UNM’s Graduate Student Association Votes to Rescind Anti-Israel Resolution
Special to The New Mexico Jewish Link published June-July 2014. First-place in Reporting, American Jewish Press Association Rockower Awards, 2015
After the undergraduate senate rejected the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) resolution asking the University of New Mexico to divest from investments in multi-national corporations that they say oppress Palestinians, (See May 2014 Link, page 1), on April 26, the SJP group, without any public notice on the agenda, presented another anti-Israel divestment resolution to the Graduate Student and Professional Association (GPSA), the UNM graduate student government. The graduate council was told there was no opposition to the resolution on campus and they passed the resolution 17-3.
This was in contradistinction to a new conciliatory resolution that had been hashed out over weeks between Lobos for Israel founder Sarah Abonyi and SJP undergraduate representatives in meetings that did not single out Israel in regard to transparency of investments and divestments.
The graduate council’s divestment resolution was then slated to go before the Board of Regents on May 9, except that GPSA President Priscila Poliana refused to sign it, and thereby blocked it from going forward. Poliana said that this was the first time she had ever had to refuse to sign a resolution. “There were a number of questions I had.”
At the next GPSA meeting on Saturday, May 10, following a prolonged debate marked by the general exhaustion of students in the throes of finishing their final exams, a final vote was taken to rescind the original divestment resolution.
It was a tie, 10-to-10. The vote was taken again to make sure, and was again 10-to-10. Finally, during a tense wait, the council chair, who was absent due to a family emergency and who had to be called at the hospital to break the tie, deliberated and then voted in favor of rescinding the anti-Israel resolution.
As Poliana, who herself does not have a vote, confirmed later, a large number of the representatives on the GPSA were new – they had just recently joined in the past few weeks in order to be able to vote for this resolution and had never come to previous meetings. Each department can send representatives, weighted to their size.
In a later phone interview on May 27, Poliana, a graduate student in planning who is from Brazil and a naturalized US citizen, explained her reasons for blocking the resolution from going to the regents in the first place. She said that “I was very concerned about the message that this (resolution) was sending out about how we are presenting ourselves to other schools and to the world. I care for the good name of this organization. We’re doing democracy, and we also seek to include all students. When I hear this is harassment of one small group,” she said that she questioned it.
She also said she had had a number of other questions when the resolution was first presented. While they were being asked to divest in a list of companies, “we don’t even know if we’re invested in these companies. I am unaware of any of these students working with the University of New Mexico Foundation trying to work credibly with regards to transparency. Then, how do you establish if a corporation is oppressing Palestinians? What are the parameters we are working in?”
Poliana said she was also concerned about whether it was the business of the GPSA to establish, judge, and condemn a company perhaps engaged in oppression. “If it is in our scope to make a change and make a difference, it is hard to see GPSA investigating and pursuing and combating companies in foreign countries, to assess how these companies are acting and if they are actually engaged in oppression. I feel it goes beyond my jurisdiction to investigate and condemn companies.”
Poliana also questioned if it was against federal law. She said that, as the resolution was being presented during the meeting, she began researching on her laptop. She recalled such arguments in the past when students had brought up boycotting companies that polluted or were doing business in China. While not brought out in many of these discussions, Poliana learned that it is actually against U.S. federal law to ask companies to join foreign boycotts.
Students nowadays may think they invented the idea of boycotting Israel, yet it started with the founding of the Jewish State in 1948. What is relatively new, however, is a strategy coordinated by the American Muslims for Palestine of a national campaign being brought to campuses by the Students for Justice in Palestine, where students are easily influenced.
What Poliana found was, “within the U.S. Dept of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance (OAC), it prohibits U.S. companies from boycotting Israel.”
The anti-boycott laws were established in the mid-1970’s through amendments to the Export Administration Act and the Ribicoff Amendment to the Tax Reform Act (TRA). Their objectives are stated on the OAC website:
“The anti-boycott laws were adopted to encourage, and in specified cases, require U.S. firms to refuse to participate in foreign boycotts that the United States does not sanction. They have the effect of preventing U.S. firms from being used to implement foreign policies of other nations which run counter to U.S. policy.”
The website has a “Boycott Alert” at the top that says that companies continue to report receiving requests to support boycotts of Israel, and goes on to make it clear that “The Arab League boycott of Israel is the principal foreign economic boycott that U.S. companies must be concerned with today. The anti-boycott laws, however, apply to all boycotts imposed by foreign countries that are unsanctioned by the United States.”
The laws specifically prohibit “agreements to refuse or actual refusal to do business with or in Israel or with blacklisted companies.” And, the site explains that “while the Tax Reform Act does not “prohibit” conduct, it denies tax benefits (“penalizes”) for certain types of boycott-related agreements.
Poliana says that the GPSA is committed to working with all students in an inclusive manner to help them negotiate constructive alternatives to conflict. In fact, Poliana awarded Sarah Abonyi with this year’s GPSA Conflict Resolution Award, saying “When Sarah told me she was willing to sit down with the SJP students, because of her leadership, I respect her the most at UNM. It was just the work she did above and beyond.”
For Hillel director Sara Koplik, “More can be done” by the administration. She reported to Dean of Students Tomas Aguirre that they experienced an extraordinary intensification of social media attacks during the ASUNM meeting on April 2. The SJP group live-streamed the proceedings on their website and over 750 tweets, some coming from outside the country, appeared with personal attacks made throughout the meeting.
Tweets sneering at ‘privileged white males’ seemed to have included Aguirre, who opened the meeting, but the most vehement were reserved for the pro-Israel speakers. Koplik said “I have never experienced anything so hateful in my life.”
The university did issue a brief statement on January 10, 2014 stating that they joined 150 other universities in rejecting the American Studies Association’s call to boycott Israeli scholars. It was signed by UNM president Robert G. Frank and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Chaouki Abdallah. Their statement read:
“The University of New Mexico prides itself on cultivating vibrant dialogue and a diversity of ideas among our students, faculty and community both on our campus and beyond its physical boundaries.
We join more than 150 universities in our refusal to support academic boycotts, as they limit the free exchange of ideas and intellectual collaboration, which are fundamental to our mission as a flagship university.”
Members of the Jewish community are concerned. Following a talk by Rabbi Paul Citrin about the history of rabbinic activism in New Mexico at the Jewish Historical Society’s annual meeting at the JCC on May 18, former State Representative Pauline Eisenstadt rose to say it was a time for leadership on this issue, and suggested a committee be formed to meet at high levels with state and university administrators. Citrin responded by also proposing an educational display for the community. Attorney and UNM law professor Anita Miller lauded Poliana and Citrin cited Abonyi. On May 17, Abonyi graduated, and Poliana completed her term as GPSA president.
This article and photos by Diane J. Schmidt appeared as a special report for the New Mexico Jewish Link, front page, June-July, 2014. First-place in Reporting, American Jewish Press Association Rockower Awards, 2015, for New Mexico Jewish Link, in category of >15,000 circulation publications.