Supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement are celebrating this week, after Barnard students voted in favor of a referendum asking the Student Government Association to write a letter to administrators asking to divest the college’s finances from eight companies that “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”
For students who have organized on this issue in the past, the success of the referendum represents a significant change in the campus climate, compared to just a few years ago in which pro-Palestinian groups say they faced far greater opposition from students and administrators.
Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace are the two groups that make up Columbia University Apartheid Divest, whose presentation at an SGA meeting resulted in the creation of the student body-wide referendum.
Columbia SJP was founded in 2009 and at the time was criticized by students for being too radical of a group. In 2014, the group was embroiled in a free speech debate after its banner reading “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine” was removed from the front of Barnard Hall.
Jannine Salman, BC ’17, and a former member of SJP, said that the referendum vote signifies that the movement has been successful in changing how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed by students.
“This is the fruit of not just two years of campaigning, not just nine years of SJP, but 70 years of Palestinian resistance in order to have this victory,” Salman said. “That’s what I see.”
Alla Issa, CC ’21, and a current member of SJP, agreed that the vote demonstrates the impact CUAD’s work has had on campus opinion and that its advocacy has contributed to the Palestine Solidarity Movement as a whole.
But despite this victory, since SGA is not required to follow the referendum and still must conduct its own internal vote to decide whether they will write a letter, there may be no tangible impact.
“Neither SGA nor the college are beholden whatsoever to the voice of the students,” Salman said. “Whether the University and whether SGA recognizes … that the voices of the students have spoken as one in support of this, that’s up to them … We should be working to hold our college and our representatives in service of our voice because that’s what they are there for.”
In a statement released by CUAD about the results, pressure was put on the Barnard administration to heed the referendum and demonstrate a commitment to socially responsible divestment.
Students in pro-Israel groups such as Aryeh President Albert Mishaan, CC ’18, dispute the validity of the results by arguing that the referendum was one-sided. Additionally, the referendum was offered before pro-Israel groups were provided the opportunity to present to SGA in opposition to CUAD’s request for SGA support.
“I think if there was a referendum that said what the BDS movement is … and what it stands for, we’re confident that we would win,” Mishaan said. “It happened to be the opposite ... Every voter who voted saw ‘human rights violations’ and saw these things presented as fact ... To me, to be honest, I would have voted for that if I didn’t know anything and the fact that only 64 percent of people voted for that for me is sort of a victory.”
Students have also argued that the structure of the referendum was unfairly absolutist, as it required students to vote yes or no on the entirety of the statement, rather than providing a detailed document in which students could accept or reject individual points.
Gabriella Kaspi, BC ’21, who is half Israeli, said that the referendum itself should have included other options in order to address the diversity of opinions that exist on the issue. By limiting students to yes or no answers, she said, it failed to consider more moderate approaches.
“When you make blanket statements, I think it leaves a lot of room for ostracization of those who fall in the middle category,” Kaspi said. “That’s what I would have preferred. I don’t agree with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, but I still believe in the State of Israel, but I still believe in the state of Palestine.”
Members of SGA’s Representative Council will vote next Monday on whether to write the letter. If the council votes yes, it will vote again the following week to approve the final version before sending the letter to administrators on May 1.
In a statement posted on its website, Barnard acknowledged the existence of the referendum and said that should the school receive a letter from SGA it will respond, though the administration is not required to take any specific actions.