Secret vote to decide fate of BDS

The upcoming VSA vote on the high­ly-controversial Boycott, Divest­ment and Sanctions (BDS) Resolution will soon shape how Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank will be ob­served by Vassar’s student body.

On Feb. 22, the VSA voted on how the ballots would be cast for the March 6 vote determining the adoption of Stu­dents for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) BDS proposal. They decided by a vote of 16 to three with three abstentions to have an anonymous vote. To pass, the anon­ymous vote required 2/3 of the council’s vote, as it required the suspension of a current VSA bylaw.

“It’s been expressed by members of council and members of the student community and members of the United States that there’s a perception that vot­ing for either side on the BDS resolution could have implications on one’s life out­side of the context of Vassar College and the BDS resolution,” said VP for Student Life Chris Brown ’16. Other VSA Coun­cil members made similar comments during meetings on Feb. 14 and Feb. 21, including VP for Finance Kaden Magu­ire and the Presidents of Class of 2018 and 2019 Presidents Rebecca Pober ‘18 and Miranda Amey ’19. VSA members questioned why VSA Council representatives should be accountable for their votes on an issue that is perceived as unrelated to their livelihoods. Brown continued, “Despite us being elected as student representatives—which I acknowledge is our job—I don’t think that it’s fair for those implications or perceived implications to be hav­ing any true effect on the lived experiences of members of VSA Council. Because despite what people believe, we’re human beings first, we’re students second, and we’re VSA representatives third.”

The March 6 vote will determine whether or not the VSA will adopt a resolution that restricts the use of VSA funds from purchasing products of both Israeli and American companies that ei­ther are located in Israeli settlements in Palestine or financially support the Israeli military or its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The reso­lution also supports Vassar College’s divestment from products from Israeli companies includ­ing Sabra, Tribe, Ben & Jerry’s, Hewlett-Packard Company, Ahava, General Electric, Eden Springs, Motorola, Caterpillar, G4S and Elbit Systems.

Many VSA Council members ultimately de­cided on the anonymous vote because they were worried about potential consequences of a pub­lic vote. Pober remarked, “Some of the seniors on VSA, as well as just other members who will graduate one day, will be looking for job opportu­nities one day and unfortunately there are com­panies that do have specific views. Maybe it’s not like a personal view, but the company itself has views. [A VSA Council member] may not get a job because of how they voted here because Vas­sar does get a ton of media and this vote is going to get a ton of media. Having our name next to a vote…would definitely affect [the possibility of getting a job].” VSA members also leaned towards an anonymous vote due to safety concerns. Pober mentioned that members of SJP have shown her threats that SJP members have received for sup­porting the BDS movement, and multiple VSA Council members did not want to feel physically threatened as a result of their vote. One at-large member mentioned that others on the Council were worried–albeit less seriously than for their physical well being–about the possibility of losing friendships as a result of the vote.

Multiple members spoke up at the VSA, de­nouncing the VSA’s decision. Among them was Pietro Geraci ’18, who said in an interview, “It’s irresponsible not to let the constituents know how they’re voting. I’d rather not vote for some­one who voted in favor of the resolution [to be re­elected to VSA Council].” Geraci articulated that his decision for the election of future VSA Coun­cil members hinged on the availability of results of the vote, commenting on how the lack of trans­parency of the Council’s decisions may come back to find them. On how he will vote for future VSA members, Geraci iterated, “My decision for who I’m going to vote for is going to be determi­nant on who voted for the secret ballot and who didn’t…When it comes down to the people who did vote for it to be a secret ballot, I’m not vot­ing for them…I think that it is reprehensible and a failure on the part of the VSA [to institute an anonymous vote]…I think we deserve better from the council, and I think that we deserve the trans­parency that is warranted—especially with an issue so controversial as this. There shouldn’t be any blankets or veils to hide behind.”

