After failing to pass their anti-Israel boycott resolutions last year, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) returned, at the final meeting of the undergraduate ASUNM student senate on April 22, 2015 to present their Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution 12S, and again asked that the University of New Mexico divest from investments in corporations with ties to Israel.
Lobos for Israel Lobos president Andrew Balis speaks first at ASUNM senate hearing in opposition to SJP BDS resolution April 22, 2015
The meeting got started at 6 pm in the UNM Student Union Building, and following a drawn-out debate, the resolution failed at 9:45 PM by a large majority, with 14 votes against, 4 in favor, and 2 abstentions. As soon as their resolution 12S failed, the SJP supporters left the room en masse.
Following the defeat of 12S, the boycott resolution, Senator Caleb Heinz introduced emergency resolution 13S which asked for transparency by the university on all its investments and that would make it accountable in general about all human rights violations. Written by Heinz, 13S was quickly passed by the senate. The UNM Daily Lobo completely failed to report on this important resolution.
As the hearing commenced, the room became stifling, packed with about 70 observers, mostly SJP students and their outside supporters, who were mostly respectful as Lobos for Israel and SJP were each allowed 6 speakers who alternated for three minutes each. Then each of the 20 senators spoke, some of who gave their time to more students who wished to speak.
Hillel student Ezra Rabinsky addresses ASUNM
The six students who spoke against the boycott included Lobos for Israel President Andrew Balis, Emelie Mendelsohn, Rose Davenport, Isai Garcia, Fran Narain and Ezra Rabinsky. Their small group of supporters in the room included Hillel director Sara Koplik, Paula and Mel Schwartz, Attorneys Jeffrey Diamond and John Wertheim, UNM Professor Emeritus of History Noel Pugach, and Anti-Defamation League Director Suki Halevi, who brought a letter signed by 11 rabbis and 13 Jewish leaders across New Mexico in support of Lobos’ for Israel opposition to divestment that was read by Fran Narain.
Of the six SJP speakers, there was one undergraduate Palestinian student, and three Jewish speakers, including two students and longtime community member Jewish Voices for Peace adult representative Stanley Hordes.
As the lengthy debate got underway, Senator Travis Gonzalez, a graduate of Rehoboth Christian High School in Gallup, originally from Idaho and new to the senate this year, commented, “I personally think the issue isn’t divestments, but the transparency of our administration – where our investments are going. Transparency is the issue, before divestments.”
By portraying the SJP resolution as seeking justice and human rights for Palestinians being repressed by what they characterize as an apartheid, colonialist occupier of their land, and calling for a boycott of companies investing in Israel with language taken from the playbills of earlier civil rights movements, SJP has enlisted sympathetic support from a number of other student groups at UNM. One speaker from MEChA, the Chicano student activist organization, said “If you supported Ceasar Chavez, you should support this resolution.” Inaccurate parallels made to the U.S. border with Mexico, and academic rhetoric that attempts to portray Israel as white, have struck a chord with minority students on campus.
The comments by student supporters of the boycott resolution focused on wrongs by Israel and stressed that “there is an occupation.” The corporations they singled out in the BDS resolution presented here, as it is at other campuses, include Hewlett-Packard, whose “biometric components at checkpoints scan your fingerprints and your face,” and G4S, an international security corporation that is also employed along the U.S.-Mexico border.
A Hispanic representative of the Dream Team speaking on behalf of SJP’s boycott resolution said “The UNM Dream Team is in favor of divestment from companies that invest in human rights violations.” The Dream Team is a student club at the University of New Mexico whose mission is “to advocate for immigration reform and to increase access and success for immigrant students and families at the university.” They also spoke in support of the SJP BDS resolution last year.
Lobos for Israel Mexican American student Isai Garcia directly addressed the border issue and comparisons being made to the barrier in Israel. Saying that he has been in this country for more than ten years, Garcia explained, “I unfortunately have experienced many types of discrimination, for being Latin, and most importantly for being Jewish.”
He continued from his prepared statement, “Just as I stood in front of most of you last year I stand again in front of you … to inform about the real situation that is happening in the border of Israel and Palestine, which does not compare to the situation that we witness every day between the Mexico and U.S. border. . .”
He went on to explain that the barrier in Israel, which prevents snipers and suicide bombers, is completely different in its construction compared with the barrier here, which he said, “…does not protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks, it simply prevents hard-working people to come and better their lives.”
Garcia, a junior majoring in civil engineering, said that he was grateful to be at the University of New Mexico and urged the senators not to support a resolution that he said would create a hostile environment like he faced when he lived in Arizona. In closing he spoke in Spanish to the senators, saying “Many thanks for the opportunity to express my opinion and allowing my voice to be heard.”
ASUNM Senators Bisaan Hanouneh (left), Ashley Hawney, Gabriela Eldredge
The digital revolution was in evidence throughout the meeting, as students feverishly tweeted and texted. One particularly tense moment came when Senator Ashley Hawney, a sophomore from California who said she came to UNM because of the Sign Language Institute here, expressed outrage when she saw that the SJP group had completely twisted her words online. Hawney concluded, “We need to create something bigger than these two groups.”
The Lobos for Israel students stressed to the senate that SJP activities are creating an atmosphere of hostility on campus for Jewish students.
SJP supporter puts camera in face of eLink reporter
Senators who spoke out against the resolution said that it discriminated against Jewish students on campus. As Senator Mack Follingstead said to the assemblage, “Divestment will only divide the student body.”
