After Four Tense Hours, CCSC Votes Down Proposed Apartheid Divest Referendum
Written by Nadra Rahman
Bwogger Nadra Rahman reports from a tense and stuffy Satow Room on overflow rooms, fascist symbols, anti-Semitism, “democracy and discourse,” a “painfully white” student council, and more, as CUAD pushes to include a question on the ballot for the upcoming student council elections.
Last night’s meeting of the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) was the most packed since, well, the last time that Israel was mentioned. Most of the students who came—from organizations like Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), Aryeh, J Street, Students Supporting Israel (SSI), Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ), and still more groups—could not fit into the room and were either funnelled into overflow rooms to hear the livestream, or turned away. Chaos reigned for the first half hour of the meeting, with VP Nathan Rosin doing the bulk of the bouncing for the precariously crammed Satow Room.
The impetus for all this was CUAD’s proposal to include a referendum in the ballot for the upcoming general elections, which would read as follows: “Do you support Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s campaign as part of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement?” Though the Israel-Palestine issue consistently draws impassioned crowds to CCSC meetings, the intention of last night’s meeting was to vote not on the content of the issue, but on the language of the question and whether it deserved inclusion on the ballot.
CUAD, Aryeh, and J Street all gave presentations on their take. CUAD leaders briefly summarized the organization’s mission to divest Columbia’s stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that profit from Israel’s “ongoing system of settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid law” (from their Facebook page). Both speakers emphasized that the question was not meant to deceive students, but to gather information on student sentiment that can be later presented to the administration as they make their case for divestment. To those who would answer the proposed referendum in the negative, speaker Zachary Aldridge (CC ‘19) said, “You can vote no, and I encourage you to vote no.” Nadine Talaat (CC ‘17) addressed comments on appropriate representation to Council members: “Knowing what the student body thinks about our campaign is the only way you can do the job that you want to do.” In their presentation, J Street, a group that terms itself pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and anti-occupation, supported CUAD’s right to raise the resolution while stressing the need for the question to include the connection to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement; they believe the movement is detrimental to the peacebuilding process and ongoing negotiations for a two-state solution.
Speakers from Aryeh plainly stated that CUAD had “led a campaign of hate” premised on anti-Semitism; they strongly opposed including the referendum on the ballot. With regards to language, they opposed including CUAD’s name in the question, contending it was in itself an argument; further, they were displeased that the question did not mention Israel by name. Said one speaker, “It would be dishonest to hide the target of CUAD’s smear campaign.”
The discussion that followed these presentations was largely circular and at times, intensely personal. Though the meeting lasted a grueling four hours, only a few strands of argumentation crystallized, mainly focused on (1) CCSC’s role as a body, (2) issues of safety and marginalization, and (3) CUAD as an organization.
So What Is CCSC’s Role?
During Aryeh’s presentation, President Dore Feith (CC ‘18) suggested the referendum conflicted with the Council’s goal of promoting cohesiveness among the student body, citing the body’s Constitution. Though VP Finance Anuj Sharma found that the quote was out of context, Council members generally agreed that CCSC had an important role in fostering a sense of community. As USenator Josh Schenk put it, “There’s no doubt that building community is the number one priority of the student council.” In his estimation, the referendum would not foster debate or discussion, but would strive to establish a consensus; he analogized the topic at hand to gun control or the presidential election: what’s the need for a CCSC-administered referendum? Inclusion and Equity Rep Lewit Bedada disagreed, proposing that engagement with the issue was a way to build community. Later in the night, Sharma said that the discussion so far had been divisive but productive, testament to this notion.
Some audience members resented the comparisons to gun control or the presidential election, stressing that there were both Palestinian and Israeli students on campus “directly implicated” in the issue, and that calling for Columbia’s divestment from the specified companies made it a Columbia-specific issue. Talaat later elaborated, “Social justice issues are always divisive”—that’s not enough for CCSC to disengage. One proponent put it this way: “What we’re asking you guys is to not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…what we’re asking is for you guys to stand for the principles of democracy and discourse.”
