At their Feb. 28 meeting, the VSA reviewed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Resolution and Amendment to the VSA Bylaws authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), as well as the Anti-Occupation Resolution put forward by J Street U. The VSA Council conducted the review in preparation for the decisive March 6 vote where the VSA will vote on the adoption of the resolutions. The forum was conducted as an open forum where members from both orgs explained their resolutions and addressed questions and concerns.
VSA President Ramy Abbady ’16 included the resolutions in an email to the student body discussing the structure of the Feb. 28 forum. The BDS Amendment 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 including Sabra, Tribe, Ben & Jerry’s, Hewlett-Packard Company, Ahava, General Electric, Eden Springs, Motorola, Caterpillar, G4S and Elbit Systems. The BDS Resolution also supports Vassar College’s divestment from products from the same companies. The Anti-Occupation Resolution allows all students and orgs to decide how to pursue related activism, condemns the occupation of the West Bank, the military blockade in Gaza and the maltreatment of Palestinian citizens in Israel. It also affects the VSA to create a committee comprised of VSA Council members, SJP, JVP, J Street U and other students.
The SJP and JVP representatives reasserted the tenets of their resolution and highlighted its moral urgency and communal significance as a means of standing in solidarity with the Palestinians against colonial practices perpetrated by Israel in the occupied territories. Commenting on the possible implications of a VSA endorsement, leading member of SJP Henry Rosen ’17 stressed the historical significance of the resolution and the feasibility of its execution. “For an institution to have an endowment of $1 billion, with its mind set on growth—it’s very difficult for an institution to lose financial momentum. At the same time, I’m confident, as are members of SJP, in an aspirational mode, that 10 to 20 years down the road, if Vassar had the option to divest and chose not to—that’s a blemish. Here’s another opportunity for Vassar to stand on the right side of history,” he said, referencing Vassar’s decision to join the movement to divest from South Africa in 1985, the momentous result of a campaign often cited by proponents of BDS as analogous to their own.
Representatives from J Street U emphasized that their main objection to the SJP resolution rests on its potential to stifle opposing views, erode the autonomy of dissenting orgs and cultivate a more divisive campus climate by tethering the school to a single approach to rectifying the situation in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. “We thought that the intent of [the SJP resolution] was to raise and uplift Palestinian voices and to fight towards the end of the occupation,” stated J Street U member Josh Schwartz ’18. “But we felt that the resolution framed things in a way that we disagreed with and that also dichotomized the resolution in a way that was unhelpful.” Elaborating further on what he perceives to be SJP’s push to monopolize the discourse surrounding BDS, Schwartz added, “I think in a lot of ways, what they do is to try and amplify their own voices as opposed to hearing a lot of people’s perspectives.”
SJP and J Street U fundamentally disagree on the course of action the VSA should take in response to related issues. Rosen said, “It’s my personal belief that both [J Street U’s] criticisms and their proposed alternatives don’t really hold up, and aren’t bearing very much water. What I see as the crux of their argument, which is that if the VSA endorses the BDS movement, it would prevent orgs and departments within its purview from inviting speakers or participants or making contracts with leftist Israeli NGOs, is patently false.” He continued, “We should be focused on the issue, which is ending our complicity in human rights abuses and apartheid, and not concerning ourselves with whether or not we’re harming leftist Israeli NGOs. At the end of the day, they’re not the ones who are going to bring about the end of apartheid: it’s grassroots organizers, international solidarity activists and Palestinians.”
The 2015-2016 year marks the first that the VSA is a political organization. After last week’s discussion, multiple VSA representatives and other students questioned the capacity of the Council to make an informed decision about BDS on campus. In reality, the VSA Council is still trying to understand what being a political entity means. Abbady wrote in an emailed statement, “The VSA has not had an in-depth conversation about what a political VSA means beyond our guiding principles, which state that the VSA values and works towards anti-racism and intersectional feminism…The VSA will, after spring break, discuss what politicization looks like going forward, in conjunction with newly elected people.”
At the same time as SJP’s events and discussions surrounding the BDS resolution, numerous racist events have fragmented the campus discourse. Since the beginning of the spring semester, there have been several bias incident reports including antisemitic and Islamophobic remarks on Yik Yak, as well as the drawing of a swastika on a dorm door. Town Houses Representative Maya Horowitz ’16 believed that there was a link between BDS-related campus events and racism. She wrote in an emailed statement, “The BDS movement on this campus has given space for people to express their Islamophobic and antisemitic perspectives. In some ways, I think this is not all bad, as we need to actively reckon with our racisms. But we have seemingly no desire to actually address the broader dynamics of racism that pertain to this issue.”