Students and VSA Council members have inquired into whether or not the VSA should even be voting on this issue. “On campus and off campus, we [VSA Council members] don’t know enough to make an informed decision,” Brown posited. “There are a small minority of students on either side of the issue that are able to make their own informed decision, but I’ll never be able to because it’s not something that’s affected my lived experiences as a human being up until this point.”

Other VSA Council members expressed that they felt capable of making an informed decision. Pober explained, “We were voted to represent our constituents, no matter what came to our floor.” She continued “No one knew that BDS was going to come to our door, but it did, so we’re sup­posed to represent our constituents so I feel like we do have an obligation to show them how VSA feels about that.”

For Pober and others on the Council, the vote has become personal, amplifying the importance of deliberating and voting upon it. Pober said, “We’ve been talking about this since last semester and we had an eight-hour training on how to talk about BDS and we’ve all been helping each other with research.” She continued, “I think it’s caus­ing a lot of emotional trauma and anxiety among VSA members because we all just want to do the right thing. [Among] my constituents, both for and against BDS, there are groups on this cam­pus that are both marginalized and I don’t want to oppress any group. But I think by voting by this, either way you’re going to do that. That’s why VSA members are having such trouble with this: because no matter what…you’re going to end up hurting some group of students on this campus.”

As has been the case with other colleges, the results of this vote will attract significant media attention and will become of a short–but quick­ly growing–list of colleges that support the BDS movement. “This is going to be in the media as ‘Vassar College votes on this,’ whether it’s the stu­dent body or just the VSA, and I feel like it would be much more representative if the student body votes on it too,” Pober asserted. Other colleges that have recently endorsed similar resolutions include Wesleyan University, Earlham College, Northwestern University, Stanford University and multiple UC schools, notably UCLA.

News of the vote and events at Vassar have al­ready spread internationally. In direct response to hearing of the VSA’s vote and of learning that Vas­sar students are divided on the support of Israel, Former International Media Adviser to the Prime Minister of Israel Miri Eisin wrote in an emailed statement, “By turning Israel into a partisan issue you erase half of Israeli society, who support the end of occupation and the establishment of a free Palestine alongside the state of Israel.” She assert­ed that Israel is a multi-faceted changing society challenged by the same issues of diversity, racism and discrimination that other Western societies face. “We are not perfect–neither is any western society,” she said.

A boycott of Israel, Eisin opined, brands all Is­raelis with the same iron. She wrote, “Engage in discourse with us–rather than define we should be segregated from discourse…I want a Pales­tinian state. Most Israelis support the establish­ment of a Palestinian state. By turning Israel into a US party divide issue–you are erasing the very ground of democratic values we share. Diversity of opinion is the basis of discourse, not imposing an opinion on the other side.”

In the end, the vote for anonymity may mean nothing. According to VSA President Ramy Ab­bady ’16, the original BDS Resolution brought forth by SJP and JVP has been broken up into a resolution and an amendment. As defined by the VSA Bylaws and the VSA Executive Board, the amendment and resolution must be presented at least one week before they are voted on. He wrote in an emailed statement, “If the VSA Coun­cil passes either or both documents, five percent of the student body must sign a petition to send them to a referendum vote. On the contrary, if the VSA Council does not pass either or both docu­ments, 15 percent of the student body must sign such a petition. The VSA Council can suspend these bylaws by a 2/3rds majority vote and send either or both documents straight to referendum. In a vote of the VSA Council, a simple majority is needed to adopt the resolution and a 2/3rds majority is needed to adopt the amendment. In a referendum, a simple majority of those voting is required to adopt either document.”

Brown and many others on VSA note that a referendum may be inevitable. He suggested, “Either way, I believe it’s going to be going to [a] referendum despite what we do as a VSA coun­cil…I hope that if the Vassar community is tasked with voting on a referendum, that they’ll make an effort to educate themselves, and certainly there have been various different programs put on by organizations that are both for and against BDS over the past month, if not before that.”

