Staff Writer Caroline Mullooly filled in for CCSC Bureau Chief Adam Kluge at this week’s CCSC meeting, where the BDS referendum was historically passed by the Council for the first time.
After four years of dissent, CCSC passed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Ballot initiative last night in a secret vote. With a 25-12 affirmation, the Council had just enough votes to pass the proposed legislation. Essentially, this means that Columbia College students will be able to vote on the upcoming general ballot as to whether “Columbia University [should] divest stocks, funds, and endowments from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts toward Palestinians that, according to Columbia University Apartheid Divestment, fall under the United Nations International Convention of the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.”
After the usual general updates—which will be listed at the end of the post—Patricia Granda-Malaver (CC ‘20), President of CCSC, asked us all to “take into account what [we’re] saying to the Council,” further remarking that CCSC would “not tolerate any harassment, personal attacks, or disrespect.” She also stated that CCSC believes “[their] responsibilities as representatives are bigger than [themselves],” reaffirming the Council’s commitment to the issue at hand and to the Columbia College community. Granda-Malaver then explained that the referendum would require two-thirds of the Council to vote “yes,” and that, as President, she “has no voting power,” so the referendum would require a minimum of 25 out of 37 votes. She also relayed that the proponents and opponents of the referendum would be given a chance to present to the council, with 10 minutes allocated to each side. After these presentations, there would be a one-hour discussion between the audience members, followed by a 15-minute question and answer session, further followed by a one-hour discussion between the CCSC representatives, and concluding with the vote.
First, the proponents of the referendum presented, including students representing groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, and Jewish Voice for Peace. One proponent, Ryan, from Jewish Voice for Peace, argued that divestment is a “tactic [for] human rights law,” referencing how Columbia could pull away from companies like Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard. Another proponent, Naz, from Students for Justice in Palestine, stated that “thirty-two [student] groups have signed onto [Students for Justice in Palestine’s] campaign” for the referendum, including No Red Tape, Asian American Alliance, and Housing Equity Project. The proponents of the referendum also distributed copies of a handout outlining their perspective to the members of CCSC and the press. While CCSC worked to fix technical sound difficulties that had suddenly come up, the opponents issued their own handouts to the members of CCSC and the press. The opponents of the referendum included students representing J Street CU, Columbia/Barnard Hillel, Students Supporting Israel, and Aryeh. Lindsay Chevlin (BC ‘20), Vice President of Students Supporting Israel, argued that opponents disagreed with the “broad terminology [used in the referendum]” because it does not encapsulate the nuances of the complex issue. Chevlin also claimed that Columbia University Apartheid Divestment “has had no idea if [Columbia is involved with these companies].”
The meeting then shifted to an hour-long open discussion with members of the audience. Alla, a proponent of the referendum, acknowledged that the presentations “[equated] anti-zionism with antisemitism,” and how that trend perpetuates the idea that “Palestinians are inherently anti-semitic by wanting to…fight for their homeland.” In opposition, another student believes that this referendum will instead “stall conversation”; it is important to note that this student requested their identity to be concealed for their own safety and of those back home in the Middle East. On the other hand, Chris, a proponent, argued that “principles of free speech…allow discourse on campus,” and that the conclusion of the meeting could allow students to “get educated [on the issue].” The discussion then took a turn, as a student shared a personal story that will not be repeated due to its graphic content. While partially related to the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the story caused President Granda-Malaver to ask the audience “if [we] could please give a trigger warning” when talking about such sensitive subject matter. In response, President Granda-Malaver decided to take a pause “to make sure everyone’s mental health is okay,” as a few students stepped out of the room. After taking a few more comments—inciting debates over white supremacism, anti-zionism as a political movement versus a part of the Jewish identity, and whether or not the referendum is part of a larger BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement)—the President commenced a five-minute break.
Returning from the break, the President stated that it can be “really triggering to delve into graphic details,” and “[council and audience] members [should] feel free to step out.” Wrapping up the discussion, CCSC moved to the question and answer period between CCSC representatives and audience members. Gender and Sexuality Representative Kwolanne Felix (CC ‘22) asked the opponents “what [method] do [they] envision to support Palestine?” The opponents to the referendum responded by stating that they wrote a “demolition letter to Congress,” which was aimed at “inhibiting the building of settlements [on Palestinian land],” in addition to other actions. Heven Haile (CC ‘21), University Senator, asked: “how [the opponents] can define racism for the student groups that have defined the [anti-Palestininan] movement as racist?” The opponents responded by stating that there are “non-white Jews that are zionists.” To the proponents of the referendum, CCSC representatives then posed one or two questions.
CCSC then moved into the discussion period between Council members, motioning to reduced the allotted time from one hour to 30 minutes due to the time constraint. CCSC clarified to all that “the wording [of the referendum was not agreed upon [by both sides],” and it was instead decided by CCSC after a discussion with the proponents and opponents. As the members of the two groups felt supported or angered by the specific wording of the referendum, this is an important clarification to make. One CCSC member, who decided to remain anonymous, stated that “[it would be] fundamentally anti-democratic if [the Council does] not put this [referendum] through,” backing proponents’ claims that the passing of this referendum would be opening up the discussion to the Columbia community, instead of making a final decision on the College’s actions. Another CCSC representative agreed, stating that “[the] student body should be allowed to vote one way or another.” Another CCSC member acknowledged the immense pressure the Council was under to make a decision, stating that “all of [their] work on this council is going to be boiled down to [this night].” The student also mentioned that “if this is what it means to be engaging in a discussion, I don’t want to be a part of it.” This student’s statement best represents the stiff tension in the highly emotional setting. After almost four hours of political, personal, and public debate, all the fresh air had been sucked out of the room, and all present were ready to hear the vote, but more ready to go home.
The last statement was from Elle Harris (CC ‘23), President of the Columbia College Class of 2023, who argued in favor of passing the referendum because “putting students in a difficult position is something [the Council] has to do, as we are all adults…[and] we are the generation that’s trying to change the world.” A motion for a secret ballot passed, followed by the motion to vote on the referendum, passing with the minimum of 25 votes needed. Cheers swelled from the side of the proponents, taking the passing as a historic victory after a long four hours of debate and a longer four years of CCSC meetings.
And now, onto the more lighthearted part of the meeting:
Edit 9:06 AM, November 26, 2019: A previous version of the post omitted the student group Aryeh in listing opponents of the referendum. The error is now corrected.
Edit 10:50 PM, November 25, 2019: A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to the Jewish Voice for Peace as Force for Peace. The error is now corrected.