Many question SJP’s contributions to the campus climate. SJP apologized in 2014 after they published an antisemitic cartoon on their Tumblr account that initiated a Bias Incident investigation. On how students including SJP have conducted campus conversations, Horowitz wrote, “I have always been told that anti-semitism lies just beneath the veneer of civil society, but I have truly been surprised and disappointed by the ways people talk about Jews on this campus…Vassar doesn’t yet know how to speak about anti-semitism while simultaneously speaking about the brutal treatment and suffering of Palestinians.”
Although SJP has been criticized for antisemititic behavior, it has the support of a number of Jews on campus, especially those in JVP. In defense of attacks against SJP and JVP’s insensitivity, JVP member Noah Mlyn ’19 said, “We see that a huge part of the push against BDS is to label it as antisemitic, as we know given the recent events in the national media. And I can say that that troubles and concerns me as a Jew—to believe in something strongly and then to be told that it is something contrary to my identity.”
In addition to the boycott of companies, the BDS Resolution and Amendment would also limit the representation of Israeli institutions on campus. SJP stated at the beginning of the Feb. 28 VSA meeting, “We support boycotting and divesting from those [academic] institutions [that support Israel’s military occupation] because those institutions are institutionally racist and they prevent non-Jewish people from attaining higher education. They are not symbols of higher education, they are symbols of apartheid and colonialism.” SJP also noted that professors from Israeli institutions would be permitted to come to Vassar as long as they do not come representing their institutions.
Nevertheless, multiple VSA members and administrators perceive the academic boycott as contrary to the mission and policies of the college. Town Students Representative Eduardo de la Torre ’17 opined during the VSA meeting, “The boycott of academics is a little nerve-racking for me regardless of whether or not I agree with it because it feels like censorship.” President Catharine Hill agreed, suggesting that the college will not endorse the BDS resolution and amendment. She wrote in an emailed statement, “Two years ago, the Dean of the Faculty and I rejected the American Studies Association call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, supported by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. As we said at the time, Vassar College is firmly committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. We are opposed to boycotts of scholars and academic institutions and we strongly rejected the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”
Concerning the economic boycott contained in the amendment to the VSA Bylaws, some critiques centered around the potential consequences on the future of the VSA and the college. Lathrop House President Antony Manokhin ’18 elaborated on a potential financial consequence of the passing of the BDS resolution. He said during the VSA meeting, “What I’ve heard is that a resolution like this threatens alumni donations for better or for worse for BDS … Considering the resolution that does cause such fragility puts students here in a potentially dangerous situation [in terms of] their financials.” Manokhin also mentioned that pilot programs like The Posse Veterans Program–which grants full-ride scholarships to veterans–could suffer defunding as a result of the passing of the resolution and amendment.
“This [resolution] is breaking a precedent [as is] the amendment,” J Street U member Abigail Johnson ’17 suggested in the VSA Council meeting. “I’ve been to VSA meetings since I was a freshman, and the VSA loves precedent. They love to see what was done before to see if something is just…I think that this resolution will be used in the future to be precedent for saying that Zionism is racism, or we have this BDS thing and J Street likes Zionism or is pro-Israel, so we need to defund J Street [and] we need to get rid of voices on campus.” SJP countered, saying that the final edited resolution and amendment would not contain reference to Zionism, but J Street U defended their claim, citing SJP’s anti-Zionist principles and the attempts of multiple members’–including co-writers of the BDS Resolution and Amendment Alexia Garcia ’18 and Henry Rosen ’17–attempt to restrict J Street U from attending a Zionist conference during the Dec. 15, 2015 VSA Council meeting.
“We believe these student groups have every right to exist on campus and express their views, as long as their actions are in accord with our policies,” Hill wrote of SJP’s presence on campus. Hill drew the line, however, with the BDS amendment, which would restrict orgs from purchasing products supportive of Israel’s military occupation. Hill wrote, “At the same time, the college will not support the BDS movement or the use of college resources for the boycott of any goods or organizations as called for by BDS.” The President has the power to veto anything that would affect the college’s finances, meaning that she could reject the BDS Amendment if adopted by the VSA.
The J Street resolution also received many critiques during the VSA Council meeting. Among them was the concern that the education committee proposed in the Anti-Occupation Resolution would prioritize certain issues on campus over others. Cushing House President Anish Kanoria ’18 said, “I appreciate the sentiment with this resolution. My concern with it, though, is the creation of this entity of people seems like the VSA is prioritizing this conflict over others and it’s prioritizing this form of oppression over others.” He questioned why the VSA would not have a separate committee for discussing Islamophobia, oppression of Black people on campus and in the U.S., and refugees, among others.
After the presentation of the resolutions, the VSA decided not to send the BDS resolution vote straight to referendum. While many VSA Council members expect that the vote will be petitioned to go to referendum, they concluded that the VSA Council is capable of making an informed decision, as they have had many discussions on the issues and have tried to educate themselves. The Council motioned to have an anonymous vote on the J Street U resolution, but concluded on a public vote. The final resolutions will be voted on at the March 6 VSA Council meeting, but the result is petitioned, it may go to referendum anyway.