27 Comments

  1. Its rich that the VSA wants an anonymous vote on the BDS resolution because of the vote’s “true effect on the lived experiences of members of VSA Council,” What about the effect of a BDS resolution on the lives of Israeli citizens, faced with the threat of being stabbed to death in front of their children, in part because college students across the USA have chosen to demonize and isolate Israel and to support a movement that endorses physical violence against Jews.? Victims of violence encouraged by the anti-Israel fever sweeping Vassar and other schools don’t have the choice of shielding themselves from the consequences of VSA’s acts. Part of being an adult is taking responsibility for our actions. BDS supporters should grow up and be prepared to defend their moral choices, just like those of us who support Israel.

    Megan Tallmer
    Class of 1973
    Class of 1973

  2. I served on the VSA board from 1988-89 as President of Joss. I condemn the decision to make the vote on this issue a secret ballot. Stand up, be counted and held accountable.

  3. The VSA should take an open and transparent vote on this issue. It is that time of life when students should learn that there are consequences in life for taking a position.

    On the contrary, perhaps no vote should be taken. The division on campus and the damage to Vassar’s reputation also demonstrate how bone-headed this vote is. According some quoted above, a small, very vocal group of people who are misinformed, are pushing this resolution – campus life and Vassar’s reputation be damned.

    They single out Israel, the only country in that region of the world that is a democracy, and the only country in the region that, by law, protects freedom of religion, equal rights for women and gay rights. The BDS movement wishes to erase Israel from the map and claims that Israel is an occupying force. One of these territories is run by the Palestinian Authority that is corrupt, and has failed to do anything constructive for its people. The other territory is run by Hamas, a terrorist group that uses civilians as human shields for its military apparatus to fire missiles at Israel. Other countries in the area require women to occupy subservient roles and some physically punish them if they don’t. In addition, many countries in the area impose the death penalty for being gay. Moreover, to claim that Israel, the Jews, are an occupying force, is a distortion of history. Jews have lived in the land called Israel for millennia, and there were many indigenous Jews that lived there before the creation of the State of Israel. Furthermore, there was no group identified as Palestinians until after the 6-day war in 1967. So to say that Israel is an occupying force is a totally false claim.

    I reiterate that this a bone-headed vote, being pushed by a very vocal and committed minority that relies on distorted facts to push their political agenda to eliminate the State of Israel. By the way, the State of Israel is the only Jewish state in the world, which was created to rectify and evil in the 20th century – the murder of 6 million Jews. There are many Islamic states throughout the Middle-East and the world, but there is only one Jewish state. Blaming Israel for all of the evils in the Middle-East, and for all the evils in the world, as BDS does, is no different than the claims that go back to the Middle Ages when clerics blamed Jews for all the evils in the world, and in the 1930s and 1940s when the German government blamed the Jews for all of the evil in the world. We all know how that ended.

  4. “As has been the case with other colleges, the results of this vote will attract significant media attention and will become of a short–but quick­ly growing–list of colleges that support the BDS movement.”

    You write as if the measures have already passed. This is poor reporting, writing and editing.

  5. As a member of the VSA Council from 1996-1997 as Noyes House President, I too find the idea of a secret vote to be reprehensible. If a Council Member does not know enough about an issue or does not feel invested enough to take a stand, then they should abstain. If they are decidedly in support or opposition, then they should accept accountability for their actions. I’m sorry if they are afraid of how their vote will be perceived in the world but that’s life. Honestly, the notion of a secret vote on anything during my VSA Council days would never have been contemplated. It’s unreal.

  6. One of the most basic principles of a democracy is that elected Representatives vote in public. This creates transparency to allow the constituents of the elected Representative to monitor how they are being represented. In light of this I find this course of action by the VSA council to vote in secret on BDS to be cowardly and unacceptable. Members of the council selfishly admit that going on the record, in regard to BDS, can impact their post Vassar lives! Complete hypocrisy!

