Students on both sides of a contentious resolution on Palestinian human rights abuses will face off for the second year in a row in the Student Association Senate Monday night.
Four SA senators will present the resolution – almost identical to the proposal that failed in the senate by just one vote last year – calling for the University to divest from nine companies supporters say contribute to Palestinian oppression. Proponents said last year’s debate increased awareness about the issues Palestinian students face – a conversation they hope will lead to a better outcome when the resolution hits the senate floor this week.
But opponents of the legislation reiterated their argument from last year that the resolution oversimplifies the complicated historical conflict between Israelis and Palestinians – and are rallying again to defeat it.
Sen. Shaheera Jalil Albasit, CCAS-G, and a sponsor of the resolution, said senators wanted to revive the divestment proposal to make Palestinian students feel more welcome on a campus where they are often ostracized by peers for their views.
“The message is clear that we want to create campus cultures which do not shy away from conversations around inclusivity and around translating the powerful rhetoric of inclusivity into action, into demonstrable action by tangible policy changes,” she said in an email.
SA leadership is preparing for a larger-than-usual turnout to Monday night’s meeting – moving the proceedings to a room in Funger Hall with about 300-person capacity as students on both sides of the issue rally their supporters to weigh in.
Reigniting the call for divestment
The resolution calls on the University to withdraw its investments from nine businesses, like Caterpillar and Boeing, that provide weapons and other services to the Israeli government that allegedly contribute to Palestinian human rights abuses. By divesting, supporters said the University would acknowledge oppression in Palestinian territories and signal support to Palestinian students.
It’s unclear whether GW has holdings in any of the nine companies listed because officials have declined to release information about the investments in its $1.7 billion endowment, the financial foundation that funds major University projects.
Sen. Eden Vitoff, CCAS-U, and a sponsor of the resolution, said it’s his responsibility as a white male to “elevate marginalized voices” – like those of Palestinian students, who have repeatedly brought the issue to the table.
“Until the student body is assured that our tuition dollars are not supporting an institution profiting off of human rights abuses, we will continue to engage in this advocacy,” he said.
SA President Peak Sen Chua and Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson said they are not taking a stance on the resolution because they want to demonstrate support for students on both sides of the issue.
Nelson said she would not cast a tie-breaking vote if necessary, which would result in the failure of the resolution if the vote is deadlocked. Chua said he would not sign or veto the legislation if it passed, which would mean it would be automatically approved after a week.
Chua and Nelson opposed the resolution as SA senators last year.
“As sponsors of the legislation, you are making a big ask of the senate and the student body to consider an issue that many people do not feel comfortable talking about,” Nelson said at a senate meeting last week. “This is a really hard conversation to have, and I hope we are treating it with care and thoughtfulness.”
Supporters rally for a second year
Senior Keiko Tsuboi, a former SA senator who sponsored last year’s resolution, said the divestment movement – led primarily by Divest This Time GW, a student-led campaign to protect Palestinian rights – has been able to garner more supporters this year because last year’s dialogue helped convey that the resolution is not an attack on Israel or Jewish people.
“It had the effect of breaking a lot of new terrain,” she said. “It really helped us gain the support of other progressive orgs.”
Seven student organizations, including Young Democratic Socialists of America and the Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights, have endorsed the resolution.
Junior Annabel LaBrecque, a co-president of Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights, which endorsed the resolution, said passing the measure would encourage the University to better support its Palestinian students on campus, who often feel excluded.
“For GW to start to live up to that reputation of being a more progressive-minded, or at least a more liberal-minded campus and University and institution, we need to make sure that this resolution gets through,” LaBrecque said.
Reviving opposition efforts
About 200 students signed onto a campaign titled “GW Students Against BDS” this month, which calls for students to speak at Monday’s meeting in an effort to petition and lobby their senators to vote down the resolution.
Opponents have linked the resolution to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement – an internationally known pro-Palestinian movement that has been accused of anti-Semitism and delegitimizing the Israeli state.
The resolution is being debated in the aftermath of a campus-wide controversy surrounding an SA senator who was accused of anti-Semitism.
Sen. Brady Forrest, G-at-Large, who was running a campaign for SA executive vice president, faced backlash for old Facebook posts last month in which he called for a boycott of a multicultural event because two Jewish student organizations – which Forrest said supported Israeli military action against Palestinians in 2014 – were co-sponsoring the event.
Forrest, who was removed from a senate leadership position last week but has not been formally suspended or impeached from the senate, will not be present at Monday’s meeting.
Hillel Zand, the president of the Jewish Student Association, said he is against the resolution because it creates a “zero-sum game” – which implies students are either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine when they take a stance in the senate.
“If you put Israeli students at GW and Palestinian students at GW into a room to discuss this issue, it would be 10 times more productive and civil than any BDS resolution would be,” he said.
Several student organizations, like GW College Republicans, also voiced disapproval of the movement during public comment at last week’s SA Senate meeting.
Emily Goldberg, the director of social programming at GW for Israel, said the divestment effort won’t actually lead to any administrative change but is merely a way for students to show support for Palestine.
The movement for universities to divest from companies allegedly contributing to Palestinian oppression has been a nationwide debate, as student governments at peer schools like Tufts University and the University of Southern California have voted in favor of divestment – but no schools have divested following the student pushes.
“We hope that the resolution will not pass so we can continue to engage in open discussions instead of feeling alienated by a resolution that discourages dialogue and demonizes Israel through its language,” Goldberg said.
Joe Vogel, a former SA senator who opposed the resolution last year, said it isn’t fair to let 30 senators decide the desired outcome of an issue that is personal for thousands of students on campus.
“The resolution rips out the context to a conflict that is deeply personal to myself and many students at this University,” he said. “It targets students who oppose this legislation due to its lack of context and nuance as being opponents of human rights.”