In the heart of the nation’s most Jewish city, Jewish students who believe in Israel’s right to exist are being made mighty uncomfortable. And it’s not just at New York University, which is currently under federal investigation for antisemitism.
Now, farther uptown at Columbia, the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) has voted 25-12 to allow a campus-wide referendum on whether Columbia University should divest from eight companies — including Caterpillar, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin — that do business with Israel.
This is the third time Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) has urged the undergraduate student council to hold such a campus-wide referendum in recent years, the last push being in late March. Each of the last two times, student council members voted against such a referendum via secret ballot.
But on Sunday night, the pro-divestment coalition, whose allies had secured more seats in the last election, won their necessary two-thirds super-majority by one vote. They celebrated their win by chanting a genocidal call-and-response, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”
Part of Sunday night’s debate revolved around whether this divestment effort is connected to the broader boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS). Proponents of the resolution reportedly insisted it was not, although “divestment” is BDS’s middle initial. And since Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) describe themselves as “currently campaigning to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction[s] mvt,” and BDS campaigners SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace argued for this referendum, it’s hard to see the effort as unrelated.
It remains unclear if Columbia is even invested in the eight companies at issue. A university spokesperson emailed, “As a general practice, we don’t discuss investment allocations or similar specifics beyond what we publish in our annual report.”
Regardless, all Columbia College students will now be voting on Middle Eastern politics come April, as part of planned student government elections. In a move that should shame a university prizing rigorous thinking, a complex subject will be reduced to one provocatively phrased yes/no question: “Should Columbia University divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians that, according to CUAD, fall under the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid?”
Hali Haber, director of campus programming and strategic relationships at the pro-Jewish university organization CAMERA, emailed, “Columbia is now endorsing a proposal that has little or nothing to do with compassion for the Palestinians, but rather seeks to malign and weaken the world’s only Jewish-majority country and the Middle East’s only liberal democracy. It’s appalling that this obvious propaganda stunt posing as a possible student referendum is even being seriously entertained at Columbia.”
There’s no doubt this proposal must now be taken seriously by undergraduates, especially those who’d like to defeat it. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, university administrators are taking more of a wait-and-see approach.
The university spokesperson shared an official statement noting that this referendum would not bind the university; even if undergraduates vote “yes,” there would be a subsequent review process. The statement also notes that only two divestment suggestions have been implemented since 2014: “divestment from private prisons and from public companies whose primary business is the production of thermal coal.”
Still, what does the upcoming referendum say about the atmosphere on campus, that students are being taught to view Israel as negatively as coal producers, the bogeyman of climate change, or that Columbia’s most famous divestment to date was from apartheid South Africa? And what does it mean to be a Jewish student at Columbia today, given that “95% of [American] Jews have favorable views of Israel”?
Holding a referendum on a controversial subject might not sound so terrible on its own, but it’s happening amidst an already highly charged context. This is the same campus that has been described as a home to “‘systemic antisemitism and an ingrained delegitimization of Israel.’”
Not only does the university have a tenured professor who endorsed Hamas’ terrorism against Israel, but they also hosted former Iranian president and aspiring genocidaire Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2007 and Malaysia’s proudly antisemitic prime minister a mere two months ago. It’s no wonder Columbia ranked third on The Algemeiner’s list of “most challenging” campuses for Jewish students in 2017.
Pro-Israel student group Aryeh called the decision to hold the referendum “appalling and reprehensible,” noting Jewish students’ concern “for their safety and well-being on Columbia’s campus. Having to defend the right for Jewish self-determination for the third time in four years has made the Jewish community feel targeted and isolated.”
Brian Cohen, the executive director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, emailed, “It is disheartening that [the] student council agreed to move this vote to a referendum and crazy that students need to deal with this again. Our leaders will continue to educate their peers on the consequences of BDS, the danger it poses to both Israelis and Palestinians, and the negative ways it impacts the campus community.”
And that is the key at this point. The coalition of pro-Israel students at Columbia that fought valiantly on Sunday night — including the campus’ Hillel, Students Supporting Israel, Aryeh, and J Street — will need to educate their fellow students in the coming months. Explain why this resolution is unjust, as it unfairly (and antisemitically) holds Israel to its own separate standard, and why it must be defeated.
Students Supporting Israel president Ofir Dayan told The Federalist that her organization “will do everything we can to prevent it.” Dayan remains hopeful that the resolution won’t actually be implemented but acknowledged, “We are worried about the symbolic stance that would further alienate Jewish students who already feel very uncomfortable.”