Updated April 3, 11:15 a.m.
After nearly four hours of debate at its general body meeting on Sunday attended by crowds that drew Public Safety officers to guard the entrance of the conference room, Columbia College Student Council voted overwhelmingly against putting a referendum on its ballot asking whether students support Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s campaign for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
The contentious vote took place after dozens of students on both sides of the conflict, representing CUAD, Aryeh, Students Supporting Israel, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace, among others, spoke before the council.
Over 120 people attended the meeting, with dozens standing outside the Satow Conference Room or filling overflow rooms. Public Safety officers monitored the doors of the room and attempted to suppress pushing as people tried to enter the meeting.
But while most of the meeting focused on perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, discussion was supposed to focus on whether the referendum had “objective wording, feasibility, and adherence to [CCSC’s] mission and policies,” the qualities of an appropriate ballot question described in CCSC’s constitution.
Opponents said that the language of the question would unnecessarily divide the student body, and that the wording—specifically, the word “apartheid” as used to describe Israel—could mislead the student body.
CUAD argued it was not using the vote as a way to sway opinions, but merely as a way to gather information. CUAD member Zachary Aldridge, CC ’19, told the council that the group would present the results of the ballot question to the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing in an attempt to convince ACSRI to recommend divestment from companies that CUAD says profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
CUAD members argued that the question itself had no subliminal anti-Israeli bias. Some council members supported the idea of fostering public debate through the referendum.
“At best, in my opinion, if we vote ‘no’ at this proposition we are turning a blind eye to an issue that is already discussed. At worst, I think it is an affirmation of the divisiveness of the issue,” said Vice President for Finance Anuj Sharma, CC ’17.
CCSC representatives who voted against adding the referendum to election ballots said they did not want to make a political statement. Some representatives stated that their constituents felt personally attacked by the referendum, and therefore could not vote for it.
Supporters of the referendum responded that by not voting for the referendum, CCSC made an equally politically charged statement. Further, they cited the fact that GSSC passed a ballot initiative last year on the question of divestment from fossil fuels.
The motion to vote on the referendum was forced in the last minutes of the meeting. Many CCSC members protested the rushed vote, and suggested tabling the topic. Some members called for a vote by secret ballot, citing concerns that votes may have been compromised by the large crowd present, as well as the livestream of the meeting.
“I think there are a lot of students here on student council that may or may not have had their votes compromised just by virtue of having so many people here. I think that a secret ballot would keep us accountable,” Vice President for Communications Josh Sudman, CC ’17.
Class of 2020 representative Grant Pace also called for an anonymous ballot and claimed, without providing direct evidence, that council members were being coerced by other CCSC members to vote in a certain way.
“I know for a fact that there are people in this room who are elected officials who tried to get other people to vote a certain way and to say certain things at this meeting, and I think that’s unfair. And I think if we had a secret ballot, people would vote how they wanted and not how other people wanted.”
The council, which did not use a secret ballot, ultimately voted against CUAD’s proposed ballot initiative.