UMN Students Overwhelmingly Approve Israel Divestment Referendum

Student voters in last week’s University of Minnesota campus elections approved a referendum targeting Israel by a margin of 4125 to 856, with 523 abstentions.

The referendum, authored by the Students for Justice in Palestine, Students for a Democratic Society, and Young Democratic Socialists of America student groups, asked students:

“Shall the University of Minnesota sever ties with companies complicit in war crimes and human rights violations, war-profiting companies that recruit students on campus, and study abroad programs in Israel?”

It is the third major anti-Israel campus effort since 2016, part of a now near-regular cycle of campus activity from proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

The referendum question is written in a broad way to appeal to students who have connections to any number of countries with human rights violations and war – though Israel is the only country explicitly named. Advocating to cut off study abroad programs specifically in Israel also raised eyebrows in the Jewish community. Advocates for the referendum will be having a rally on Friday to call on the administration to divest from Israel.

The referendum is non-binding, and the University of Minnesota administration already came out against the referendum in a mid-March statement – so likely nothing will change with its passage.

“We value input from students and support their right to advocate for issues of concern to them,” the statement said. “However, the University of Minnesota remains committed to providing a range of study abroad program locations, including Israel, that align with our academic programs and support student demand for cross-cultural learning.”

Campus Jewish organizations like Minnesota Hillel, Chabad, and the local chapter of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) took a quiet approach to opposing the resolution. They ran a simple social media campaign last week to avoid inflaming campus tensions or giving the resolution undue attention.

“We refuse to be part of such efforts [to divide the campus] and will continue to foster a community that supports peace and honest dialogue, and that works to make our campus, our community, and our Jewish homeland safer and more peaceful,” said one social media graphic.

The low-key approach was also about offering students a more constructive way to approach the campus conversation around Israel, while still taking a clear public stand against a referendum many view as targeting the Jewish community.

“Why allow [the referendum] to both pass, and cause further harm to the campus climate, when we have control over one of those two things?” said Benjie Kaplan, executive director of Minnesota Hillel.

For some Jewish students on campus, who spoke to TC Jewfolk at a Minnesota Hillel morning nosh event on Friday, there’s a real sense of concern about how the referendum might affect the campus Jewish community.

“This is a very dangerous thing in more than just [the conversation about] Israel,” said Charlie Silverman, a junior and a brother in the Jewish AEPi fraternity. “It comes back to the Jewish students on campus…this is opening the door for more antisemitism on campus and allowing people to spread more hate.”

The referendum was definitely on his mind during last week’s voting period, and Silverman talked with some of his non-Jewish friends about the vote. At the same time, as the week wore on, Silverman’s focus turned to the upcoming midterms and staying on top of his classes.

He hasn’t faced much overt antisemitism at the U, but the rhetoric around Israel right now is “something that I would see on social media and feel personally targeted by,” Silverman said. He’s also aware that, anecdotally, some universities have seen an increase in antisemitism during and after student efforts targeting Israel.

“I’ve heard stuff at other campuses, things happening to Hillels, AEPis, and that’s really scary, because I’m involved in both of those here,” Silverman said. “It’s just a crappy situation.”

For senior Molly Seligman, the campus referendum just doesn’t make any sense.

“Cutting off study abroad isn’t actually going to solve” the Israel-Hamas war, she said. “We aren’t the government, we can’t solve those problems…saying that [Jewish] students won’t be able to go and visit a place that is relevant for them the same way that Palestine is relevant for other students – it just creates more friction.”

The referendum is also divisive by making it seem like those voting against its passage approve of human rights violations and war crimes, Seligman said. “And that’s not true – it’s just that this [referendum] isn’t the solution,” she said.

Still, even with this referendum, the University of Minnesota has so far been remarkably calm when it comes to the discourse around Israel – a marked departure from the open hostility and tension that defines the campus climate at some other universities.

“That takes relationships and strategy,” said Kaplan. “We purposefully are trying to keep things calm on our campus. We’re trying to work with the university to ensure that all students feel safe and respected.”

Prospective students, their families, and the Jewish community at large also shouldn’t get the wrong idea about the University of Minnesota from this referendum effort. The University of Minnesota is still a great place for Jews, Kaplan said, pointing to Hillel, Chabad, the Center for Jewish Studies, and other Jewish outlets for students.

“There’s some really amazing things here when it comes to Jewish life that you just don’t find anywhere else,” Kaplan said. “It’s a great place to be Jewish. It’s an even greater place to be Jewish if you can teach your young people how to persevere and speak up.

“Many universities are getting bad raps for a small group of bad actors that get the press headlines – and I think that’s the case here at the University of Minnesota.”