Eva Wyner and Sophia Breslauer, both students at Columbia University, explore B.D.S. and antisemitism in their university following a referendum on their campus.
This past November, the Columbia College Student Council (C.C.S.C.) debated for the fourth time whether or not to attach a B.D.S. referendum to the student election ballot. The referendum, if passed, would urge Columbia University’s administration to participate in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement that targets Israel and its economy. At the C.C.S.C. meeting where the referendum was discussed, pro-Israel students were mocked by B.D.S. advocates. We were told by a member of Columbia University Apartheid Divest (C.U.A.D.), the primary advocates for the B.D.S. referendum, that “the Jewish religion has been co-opted by white-supremacists.” Such language is used only for rhetorical effect, in a slanderous effort to connect Jewish students that advocate and defend Israel with the worst elements of American society—who are themselves antisemitic.
Opponents of the referendum fear the hate-inducing rhetoric that was uttered by attendees of the C.C.S.C. meeting will now spread to the rest of campus. Let’s talk through the dangers of a B.D.S. referendum at Columbia.
Campus-wide cohesion, part of C.C.S.C.’s mission, is impossible when C.U.A.D. refuses to engage. C.U.A.D. is the umbrella organization committed to passing B.D.S. and opposing Israel’s existence on Columbia’s campus. C.U.A.D. adheres to a strict policy of anti-normalization that “forbids the organization from recognizing or formally engaging with any Israeli or pro-Israel organizations.” Policies of anti-normalization are taken straight out of the brutal playbook of radical terrorist organizations like Hamas, who just last week “disappeared” one of their own citizens for merely daring to hold a Zoom conversation with Jewish peace activists in Israel. Similarly, although not to the same degree, C.U.A.D.’s anti-normalization policies are intentionally designed to not have meaningful dialogue. Prohibiting engagement is antithetical to the spirit of free discourse claimed by the proposed referendum and advanced in the Columbia community. C.U.A.D. claims to have built this referendum on the foundation of dialogue, yet their systematic refusal to engage shatters any potential for dialogue and campus-wide cohesion.
C.U.A.D. suppresses productive dialogue for all Columbia students by applying offensive labels, which effectively dissuades anyone from engaging in this conversation. C.U.A.D. has labeled anyone who believes in Jewish self-determination as “a fascist, colonialist, and a racist.” We are consequently forced into a defensive posture, left to plead with our classmates to reject these labels unjustly imposed upon us. By vilifying students in this way, C.U.A.D. has not only banned their own members from engaging with pro-Israel students, but also uses bullying and intimidation to dissuade anyone from conversation. C.U.A.D. has vandalized pro-Israel flyers, disrupted our events, and shouted down our speakers. For C.U.A.D.’s members to assert that this referendum will encourage productive debate, when the organization has repeatedly stifled debate, is senseless and deceptive. C.U.A.D. suppresses this conversation far beyond the confines of their immediate organization. By mischaracterizing Zionism and the greater pro-Israel community on campus, their actions automatically discourage impartial students from further inquiry, avert these students from accessing information about the conflict, and effectively prevent university-wide discourse.
The language of the referendum is biased, compounding the problem of information access. The referendum refers to Israel as an apartheid state, a misleading description that intends to distort perceptions of Israel with false associations to the human rights violations of apartheid South Africa. The wording of the referendum is now inherently subjective:
“Should Columbia University divest its stocks, funds, and endowments from companies that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts toward Palestinians that, according to Columbia University Apartheid Divestment, fall under the United Nations International Convention of the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid?”
C.U.A.D. has used a leading question, manipulating the answer of the respondent and making it impossible to achieve results that accurately represent the student body. When the referendum asks students to reject economic cooperation with an allegedly apartheid state, who would vote no? C.U.A.D. has successfully imposed its own radical and widely refuted opinion directly into the referendum question. Given the framing of the question and the inaccessibility of campus dialogue on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the referendum is doomed to mislead our undergraduate population and render inaccurate results.
Moreover, C.U.A.D.’s actions enable antisemitism. 62% of American Jews report that caring about Israel is a very important part of their Jewish identity. Given that the Jewish identity is tied to a Jewish state, the contention that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is equivalent to an apartheid regime, is an assault on the vast majority of Jewish students' identity. When C.U.A.D. disproportionately focuses their efforts on Israel, their actions directly threaten the welfare of the majority of Jewish students here at Columbia. As such, C.U.A.D.’s accusations enable antisemitism, by masquerading their anti-Zionism as a front for antisemitism, “in their effect if not in their intent." At the C.C.S.C. meeting in November, a C.U.A.D. member dismissed concerns about contemporary antisemitism because “white Jews on this campus have an immense amount of privilege.” This claim ignores the continuity of Jewish persecution that has spanned thousands of years, categorically writes off Jews who are not white, and delegitimizes the real threat posed by antisemitism. At a separate C.C.S.C. meeting eight months earlier, a C.U.A.D. audience member argued that though negative consequences may arise from the B.D.S. referendum, they are less important than the positive impact of debate. Let that sink in: C.U.A.D. is willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of Columbia’s Jewish students, who bear the burden of the negative consequences of this B.D.S. referendum, in the name of “campus discourse.” Substantiating these fears, C.U.A.D. has praised violent resistance by standing unequivocally with the murderer, Rasmea Odeh, and expressing support for the Intifada uprisings in Israel, marred by terrorism and suicide bombings that murdered thousands, including a Barnard alumna.
Throughout its continuous and active promotion of the B.D.S. referendum in itself, C.U.A.D. has demurred on the direct correlation between the B.D.S. movement and antisemitism, a correlation that pro-Israel Jewish students have highlighted in every single B.D.S. referendum debate. In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that tracks global attitudes toward Jewish people, found that there was an 89% increase in antisemitic incidents on college campuses where B.D.S. initiatives were most active. In 2019, in a bipartisan resolution, the U.S. House recognized that B.D.S. “leads to the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and others who support Israel”. That same year the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, published a report for the Human Rights Council stating that “the objectives, activities and effects of the B.D.S. movement are fundamentally anti-semitic.”
C.C.S.C.’s mission is to “foster cohesiveness and unity among the entire undergraduate population.” There is nothing cohesive or unifying about forcing an inherently flawed, divisive and alienating referendum onto the student body. It is clear that this referendum asks students to vote on a highly offensive and effectively antisemitic campaign intended to denigrate the world’s only Jewish state not for its actions, but for its existence. It pressures the majority of Jewish students, those for whom Israel is an essential component of their Jewish identity, to justify that identity. Pro-Israel students like ourselves have condemned this referendum every time it was brought to the student councils. Now that the Columbia Elections Commission has pushed forward this referendum to next semester, we will condemn it again. In the fall, incoming first-years will be immediately thrust into a contentious ‘debate’ they neither chose to be a part of—nor will they have had the opportunity to elect the student representatives that originally approved the referendum. In their statement, C.E.C. and C.C.S.C. acknowledged the “toll that such a divisive conversation would take on Columbia College students” during this global pandemic. But have they ever stopped to consider the toll it has already taken on its students over the past five years and will have upon our return to campus? President Bollinger has already strongly condemned this B.D.S. referendum happening on our campus. We strongly urge the student body to join him by voting no in the fall.