Feith thought all this was out of the purview of CCSC, saying time and again that “CCSC is not a polling company.” The discussion, he believed, should happen on campus. He also found the referendum’s lack of an actionable item problematic. USenator Jay Rapaport agreed, saying that Columbia students should have their debates on Low Steps, and not on the ballot. These points were countered by CUAD, who said the data would be used in their talks with Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing; references were also made to the precedent of CDCJ’s resolution, also put to the student body, on divesting from fossil fuels. While others suggested this information could be gathered through noninstitutional means, Sharma again turned to the Constitution, which states “The CCSC is charged with gathering and expressing student opinion…”
The word “marginalization” came up many, many times throughout the evening. Numerous Council and audience members said the referendum would be harmful to the safety and emotional wellbeing of the pro-Israel community on campus. David Quintas, president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, said that the referendum would “do harm to [discussion] by making it seem as though the student body has taken a position” and added that it would result in “acrimony and division.” This view was echoed by many. Queer and trans audience members against the inclusion of the referendum said that because many activist and identity-based groups had aligned with CUAD, they lacked access to important spaces and felt increasingly marginalized. Several speakers called the divest movement anti-Semitic and called for CCSC to halt the spread of hate at Columbia. At one point, a student pulled out photocopies of pages from a book they had found in Butler, inscribed with a swastika and anti-Semitic messages, suggesting that the referendum would only exacerbate such sentiment.
All this created a volley of exchanges, with several proponents of the referendum’s inclusion listing the marginalized or minority groups allied with CUAD, such as Columbia Queer Alliance, Columbia University Black Students’ Organization, No Red Tape, Asian Political Collective, CDCJ, South Asian Feminisms Alliance, and Student-Worker Solidarity. As one CDCJ member put it, “Downvoting this will drown out the voices of the groups that stand in solidarity with these groups.” One student supporting CUAD read aloud a graphic death threat they had received, calling attention to the two-sided nature of any division. In reference to queer students who felt excluded by groups’ alignment with CUAD, an audience member said: “I have a vibrant queer life among people who support justice…I will exclude people who are racist.” (This caused some tumult.)
Other proponents noted the whiteness and maleness of CCSC, implying it was not representative of the student body. At some point, Feith declared, “I wonder, did she mean white or did she mean Jewish?…Jews aren’t white…It’s so offensive, so ignorant of a history of thousands of years.”
When an SSI member urged Council to “stand in solidarity with the people who feel marginalized,” one student replied, “When we’re lectured about safety by an organization that brings fascist signs on campus…we find it incredibly spectacular, the moral indignation.”
To recap: both sides felt marginalized and threatened. Pro-CUAD speakers felt the feelings of pro-Israel students were being valued above their own, since both the inclusion and the exclusion of the referendum would send a political message. Sharma spoke to the issue: “I think not putting the question on the ballot is way more political than putting it on the ballot…we’re saying this is a topic that isn’t even worthy of discussion.”
Many things were said about CUAD and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement in large. The organization was charged with anti-Semitism and supporting violence and extremism, both through direct endorsement of those involved in these activities and by providing the right wing in Israel with fodder for their rhetoric. Eventually, a pro-CUAD audience member drew attention to the matter at hand: the language and inclusion of the referendum; they stated, “I’m not really sure what slandering CUAD has to do with that.”
One SSI member’s comments manufactured some turmoil. He defended the use of the Kahanist symbol, associated with Jewish extremism and racism, during the organization’s Hebrew Liberation Week, saying other groups used similar motifs in depicting liberation or struggle. He said: “When Jews stand up for their own rights…then all of a sudden we are marginalized, then all of a sudden we are not allowed to stand up.” This later drew an impassioned response from 2017 President Jordana Narin.
The Actual Language Of The Referendum
Not much discussion happened on this topic. No alternative wording was proposed.
The meeting was punctuated by a sense of urgency (and indeed, doom) because CCSC could not hold the room after midnight. After four hours of rising action, the end was swift and sweeping. Over several objections and motions to table the discussion or hold a secret ballot, Council motioned to add the referendum to the ballot. The motion failed with a clear majority; Narin abstained from the vote because she felt the issue had not been discussed thoroughly enough. Edited to add: In the end, she voted in the negative.
Edit, as of 10:56pm, 4/3/2017: The official vote count, according to CCSC, was 5-28.
CUAD dispersed and the pro-Israel groups lingered.
Yes, There Were Updates:
- Senate: The “literal closet” that functions as an LGBTQ space in the Furnald basement will be moved to Schapiro, replacing the fitness room there; the fitness room will take the place of the old center. Rooms 476A and B in Lerner (RIP Lerner Package Center) will be event spaces for LGBTQ students and students of color, to be bookable by student groups in the near future. USenator Josh Schenk also presented his new program for engaging with alumni over the summer, “CU there!”
- Campus Life: Don’t forget about College Days! (The Council members sure didn’t, as they took two minutes to change their cover photos, in unison)