuesday, both resolutions were presented before student government and MSA leaders, and students were given the opportunity to ask each side pointed questions). SJP leaders argued vigorously for further debate on their divestment resolution, and by extension, further debate on the anti-Semitism resolution brought forward by UMN United
By a vote of 34-31 (with 11 abstentions) the motion to remove both resolutions from the agenda passed, and the meeting was quickly adjourned.
Stunned students and observers filed peacefully out of the room. To the credit of both sides there was no shouting, no booing, and no “dancing in the end zone”.
What took place over the past few weeks at the University of Minnesota is a case study in how BDS can be dealt with effectively.
First and foremost, you need strong, organized student leadership that understands the issues surrounding BDS, is able to galvanize fellow students, think strategically, work tirelessly. Sami Rahamim and Leeore Levenstein are such leaders.
We’ve worked closely with adults from Hillel, JCRC, and the faculty, but at the end of the day this is a student run effort from top to bottom, working at the grassroots level to engage with other students. Students are the ones who will be most affected by the outcome.
While the fight had to be led by the students, it was not confined to the students. Over one hundred concerned U of M faculty signed a letter to President Kaler opposing divestment. Eighty members of the Minnesota State Legislature—bipartisan and bicameral– did the same. So did the Minnesota Rabbinical Association. Shocked alumni spoke out too. Like many proud graduates of the U of M, I was sickened that BDS had erupted on the campus of my alma mater.
Some might say that dropping the resolutions was a mistake, that the best outcome would have been to debate and defeat BDS altogether. Perhaps, but there is a strong case to be made for the exact outcome that we got this week. Do we really want to argue BDS on the college campus? Or do we want campus leaders to realize that the BDS issue does not belong on campus in the first place?
I vote for the latter. So did a slim majority of U of M student leaders who came to understand that the BDS issue should not have been brought before student government at all.
An Israeli colleague who just happened to be in Minnesota for the week, said:
I could sense the disappontment on part of some of the students, who didn’t have the opportunity to defeat the SJP motion on the merit of their (SSI) arguments; it reminded me of a slogan used in Israel a couple decades ago to promote safe driving: in the road, don’t be tzodek (right), be chacham (wise). This approach seems to be what we need in the battle against BDS too.
Will BDS crop up again at the U of M? Probably. If it does, a network of students, faculty, lawmakers, alumni, and concerned members of the community will be ready to fight back.
You fight the battles as they come, one by one. This week BDS did not pass at the University of Minnesota. Student leaders had a chance to vote for divestment from Israel, and instead they simply said, “No thanks. Let’s move on.”