Last fall, after four years and two failed attempts to introduce a divestment referendum, Columbia College Student Council approved the proposal by Columbia University Apartheid Divest. This week, Columbia College students will vote on the divisive referendum which calls for divestment of University funds from companies that profit from Israel and the actions of the Israeli government. From September 22 to September 25, the Columbia College student body will be presented with the question: “Should Columbia University divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts toward Palestinians that, according to Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), fall under the United Nations International Convention of the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid?”
The language of the referendum is misleading. CUAD erroneously designates Israel as an apartheid state to invoke the conditions of South African apartheid. Defining Israel as such may beguile students unfamiliar with the region’s politics, as Israel is not an apartheid state. The Arab-majority Joint List political alliance is the third-largest faction represented in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Hospitals, public transportation, and businesses service all patrons. The security fence was constructed in response to suicide bombings and vehicular attacks, not to enforce racial or religious segregation. Incorrectly applying the terminology of apartheid is inflammatory. The question of the referendum mischaracterizes Israel and may prejudice the vote.
Furthermore, the CUAD referendum fails to include divestment from countries that commit egregious human rights violations and instead targets Israel specifically. I believe this is due to anti-Semitism and a fundamental opposition to an Israeli state.
It seems that there is a reason this referendum targets Israel and not China for the internment of Uyghurs, Myanmar for the genocide of the Rohingya minority, or Russia for concerted bombing campaigns on Syrian civilians. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement veils itself with the guise of advocacy for human rights while anti-Semitism incubates on Columbia’s campus. CUAD and its affiliate Barnard-Columbia Solidarity Network have not proposed divestment in response to any state-sponsored genocide, internment, or persecution in the rest of the world. Instead, the referendum focuses on a country that consistently ranks in the top one third of countries for both human rights and democracy.
Even University President Lee Bollinger recognizes that this referendum is unfairly biased against Israel. He is also vocal in his opposition to the referendum because BDS is inextricably linked to a rise in assault and harassment of Jewish and Israeli students on college campuses. Anti-Semitic hate crimes rose by 89 percent on college campuses with an active BDS presence. There were three anti-Semitic incidents in one Columbia residence hall alone during the abridged spring semester that followed the CCSC vote.
Moreover, the BDS movement is predicated on opposition to the existence of Israel. Omar Barghouti, a founder of BDS, professes that “no Palestinian—rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian—will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” Using financial pressure to achieve the political goal of ridding the region of a Jewish state is not advocacy. It is economic warfare.
Supporters of the referendum chanted, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” when CCSC approved the question. This adage refers to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which contain territory belonging to Israel and disputed territory. Students advocating for the referendum were unmistakably calling for the elimination of the only Jewish state. Their rhetoric is not aligned with advocacy. Their rhetoric seems to prefer the destruction of Israel.
Columbia’s investments are not a utility of BDS to advance its agenda by delegitimizing Israel, the home of Israeli students and the ancestral homeland to Jewish students. Columbia prohibits discrimination and discriminatory harassment of students on the basis of national origin and religion. Alienating students by waging economic warfare on their home and history works against creating a conducive learning environment absent of hostility and intimidation.
The upcoming divestment referendum hides behind the cloak of advocacy. The sole objective BDS advocates for is the dissolution of the only Jewish state. Columbia and its investments are home for neither persecution nor the anti-Semitism in which it is rooted. President Bollinger has not been misled in his opposition to the referendum. BDS is antithetical to what I believe our University stands for. We can only hope to preserve the integrity of our institution by objecting to the discriminatory exploitation of Columbia’s finances.
Zachary Becker is a junior in Columbia College studying political science.
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