Almost every week this semester, Barnard’s Student Government Association has welcomed student groups or members of the administration to talk about what they do and how SGA can help them better further their goals. This week, representatives of Student for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) were the main presenters. The two groups joined to form Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) in 2016 to jointly advocate for the University’s divestment from companies that the group considers to contribute to Palestinian oppression by Israel. This advocacy is driven by the international Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, which informs and encourages aligned student groups, among other campaigns.
This type of proposal–both its political assumptions and its methodology–is heavily debated, both around the world and on campus, and more than a hundred students showed up to support or question the guests. “We are super psyched to have such a crowd, this never happens,” said SGA President Angela Beam, who enforced strict time rules throughout the meeting, using a very jarring timer to make sure question and answers lasted no more than two minutes and direct responses no more than one.
Before the main presentation of the evening, though, two members of the Roosevelt Institute, a “progressive, nonpartisan, student-run think tank” on campus, spoke about a completely separate and unrelated divestment proposal. These students spoke about the Baupost group, a Boston- and London-based hedge fund which bought up Puerto Rican tax debt in 2015. The fund is not forgiving the debt, despite the territory’s declaring bankruptcy last May. They said that this has caused Puerto Rico to implement austerity measures, which means cutting funding for programs like schools and prisons. Barnard, apparently, has investments with Baupost. RI asked SGA for a vote to initiate a student referendum about divesting from the Baupost group.
SGA thanked the Roosevelt Institute members for coming, and ensured them that the matter will be considered and discussed. We then turned to the main presenters of the night. Caroline Oliver, BC’20; Alla Issa, CC’21; and Marla Solow, BC’19 presented on behalf of CUAD. Angela reminded the speakers and the spectators that “there will be no votes made tonight, there will be no decisions made tonight. This is purely discussion to further explore the issues.” She also asked people to “please be respectful, please be polite, and please talk into the mic.”
Oliver, Issa, and Solow spoke about CUAD’s proposal that Columbia University and Barnard College–which have separate economic holdings–divest from eight specific companies that have dealings with Israel. These companies include those that deal with manufacturing and machinery, like CAT, and aerospace technology, like Boeing, as well as Israeli-owned and operated companies like Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest bank. According to CUAD and the larger BDS movement, divestment is an effective symbolic way for universities to show that they do not support Israel. “It’s not really just a Columbia thing, or a Palestine-Israel thing,” they said, citing other schools which have had student votes for similar divestment plans and past CU/BC divestment efforts, such as Barnard’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels last year. Unlike at last semester’s CCSC meeting, CUAD was not asking SGA to initiate a student referendum on the matter. Rather, they wanted SGA to compose a letter of support about divestment to be sent to Barnard’s administration.
SGA members had a chance to ask questions, most of which were practical, such as where the list of companies comes from–it is made by the larger BDS movement–and how the school would theoretically ensure that they remain divested from the proposed appropriate companies in the future (if, for example, Israel changes providers for some service). “The future is the future,” Oliver answered, saying that CUAD does not have a proposal for that.
There was also discussion about the claims that a divestment decision would represent. University Senator Kira Dennis said that she’s heard from students who have expressed that this kind of resolution would make them feel unsafe and marginalized on campus. Issa pushed back, saying “we’re not asking Barnard to reinvest in Palestine. To make everyone feel safe is to have no money in the area at all.” Other students, though, seem to see this of a matter of action versus inaction–divestment would be seen as taking an absolute stance with the CUAD and the BDS movement, despite the divisiveness of their claims.
The gathered audience then had a chance to ask the presenters questions. Despite the hype, and though many students spoke passionately about their positions, nothing particularly novel or interesting was brought up. Some students asked how SGA could fully consider this request without hearing from students that oppose the divestment. The answer–that SJP and JVP asked to speak at the meeting, as every student group has the right to do, was accurate–but didn’t really answer the question: this is the first group SGA has heard from this semester which has direct campus opposition, at least to my knowledge. It seems that inviting “the other side” would have the been politically responsible thing to do.
The meeting ended before any conclusion was reached, and in the middle of several arguments about antisemitism, marginalization, and economic responsibility. Rep for Food and Dining Services Sarah Broniscer motioned for a ten minute extension of discussion, which did not obtain the necessary simple majority vote, and the external portion of the meeting ended.
The internal portion of the meeting is closed to press and other students who are not members of the Rep Council. According to VP Communications Rhea Nagpal,
Following our internal debrief of CUAD’s presentation last night, SGA voted to initiate a student body-wide referendum on whether or not we should recommend CUAD’s divestment campaign to the Barnard administration. This vote passed with a simple majority, which is required for a vote to initiate a referendum as per Section 2 of our Bylaws.
We have decided to move forward with this by way of referendum, instead of a statement of support as CUAD requested, because SGA cannot make political or partisan statements without gauging student body support. Therefore, it is essential that we hold a referendum prior to making a decision on whether or not we will recommend CUAD’s divestment proposal to the Barnard administration.
The referendum was not part of CUAD’s official request last night. “We are so pleased that SGA are giving us the chance to continue this conversation with the Barnard student body,” said Yasmeen Abdel Majeed, CC’18, a member of SJP. “Their decision to pose it to the student body with a referendum, while not exactly what we asked for, essentially achieves the same goal of holding Barnard accountable to its values as an institution–in this case by seeing how the student body feels about the issue.” Albert Mishaan, CC’19, President of Aryeh, Columbia Students Association for Israel, expressed his disappointment with the proceedings. “Its extremely unfair that despite the SGA president saying that there will be no vote tonight, they voted without having the pro-Israel side present at all.” He also pointed out that according to SGA bylaws, referendum proposals that are considered “contentious” require a two-third vote of the Rep Council for approval. “This was obviously a contentious issue,” he said, “no one can deny that. We are disappointed with the dishonesty of how this was conducted.”
Update, 8:30 pm: A quote from CUAD member Lucy Danger was removed from the article, because Lucy is a Staff Writer at Bwog and asking her for comment constituted a conflict of interest.
Update, 9:40 pm:Updated to include comment from SJP member Yasmeen Abdel Majeed.