Updated: April 26, 2018 at 6:02 p.m.
When the Student Association Senate passed a contentious resolution encouraging the University to divest from companies allegedly contributing to Palestinian suffering Monday, senators echoed similar calls from more than 15 student governments nationwide.
Sponsors of GW’s resolution said they will begin conversations with officials this week to continue pushing for the University to divest, but students who opposed the resolution said the efforts are futile because there is no precedent for such action.
Student governments at some of the nation’s top universities – including Tufts University, one of GW’s 12 peer institutions – have passed similar legislation. But none of the schools’ administrators have agreed to divest, and University President Thomas LeBlanc also said GW wouldn’t take action in a statement Tuesday.
Sen. Eden Vitoff, CCAS-U, and a sponsor of the resolution, said he is reaching out to officials to discuss “the necessity for a transparent and socially responsible investment policy.”
“The passage of this resolution marks the beginning of a process of productive conversation,” he said.
Students push for divestment
The resolution encourages the University to remove its holdings from nine companies that provide weapons and other services to the Israeli government that allegedly contribute to Palestinian suffering. The senate turned down the resolution last academic year by one vote.
Less than 24 hours after the senate passed the resolution, LeBlanc rejected the resolution’s call to action, saying its passage does not represent the University’s views.
Vitoff said he’s disappointed with LeBlanc’s statement because it feeds into a campus climate where Palestinian students feel unsafe.
“He has thrown Palestinian students under the bus, which has and will continue to create an unsafe campus culture for them,” he said.
Vitoff declined to say how he will respond if the University continually refuses to divest as it has before. Students have pushed for the University to divest from fossil fuels in recent years and held protests outside of Board of Trustees meetings – but the University has repeatedly refused to release details about its investments in its $1.7 billion endowment, a financial foundation that funds major University projects.
Tyler Katz, a member of Divest this Time, a student-led campaign advocating for Palestinian rights, posted an open letter to LeBlanc on Facebook Wednesday. The letter said LeBlanc is prioritizing endowment money over Palestinian students’ safety by releasing a statement refusing to divest instead of highlighting Palestinian students’ safety concerns over the past several weeks.
In the days leading up to the senate meeting, students found “threatening” posters around campus on multiple occasions calling members of pro-Palestinian student groups “anti-Semitic” and saying Students for Justice in Palestine “hates Jews.”
“President LeBlanc, you are a disappointment,” the letter read. “How do you intend to keep students safe when your priorities clearly rest elsewhere? When it comes to student safety, you’re silent.”
The resolution is now left on SA President Peak Sen Chua’s desk to sign or veto, but Chua has repeatedly said he would do neither because he wants to facilitate discussion without taking a stance. After seven days of inaction, the resolution is automatically approved.
“As far as I’m concerned, as Student Association president at this time and in my role, I’m trying to be a neutral party and facilitate discussion and debate,” Chua said.
A nationwide movement
Student leaders at schools that have already passed divestment resolutions through their student governments said officials at their respective universities have opposed the legislation. Its passage exacerbated division between student groups and faded into inaction over time, students said.
Just one of GW’s peer institutions, Tufts University, passed a pro-Palestinian divestment resolution, which was approved by their student government last academic year. But Tufts officials rejected the calls for divestment, and more than a year later, progress is at a standstill.
Adam Rapfogel, who served as a parlimentarian during the debate to divest at Tufts, said conversation about the resolution has died down over the past academic year because officials have repeatedly refused to divest. He said the resolution’s passage was mostly a symbolic sign of support toward Palestinian students.
“When they released the resolution they weren’t thinking the next day Tufts would be like, ‘OK, I guess we’re going to do it’ – which is usually how it goes,” he said.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s student government passed a similar resolution last academic year, but officials opposed the legislation.
Katrina Morrison, the president of the school’s student government, said the resolution’s passage decreased students’ trust in their government because it created a deep divide between students.
“The conversation soon turned into an extremely polarizing one, where people were forced to choose a side,” Morrison said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been effective. I actually think the resolution did a lot of harm to our campus community.”
Students who opposed the resolution said its passage demonstrates that the senate does not represent Jewish or pro-Israel students.
But discontent also stemmed from the senate’s failure to censure Sen. Brady Forrest, G-at-Large, during a hearing that was held in the middle of the meeting where senators debated the resolution. Forrest received intense criticism last month for Facebook comments in which he called for a boycott of a multicultural event in 2014 for including Jewish student groups that he claimed supported Israeli military action against Palestine at the time.
Jewish student groups protested the senate’s decision not to censure Forrest in Kogan Plaza Wednesday.
Students who opposed the resolution said its passage was inevitable after the senate didn’t censure Forrest because it demonstrated that senators misconceive what constitutes anti-Semitism.
Tali Edid, the president of GW for Israel, said the meeting was not entirely about divestment because it had more to do with dividing the Jewish community than supporting Palestinian human rights. She said that as long as GW for Israel exists on campus, the University will continue to invest in companies listed in the resolution.
“We have a lot of work to do on campus,” she said. “There is a major misinformation problem, and we need to make sure we are reaching out to those willing to educate themselves.”
Hannah Finkel, the president of Chabad GW, said that while she knows the University won’t divest, the resolution’s passage indicated that senators are not in tune with the student body.
Finkel walked out of the meeting alongside about half of attendees to the Hillel townhouse Monday after speaking during public comment. She said it didn’t matter if the resolution passed because “the SA had removed all of their integrity” after failing to censure Forrest.
“They’ve thrown their reputation out the window,” Finkel said, referring to the senate. “There’s no next step for that movement – what are they going to do next? The University already shut it down.”
Rebecca Leppert contributed reporting.