Students calling on the University to divest from 10 companies they see as complicit in Israeli human rights abuses presented their resolution at an unusually long and well-attended College Council (CC) meeting Tuesday. As a vote on the resolution approaches, students on both sides of the issue are presenting their case, both before CC and around campus.
On Tuesday, College Council (CC) convened for its weekly general meeting at 7:30 p.m. CC Chair Eric Holmberg began the meeting and noted that attendance was significantly higher than usual. The meeting, which typically lasts about 30 minutes, continued past 10:30 p.m. as both proponents and opponents of the U of C Divest movement argued over whether or not the University should stop investing in companies that the resolution says profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In their 15-minute presentation, U of C Divest presenters urged CC to change the University’s “shameful history of non-divestment,” citing its refusal to divest from South Africa and Darfur.
“If this school’s College Council votes to divest, we will join a rapidly increasing number of American university student bodies that have taken a stand against Israeli apartheid, occupation, and human rights abuses. This will add to the pressure on the Israeli government, the United States government, and complicit corporations to ultimately end such human rights abuses,” fourth-year Sara Rubinstein, a member of U of C Divest, wrote in an e-mail to The Maroon.
U of C Divest presenters stated that criticism of Israel is not equivalent to anti-Semitism. They asserted that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the broader campaign launched by a coalition of Palestinian groups in 2005, is not a critique of Judaism but rather of Israel’s human rights violations.
Various students then presented their opposition to the resolution.
Fourth-year Maxine Berman, representing the anti-divestment group UChicago Coalition for Peace, argued that divestment is detrimental to both Israelis and Palestinians. Stating that the financial consequences of U of C Divest’s proposal would be essentially meaningless, Berman argued that divestment from Israel is biased against a historically persecuted population and would contribute to Israel’s growing sense of alienation from the international community. Berman referred to this resolution as “toxic symbolism.” For Palestine, she added, employment opportunities and economic prospects would become increasingly limited.
Berman expressed concern that divestment will further alienate and frighten Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. “It is also likely to lead to an increase in anti-Semitism on campus, including harassment and graffiti, as has already occurred on a range of campuses, from Oxford to the University of California system to Northwestern,” she stated.
The U of C Divest discussion was tabled around 10:30 p.m. with no consensus. CC is expected to vote on this issue at a future meeting.
Since the U of C Divest campaign launched on March 28, student organizations on both sides of the issue have organized events to discuss the topic. On Tuesday, U of C Divest placed signs on the quad displaying information about the BDS movement. During the past week, U of C Divest affiliate organizations Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace held events discussing LGBTQ+ politics in Israel and grounds for Jewish support for BDS, respectively.
In response to the resolution, students opposed to divestment organized the UChicago Coalition for Peace, which released a statement last Thursday opposing the resolution. On Wednesday, Jewish Voice for Peace hosted an event titled “The Jewish Case for Divestment.” On Thursday, J Street UChicago, an RSO in favor of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and opposed to the Israeli occupation, hosted a discussion about the campus BDS movement. On Friday, UChicago Hillel is hosting an event entitled “‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It:’ BDS, Campus Climate and Facing Assumptions,” for students who feel uncomfortable with the broader discourse.
Wednesday’s JVP discussion was held in the South Lounge of the Reynolds Club and featured Rabbi Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago, a nearby congregation focused on social justice–oriented Judaism.
Following a brief introduction and a moment of silence, Rosen discussed the development of his opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and his past experiences as a rabbi for a more traditional congregation where many of the members did not agree with his views. Highlighting the history of successful divestment movements elsewhere and the increasingly desperate situation in Palestine, Rosen argued that standing in solidarity with Palestinian calls for human rights is fundamentally in line with Jewish history and values.
After Rosen’s speech, attendees participated in a discussion on the BDS movement and ways to convince others, especially fellow Jews, to support the movement.
In response to a question about the movement’s potential to inflame anti-Semitism and create unsafe environments for Jewish students on college campuses, Rosen argued that the frequently-cited examples of this happening on campuses are isolated, and that it’s unhealthy to use accusations of anti-Semitism to stifle discussion. “To me, that’s like crying wolf, because it makes the whole notion of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions almost meaningless,” Rosen said.
The event on Thursday hosted by J Street UChicago was held in Harper Memorial Library and featured an “open conversation” about the BDS movement. J Street had previously released a statement Tuesday outlining its opposition to the BDS movement. However, the event on Thursday was intended to bring together students on both sides of the issue.
After attendees introduced themselves and gave their reasons for taking part in the discussion, the event’s organizers directed the attendees to sheets of paper hanging around the room, each with a common buzzword associated with the debate, such as “Occupation,” “BDS,” and “Peace.” Organizers asked participants to walk around the room and write down personal meanings and thoughts surrounding each word. Participants then broke into groups in front of sheets with words they wanted to discuss and spent the remainder of the event reading and reacting to the listed definitions.
Fourth-year Emma Pasternack, co-chair of J Street UChicago, wrote in an e-mail, “One of the things that divestment does is force a false choice between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, or between criticism of the occupation and support for Israel…. The middle ground on this issue is especially crucial. The category of those that recognize the rights of both peoples to exist side-by-side in peace and security needs to expand, not be pushed to the margins.”
According to a statement released on Facebook, J Street UChicago opposes the U of C Divest resolution because of the document’s lack of explicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist. The statement also expresses concerns that the resolution’s passage would serve more to stifle discussion than to promote open dialogue. “[J Street] want[s] to encourage an open, rigorous, inclusive conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not polarize the issue to a point where there is no potential for engagement and cooperation,” the statement said.