Princeton must not allow a university-wide referendum demonizing Israel
Anti-Israel activists at Princeton University have scheduled a campus-wide BDS referendum vote from April 11-13. The student elections ballot question asks Princeton undergrads to embrace the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that do business with Israel, specifically citing construction equipment firm Caterpillar, Inc. The ballot question is due to be certified on Saturday, April 2, unless the Administration acts now to cancel the vote.
The BDS referendum misrepresents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to delegitimize the State of Israel and is rooted in anti-Jewish hatred. The referendum bizarrely singles out and demonizes the world’s only Jewish state, applying a double standard to Israel. The student government has pursued no such referendum targeting Russia, which has repeatedly invaded its much smaller neighbors and is currently pursuing a brutal war of aggression against Ukraine; China, with its genocide of the Uighurs, crackdown on Hong Kong, and seventy-year occupation of Tibet; or any other known human rights abusers. Instead, it has singled out for attack the Middle East’s most flourishing democracy, in which Arab citizens serve in the governing parliamentary coalition and on the Supreme Court.
The referendum is occurring amidst a climate of surging anti-Semitism in the United States, with incidents doubling in the one-year period from 2020-21. Again and again, BDS referenda have led to anti-Semitic activity targeting Jewish students and faculty. This is the very reason why Chancellor Robert Jones of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) recently removed a BDS referendum question from UIUC’s undergraduate election ballot due to concerns for Jewish student safety and wellbeing.
Indeed, when a 2015 referendum called for Princeton to divest “from multinational corporations that maintain the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank,” students experienced a rise in anti-Semitism on Princeton’s campus. Jewish students at Princeton are already on edge after a planned exhibition on 19th Century Jewish American art was canceled on March 30 because two of the artists had served in the Southern army during the U.S. Civil War, which involved a draft on both sides.
Furthermore, the petition is misguided, as Caterpillar, Inc. is also a major component of the Palestinian economy. Boycotting the company would harm Palestinian firms such as the Palestinian Tractor and Equipment Co. Ltd (PTEC), a leading participant in Palestine’s economic and industrial development since 1995, which is part of a global Caterpillar distribution network and an affiliate company to M. Ezzat Jallad, the dealer of caterpillar Inc. in Lebanon since 1929.
Furthermore, the proposed referendum is contrary to New Jersey law and public policy, as in 2016, the New Jersey General Assembly, in an overwhelming 69-3 vote, passed legislation prohibiting the investment of state pension and annuity funds in to companies that boycott Israel or Israeli businesses; a similar bill passed through the state Senate in a unanimous 39-0 vote. Additionally, as the Treasurer of the student government has noted, the Princeton student government cannot claim to exercise power beyond what an undergraduate referendum can do.
Princeton’s Administration, led by President Eisgruber, should follow the important precedent set by UIUC’s Chancellor Jones and prohibit this referendum, which other would lead to a climate of, at best, chilling the speech of Jewish students and making them feel unwelcome and, at worst, to incitement of violence, which has occured at campuses pushing similar referenda. Princeton, with its important place in the pantheon of academia and its storied history, famously the American home of Professor Albert Einstein, who in 1952 was offered the Presidency of the State of Israel, should not allow this dangerous referendum to move forward.