    Andrew Newman ’87

  7. I was never a member of VSA, but as an alum (VC ’91), I, too, find the idea of a secret vote ridiculous. If you have strong enough convictions about an issue to vote about it, then you need to be accountable for that vote.

  8. I am VC ’90 and very concerned about VSA’s authoritarian voting process. Hate is easy when it is anonymous. I support publishing a list of ALL current VSA members and actively encouraging alumni NOT to hire them. Because if VSA members want to vote anonymously and to create a hostile environment, its members need to accept the consequences.

  9. My intention is not punitive: rather, I am totally opposed to hiding behind anonymity. AND I think employers have a right to know what kind of people they would consider bringing into their organizations.

    Current students: please know that there are hundreds of alumni following this important issue. We believe in a Vassar community that is tolerant and does not discriminate based on an individual’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin.

  10. Since the Vassar Administration has bent over backwards to offer “safe spaces” to all students, especially SOC, Latinos, other minorities and LGBQT students, while lecturing to those of “white privilege” to know their place in the Vassar Utopia, I am not at all surprised that the VSA representatives are recognizing that their own safe space would be violated by an open vote. Since the Vassar administration, faculty and students have recognized, identified and aggressively opposed all forms of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, classism, ableism, xenophobia, harmism, Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, monoculturalism, elitism, exclusionism, patriarchalism. rapism, phallocentrism, anthropocentrism, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-neocolonialism, hegemonism, handism, colorism, logocentrism, majoritarianism, heteropatriarchalism and borealcentrism, it is remarkable that those Vassar entities have not recognized the wide prevalence of antisemitism inside and outside of the classroom and taken steps to counter this with immediate actions.
    _______________________
    What is far more interesting is the question of exactly whose incursions into their safe spaces do the elected VSA representatives fear? If they publicly express their support for BDS, I doubt very much that they will be accosted or defamed by the small timid minority of Jewish students who are against BDS and do not believe that there is an “illegal occupation” by “Israeli oppressors” but have never expressed their anti-BDS opinion openly out of fear of being ostracized and shouted down by the tyranny of the majority. There will not be a peep of dissent from the Vassar Jewish Union, now an open Hillel which means that they welcome anti-Israel speakers, and also claims to be a non-political organization. On the other hand, were the BDS resolution to fail in an open vote of the VSA, I am certain that the representatives will incur the unadulterated and public wrath of the members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Act Out!, Crafts Not Bombs, Feminist Alliance, Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics (GAAP), Middle Eastern Students’ Collective (MESC), Multiracial Biracial Student Association (MBSA), Vassar Drone Initiative, Vassar Prison Initiative (VPI), Vassar Queer Health Initiative (VQHI) and Vassar Transparency Coalition (VTC), and all other campus groups which vehemently support BDS. J-Street at Vassar has offered a schizophrenic version of an anti-Israel resolution, not including BDS, which opposes the” Israeli Occupation” and supports working with pro-Palestinian organization to fight “anti-Palestinian racism” and the “maltreatment of Palestinians”
    ______________________
    Each VSA representative, were she/he to publicly and openly oppose BDS would face rapid and overwhelming removal from their cocoon of safe space and be subject to verbal vitriol and threats of reprisal. Since the campus is small and does not, with the exception of Chabad, offer any safe spaces, according to VSA minutes, from the BDS proponents, these VSA representatives would be faced with intimidation throughout their daily life, both in and outside their dorms and classrooms.
    ___________________
    Today is the beginning of Israel-Apartheid week, another example of the determination of the unopposed and strident BDS movement. Jewish students who oppose BDS will have to walk past the erected “Apartheid Wall” in the Retreat in Main every day and, if silent, will suffer inner shame and, if questioning, will be met with open ridicule. Those VSA representatives who insisted on an anonymous vote will only be subjected to their own sense of personal cowardice.

  11. VSA, you’re a bunch of cowards. Leaving aside how extraordinarily wrong the proposed resolution is in the first place, if you’re going to inject yourselves into this fight, at least have the guts to do so publicly and as others have said, be accountable for your actions.

