Déjà vu at the U: BDS Returns to Campus, Singling Out Israel and Dividing Students

On Friday, March 2nd, just hours before Shabbat and as students were preparing to celebrate Purim, we learned that despite our best efforts a divisive Pro-BDS referendum would be going on the all student ballot next week.  

This development occurred after The Office of Student Unions and Activities, which oversees the All Campus Election Commission (ACEC) decided that the referendum proposed by the U of M’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine did not violate University policy or any elections rules.

Elections are Monday, March 5-Wednesday March 7. Should the referendum pass, it will go forward to the University’s Board of Regents.

Just over two years ago, Students for Justice in Palestine and several other student groups at the University of Minnesota, under the umbrella “UMN Divest,” introduced a divestment resolution, in support of the BDS movement. Having been defeated before the student government, UMN Divest is now attempting to ram through their divisive BDS agenda by appealing to the entire student body through a last-minute referendum.

In response to the UMN Divest 2016 campaign, a coalition of Jewish students and allies launched “UMN United” — a counter campaign that focused on educating student government representatives on how a resolution that singles out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, targets the Jewish community.

Thanks to the support of Minnesota Hillel staff and Hillel International, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations and many others, UMN United made it clear to their representatives that a one-sided divestment resolution only served to divide the campus and proposed an amendment to remove language singling out Israel.

The amended resolution passed, calling for global socially responsible investment. Once Israel was stripped from the resolution, the UMN Divest coalition quickly removed their endorsement, exposing that their true intentions were not to call on the University to support socially responsible investment, but to target Israel.

In the two years since this polarizing saga, Minnesota Hillel and individual Jewish students have reached out to UMN Divest-supporting organizations to find common ground through interfaith education, by combating the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and advocating for more kosher and halal food options in campus dining halls. These groups explicitly rejected or ignored our attempts. The divisive BDS campaign erected barriers between minority communities on campus, a devastating effect for students who would rather be building coalitions for the betterment of all students.

One week ago, students learned that UMN Divest was back and collecting signatures to place a referendum on next week’s All-Campus Election ballot. The proposed referendum question asks:

“Should the students of the University of Minnesota demand the Board of Regents divest from companies that are 1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, 2) maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers, or 3) violating Indigenous sovereignty?”

Concerned students immediately brought the Jewish community and its allies on and off campus together to respond. Again, we are thankful in particular to Hillel and the JCRC for their guidance and to Students Supporting Israel.

Minnesota Hillel student leaders submitted a complaint to the ACEC questioning whether they had complied with their own rules regarding, “inadequate, unclear, and inappropriate” referendum language. Dozens of students submitted similar complaints applying grassroots pressure on the ACEC.

The complaints noted that the question itself is leading and only presents arguments for voting “yes” with no opportunity for opposing viewpoints or nuanced discussion to be included. In effect, the wording asks students to accept conclusions regarding a complex conflict across the globe without any opportunity for dialogue or education.

Additionally, the complaint pointed out that by targeting only one country in the world, this proposal asks students to hold Israel to a different standard than any other nation. When the Jewish State is targeted in this way, it inherently targets the Jewish people and has been proven to lead to increased anti-Semitic activity on college campuses.

Minnesota Hillel will continue to support socially responsible investment as long as it does not single out one country or community in a discriminatory manner. The damaging effects of the 2016 BDS campaign still linger on campus and we are committed to preventing these divisions from deepening as a result of a potential 2018 BDS referendum.

Despite the Purim holiday and Spring Break rapidly approaching, two of the most joyous times of the year for Jewish students, Minnesota Hillel and its student leaders, along with our allies, have prioritized defending our community and explaining to administrators and friends how this referendum negatively affects student life and campus climate.

Minnesota Hillel had hoped the University would see that this is not a zero-sum issue to be solved with a yes or no question and prevent the discriminatory referendum language from being placed on the ballot. Now that the question is before the student body, Hillel along with our allies will continue to make the positive case for unity as we ask our fellow Gophers to VOTE NO against divestment, divisiveness and discrimination.