The Student Association Senate narrowly rejected a resolution Monday night demanding that the University divest from 10 companies that supporters said were tied to human rights violations against Palestinians.
The senate voted down the resolution shortly before 2 a.m. by a vote of 14 to 15, with one abstention, after a lengthy debate among senators and after supporters and opponents of the measure delivered hours of speeches at public comment.
Supporters of the bill broke out in tears after the resolution failed by only two votes while opponents cheered. The resolution called for the University to withdraw investments from 10 companies that supporters charged – based on reports from the United Nations and other organizations – provide resources and materials that contribute to Palestinian oppression.
Proponents of divestment argued that if the University withdrew investments in these companies, it would send a message of support to Palestinian students on campus and pressure the companies to halt practices harmful to Palestinians.
Maryam Alhassani, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, who spoke twice during public comment – once before the vote and once after – denounced the resolution’s failure.
“It is terrifying for us as Palestinians and Palestinian advocates to not be able to voice our opinion about our own oppression,” she said. “I mean, we’re being called terrorists. We are the ones being terrorized by the companies in this resolution.”
Opponents – many from Jewish and pro-Israel student organizations – slammed the resolution as divisive and some said it was an implicit attack on Israel.
Isaac Fuhrman, the SA’s director of international students, said the bill simplifies a complex topic into a one-sided narrative, preventing dialogue from occurring between the two sides.
“Passing one-sided bills that create an anti-Israeli narrative, without even acknowledging the reason why they engage in such activities creates bigger divisions within our communities,” he said.
SA leaders moved the senate meeting from its usual spot in the Marvin Center to a large classroom in Funger Hall to accommodate the large crowds expected to attend the meeting. Student groups on either side of the debate urged their supporters to pack the room as the senate debated the measure.
Students spoke for nearly three hours at public comment at the start of the meeting as one-by-one they delivered often impassioned pleas for and against the measure. Many opponents of the resolution donned GW Together T-shirts, representing the student organization that mobilized in opposition to divestment.
Sen. Keiko Tsuboi, ESIA-U, who co-sponsored the resolution, said at the end of the meeting that opponents of the bill should try to create a conversation with Palestinian students and hear their struggles.
“These students cannot come up here and then rely on students like me because they don’t feel safe on this campus, so if you are serious about GW Together and dialogue, we don’t need T-shirts,” she said. “We don’t need a Facebook campaign. We don’t need any of that. We need you to fundamentally acknowledge we don’t need you to do it in a way to erase or undermine our efforts.”
Tsuboi said some opponents of the measure had trivialized human rights violations against Palestinians and many Palestinian students didn’t feel supported on campus.
“I am saying this because these students cannot be up here where I am now, and that fundamental power differentiation needs to be recognized for there to be any meaningful dialogue, because that’s not dialogue if we’re not acknowledging that fundamental fact,” she said. “That’s just bullshit.”
During senate debate, some senators said the resolution did not provide a broad enough perspective on the complex conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Sen. Sydney Eskin, SEAS-U, said the bill would hinder conversation on campus about the subject and that it represented the views of only one side of the issue.
“We say that the sides can’t agree about themselves, so how can we have a dialogue after this?” she said. “That’s because we’re only having the conversation in relationship to one side that’s been put forward.”
SA President-elect and current senator Peak Sen Chua was the single member of the student life committee who voted against the resolution in the committee last week and opposed it again Monday.
“It definitely was a close vote, but we had a meaningful and respectful dialogue on this resolution, and I think that’s ultimately what I appreciated from the senate: that we maintained a respectful and engaging dialogue throughout,” he said.
SA President Erika Feinman also commented on the legislation during their report, something Feinman said they usually do not do. They said that while the debate surrounding the topic this week has been encouraging, the issue would be better resolved through a student-wide referendum, giving the student body the chance to vote directly on the issue.
“Given the controversial nature of the divestment resolution, it is my opinion that a question like this is at this time inappropriate for the senate to consider without a formal understanding of how students feel about the issue,” they said.
Feinman said that it would be inappropriate for the senate to consider the resolution during the last meeting of the current term because senators wouldn’t be able to continue discussion at a later time.
“We, as elected officials, should be held accountable by our constituents, and it concerns me that the most controversial vote that the Student Association has faced in my time at GW is coming the day before your terms end,” they said.
Alhassani, from Students for Justice in Palestine, said after the meeting that the fight for Palestinian rights would go on and that SJP will continue to advocate for divestment.
“The bill may have not passed, but our goal of education through a divestment campaign has begun,” she said. “We are not going to stay silent, because Palestinians are still fighting for their rights.”
Leah Potter and Meredith Roaten contributed to reporting.