  12. How deplorable! Vassar students, elected to represent their peers, so ashamed of where they stand that they’re standing in the closet. Acting in the dark …. behavior in sympathy with Ms. Puar’s reluctance to allow recordings of her own contemptible assertions at her recent Vassar appearance.
    This is a much larger issue than BDS and the agonies of the Middle East. It is about intellectual and personal honesty. I learned at a very different Vassar to buttress opinion with fact; to form opinions I can share with assurance. It’s a practice that helps me hold my head up in the light.
    I am so, so heartbroken by what has happened to my wonderful college, and I must hold the administration and faculty responsible for ceding excellence to trendiness.
    Wendy S. Aronson, M.D., Class of 1964

  13. @Trevor Brown If you intend for Zionism to be a compelling ideology or narrative, you should at least pretend not to be racist asshole.

  14. As Robert Ronan so eloquently notes, Trevor Brown’s racism has no place in the Vassar community. And it is not just racism that Mr. Brown suffers from, but sexism and classism and other isms to numerous to mention. The editors of the Miscellany news have noted the lack of any safeguards against unregulated alumnae/i speech and other outside sources of speech that manage to reach the ears of Vassar students. This must be addressed. I have suggested a “Truth and Safety Council” made up of bright young people like Mr. Ronan, who would promulgate fair regulations to apply to all outside campus speech, thus creating a campus-wide safe space for the faculty and students of Vassar. “Free speech” like “free trade” has always been a way for colonial hegemony to exploit the powerless. Vassar supports fair trade – it should support fair speech as well.

  15. It is shocking not only that the VSA supports a secret vote but also that the administration has not stepped in to stop this. The problem of no leadership at Vassar continues.

  16. This display of cowardice is so vile that I would be loath to hire anyone who had attended Vassar at all after this, lest we err by hiring one of the students secretly voting to vilify Israel. Absolutely shameful.

  17. btw, Gaza is not “occupied”……….no Jews in Gaza, its governed by Hamas. But Israel does supply it with water and electricity even when rockets are launched by their elected government into civilian areas of Gaza And the West bank is divided into “areas’ in accordance with the Oslo Accords and Israeli villages [ I know, I know, they are “settlements”, Arabs in the West Bank live in villages and Jews live in settlements] are not constructed outside of Area C which is the Israeli “area” per the Accords. It might be helpful to a real understanding of the issues to know a little about the facts but “Welcome to the Palestinian method of discourse: screaming, whining, crying, breast beating, pulling fire alarms, threatening bodily harm, more screaming and whining punctuated by stabbing, car ramming and bus bombs. Methods recently adopted by so called progressive left university students and mush brain ivory tower academics and academic administrators who have joined the BDS and SJP movements because they apparently need love and peer approval. Reality is not relevant so long as a progressive lefty appears to be in favor of the “downtrodden”, even when the down trodden by their own volition have chosen to be downtrodden.”

  18. @rick benjamin Check your own facts before you try to correct someone else’s. “[A]s [Israel] retains control of Gaza’s airspace and coastline, it continues to be designated as an occupying power in the Gaza Strip by the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly[15] and some countries and various human rights organizations.” – Wikipedia.

  19. I was VSA President from 1998-99. A secret ballot is antithetical to the ideals of student government (and indeed government everywhere). Make it public.

  20. Votes are confidential for a reason – to protect individual conscience from the pressures of the ignorance of the masses. I don’t remember Vassar having that kind of ignorance in my day (“76), but it sounds like a problem now. How about a more nuanced understanding of the dangers of right-wing politics? Anti-right wing Israeli politics is NOT antisemitism.

