This spring, I proposed a student referendum in my university’s undergraduate student government elections. The referendum was very simple. It called on my school, Princeton University, to boycott the construction company Caterpillar, given the violent role that Caterpillar machinery has played in the mass demolition of Palestinian homes. I proposed the referendum on behalf of the group I lead on campus, known as the Princeton Committee on Palestine. After collecting the necessary signatures to get the referendum on the ballot (10% of the student body), we were incredibly enthusiastic to start campaigning on campus and explaining to students what we stood for and why we were advocating for a boycott of Caterpillar.
Unfortunately we never got the chance.
After it became clear that our referendum was going to be voted on by the undergraduate student body, online advertisements on Facebook and Instagram began to flood students’ social media feeds. The advertisements urged readers to “Stop Antisemitism at Princeton” and “Demand Removal of Racist Referendum Targeting Jewish Students at Princeton.”
The ads were sponsored by national pro-Israel organizations including the Israel War Room and Alums for Campus Fairness. It soon became clear that our referendum was the subject of much attention by national pro-Israel groups, who were willing to do everything in their power to demonize our movement to boycott Caterpillar. All this despite the fact that our referendum was supported by a large swath of student groups, including Students for Prison Education Abolition and Reform, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, the Muslim Students Association, and many more. The narrative that somehow our pro-Palestine organizing was inherently antisemitic was being propagated far and wide.
Soon, our school newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, reported that these outside groups had spent well over $1,000 making bad-faith attacks against our referendum. It was clear that they would not stop until they had convinced every student at Princeton that anyone who supported our referendum was somehow putting Jewish students at risk. Unfortunately for them, Princeton students are not lacking in critical thinking skills. Through a massive grassroots campaign which focused on face-to-face conversations and intense campus organizing, our referendum passed successfully with a majority of students’ votes. The forces that opposed us had failed, and they were incredibly unhappy about it.
Immediately following the successful passage of the Caterpillar referendum, an appeal was filed against the results of the election by members of the student opposition group. This group cited a miscommunication that took place between the undergraduate chief of elections and a member of the opposition party, which dealt with the process by which abstentions would be counted in the final tally of votes. This appeal resulted in a special meeting by the undergraduate student government to vote on the appeal. Though the appeal was approved, the student government nonetheless affirmed that our referendum had successfully passed under existing referendum election guidelines. Our victory was validated once more.
Yet what came next was even more shocking. Almost immediately after this certification, new online advertisements began to pop up on social media claiming (falsely) that the Caterpillar referendum had failed to pass. Even more worrying, both the undergraduate chief of elections as well as members of the undergraduate student senate who had voted on the appeal began to receive death threats and harassment online. The chief of elections — a sophomore student himself — even had his phone number publicly leaked. This resulted in the university administration stepping in to protect the safety of students by temporarily deactivating the website that displays the personal information of the members of the undergraduate student government. Even on a personal level, I received numerous hateful emails sent directly to my university inbox, due to my role in proposing the Caterpillar referendum.
These events paint a horrifying picture of the oppressive and oftentimes dangerous state of pro-Palestine organizing on college campuses. Discussing the human rights violations being committed against Palestinians each and every day should not result in personal and well-funded attacks by national groups against college students. The fact that an undergraduate student referendum at a university can spark such incredible backlash and national attention by pro-Israel forces reflects the deeply entrenched pro-Israel sentiment lurking in our US institutions. In order to find peace and justice for Palestinians, it is incredibly important that we are able to discuss and debate the issue openly without fearing retaliation or retribution.