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.”