DePaul Referendum: Intimidation Up Close and Personal

As a mother of recently graduated college students, I wanted to see for myself what the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) looked like. So I went to DePaul University, Chicago, on Thursday May 22, the fourth day of a school-wide anti-Israel divestment resolution. I was in front of the student center when I encountered intimidation up close and personal.

The referendum, which assumes Israel’s guilt as a premise, calls for divestment from Israeli companies-a meaningless call since DePaul investments are held in mutual funds not individual stock holdings. Despite the biased anti-Israel language of the referendum, a vastly outnumbered group of anti-referendum students, most members of DePaul’s small Jewish population, attempted to educate students about the fallacies and dangers of the referendum. What I witnessed and experienced was mob intimidation to silence any dissenting voices.

The following is an example of what went on throughout the day: A young man would politely ask students as they walked by if they had voted. Often he would engage them in conversation. He explained that those who call for BDS really oppose coexistence, deny the consequences of terror attacks, and undermine the dialogue necessary for peace. While this young man spoke to students, a student from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the group which leads the national anti-Israel movement, hovered close by, listening into the conversations and often interrupting. At one point, around 25 SJP students were chanting anti-Israel slogans and dancing around a Kafieh-clad statue of Monsignor John Egan. Students who had been interested in engaging in a discussion about the referendum were flustered by the intrusions and mob atmosphere and generally hastened their departure.

Then I went from being an observer of the silencing of opposition to a victim: I was sitting close by when one of the SJP young women moved in on me. She had been eavesdropping on the anti-referendum young man who was talking with two students. I took a picture of the scene and the girl became hysterical and yelled that it was illegal to take pictures. The young man told her that since it was public space, photography was legal, but that didn’t stop her.

Then another SJP student began to roughly interrogate me. “What is your name?” I did not answer. “You can’t be here! You’d better get out of here! Are you a student? What are you? It’s illegal for you to be here” I said nothing. “I am going to call security to get you out!” I remained silent and seated. “They will be here soon to remove you”

I am a middle-aged woman who knows my rights, but the incident left me shaken. I commend the students who bravely stood up to voice their opposition to the bigoted referendum, but I am deeply concerned about an atmosphere which promotes anti-Israel hatred and threatens dissenting opinions.

About the Author
Janet Cohen is a life-long Israel activist and member of the StandWithUs Chicago board.