  21. VSA, you are being peer pressured into taking a position in a highly charged conflict. Does “you’re either with us or against us”, ring a bell? There’s also a tactic people use to create a sense of urgency to force other people to act, when they otherwise wouldn’t. Guess what, you don’t *need* to take a stand on this issue, in this particular forum- or any other forum. If you think your lives will be impacted by casting a vote, then why hold the vote in the first place?! Don’t degrade democracy and the VSA bylaws, because a small faction is bullying you into taking a position on an issue you aren’t comfortable engaging.

    Take a stand, and tell both sides, you will not be bullied into choosing a side. The people pressuring you to take the the vote, have already taken a side, their convictions are clear. They lose nothing with this vote and only gain leverage to advance their agenda once you take the vote. No one should force you to make a decision about something like this when you aren’t ready. You seek anonymity because you don’t want this decision to impact the rest of your lives? You will come across many, many important issues in your lives to come. Take a stand, if and when, YOU are ready. Otherwise, it’s fine to decline the invitation. There are many crucial issues out there- capital punishment, abortion, the presidential election, human trafficking, poverty, famine, illiteracy- why isn’t the VSA taking a stand on any or all of those issues? Aren’t they important to? Aren’t they life and death issues happening right now? Because the VSA doesn’t need to. It’s not the main point of the VSA’s purpose. Don’t allow yourselves to be manipulated and get back to the VSA’s primary purpose in existing. Just because UCLA and Stanford are doing it, doesn’t mean Vassar needs to as well.

    I choose to stay out of the Israel – Palestine debate. In part, it’s because I’m from Berkeley. I’m so bloody tired of people taking a stand on everything and forcing that opinion on everyone around them. And in part, now that I’m in the real world, I have a million other things in my life I need to make definitive decisions about, that actually impact my day-to-day life. The conflict over there is not one of them. That doesn’t mean I don’t have sympathy for victims and abhor evil. Come on VSA, learn a thing from the U.S. Supreme Court justices… if it’s not squarely in your jurisdiction, and you don’t need to make a decision now- don’t.

    Claire Johnston Arno ’96
    VSA ’94-’95, Junior Class President

  22. As a former VSA rep (Ferry House) I can’t ever recall a time we took a vote in secret. The fact that current VSA members find it necessary to do so on this issue now says something about the wisdom of choosing to engage in a difficult issue in such a naive and divisive way. There is a word for those who choose to marginalize and condemn annonomously: cowardice.

  23. @Oslow Wild The UN and “some countries and humane organizations”?
    Which countries? Which organizations? Who wrote that Wikipedia entry? Clearly not someone from Vassar who should know better and consider the source. It is a well known fact that the UN is controlled by Arab states. Consider the source!

  24. I was VSA Treasurer 1999-2000 and strongly believe the VSA council should reconsider their decision to hold this vote anonymously. Council members represent their constituencies and their constituencies have every right to know how their representatives vote on every issue. The resolution in question, regardless of the way the vote turns out, has been set forward with the purpose of affecting other people’s lives, making an open debate and an open vote even more (not less) imperative. So, please, do your homework and be able to defend your position – or abstain if you can’t reach a conclusion with conviction but don’t hide behind a secret ballot.

  25. I understand the argument for the value of transparency but can’t help but think the crowd here is being a little harsh on a group of college students who might be on the council because they thought it would be a good experience to help support and organize activities for their dorm (just as an example). Based on these comments from some fellow enlightened VC alums I could see why students wouldn’t want to be branded as either anti-semites or supporters of apartheid (depending on which way they voted). This might not be what they thought they were signing up for. I await your internet rage.
    James Hildebrand, Class of 2001

  26. If the VSA is going to vote on this complex issue, which I doubt most students understand thoroughly, at least have the courage of your convictions and do it openly
    And by the way, I assume that those of you who are in favor of BDS have thrown away your cell phones (originally invented through Israeli technology and will never take advantage of any medical breakthroughs developed in Israel. Please do your research very thoroughly so you can be consistent in boycotting everything associated with Israel, including those that will affect your health and well-being. It’s too easy to just boycott hummus.

    Marcia Harris, class of ’65

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