Student senators also perceived that it singled out Israel while not addressing a single other corporation’s investments in other countries around the world whose civil rights violations are significantly greater.
Senator Gabriela Eldredge, in commenting on the resolution, stressed that any resolution the ASUNM passed needed to be their own opinion – not SJP’s – or Lobos for Israel. “Empathy to all,” is how she characterized earlier resolutions they had passed that year, supporting undocumented, indigenous and African-American students “without polarization.” She noted that “passage of these resolutions did not cause a climate of feat. This resolution can do this.” Eldredge made the important point that there was “perception versus intention,” with the potential of creating a “negative effect on our campus.”
Attorney John Wertheim, observing the student senate, commented, “It’s very encouraging to watch them.” Halevi said, as she watched the proceedings, “These students have a lot of integrity.”
SJP texts and tweets in background while Sen. Brianna Mulligan listens to speaker
The university has not taken a stand against SJP activity on campus. While SJP’s boycott resolutions, if passed, would in practicality have no legal authority unless voted on by the board of regents, their activities are succeeding here and at other campuses in demonizing and delegitimizing Israel, and making Jewish students who speak out in classes to defend against these attacks feel traumatized and stigmatized.
Students at Hillel described the atmosphere in the American Studies department at UNM as toxic, saying that one Jewish student who took a class there this year found himself constantly on the defensive in class in trying to address inaccurate accusations against Israel.
The American Studies Association passed a boycott of Israeli scholars in mid-December 2013. Following other universities who condemned the boycott, on January 10, 2014 the University of New Mexico issued a statement signed by the university president and vice-president saying that they did not support academic boycotts. The ASA academic boycott has been condemned by 250 universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT, and a letter signed by 134 members of Congress (69 Democrats, 65 Republicans) called the boycott “thinly veiled bigotry.”
The growing popularity of SJP was in evidence on the front page coverage by the Daily Lobo campus newspaper following the event. It characterized the SJP resolution as a vote for transparency, and downplayed that it was a boycott against Israel. Their April 24 lead story, titled “Resolution irresolution; ASUNM fails call for divestment after hours-long debate” led off with a caption for the prominent front page photo that read, “Sandra Akkad, an elementary education graduate student, listens as ASUNM senators discuss Resolution 12S. If it had passed, the resolution would have asked UNM to be transparent with its investments.”
The article went on to state that “The legislation would have called upon the University to be transparent in its investments, and it specifically urged UNM to pressure companies, such as Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar contributing to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine.” Even more significantly, the report completely left out that following the defeat of the SJP boycott resolution, the senate passed emergency resolution 13s calling for transparency about all of UNM’s investments.
A Call for Accountability and Transparency of All University Investments
Student Senator Travis Gonzales from Gallup supports separate transparency resolution 13S
Immediately after the pro-SJP students deliberately filed out following the defeat of their resolution at 9:45 PM, the student senate swiftly passed emergency resolution 13S, sponsored by undergraduate senator Caleb Heinz, that asks that the UNM Foundation provide accountability and transparency and a list of all corporations the university invests in.
Heinz said by email that he wrote the resolution, and that:
“It was created from a response to the growing hostility I was seeing from multiple students towards each other and some surprising information I learned about the UNM Foundation itself that was not in, or a focus of, Resolution 12S.
“The student organization’s passion for these things is what creates the heart of any resolution or appropriation, but when that passion comes in conflict with another group’s resistance, it is the job of any democratic government, student or not, to come to a compromise. That was the heart of the resolution.
“It clarified what Resolution 12S stated in the action clauses but shifted the focus from a specific place and culture committing rights violations to our own University’s accountability of their investments in unethical corporations. In my personal opinion it was a divestment and accountability resolution with a unifying purpose.”
Because there is a standing committee already in place at the UNM Foundation examining the issue of investment transparency, the New Mexico Jewish eLink asked the university if action is underway in response to resolution 13S.
A foundation spokesperson responded that they had not formally received the resolution 13S from ASUNM, but that they do have a committee, and in a statement issued for the Link, said:
“The committee you are referring to was not formed in response to this resolution. The UNM Foundation’s Board of Trustees has been considering the topic of divestment based on social, corporate, environmental or governance issues since early 2013.
“In January 2015, the Board of Trustees formed a subcommittee to fully study these issues in depth. The investment subcommittee is comprised of Foundation Investment Committee representatives, faculty, and students to review this topic in detail. Once this issue has been fully reviewed, the subcommittee, through the UNM Foundation Board of Trustees, will provide a recommendation to the UNM Board of Regents on this specific topic.”
Resolution Pulled from Graduate Student Association
A resolution filed by SJP also was expected at the final meeting of the Graduate Professional and Student Association on May 2. However, the SJP resolution was pulled by its senate sponsor because it was incorrectly formatted, and so no vote on it was taken there this year. Last year, the vote initially passed, and then at a subsequent meeting was rescinded.
While this year the level of intensity and drama was significantly lower than it was last year, it is expected that the SJP will be back again next year with their boycott resolutions against Israel.
Background on the BDS Movement
The movement known as Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions (BDS) is considered the “soft war” against Israel. As anti-Israel boycotts in the U.S. found limited traction over the last sixty years, a strategy in 2010 shifted the focus to campus groups. According to an ADL information bulletin, SJP came under the “influence and coordination of a national organization called American Muslims for Palestine, a group that promotes extreme anti-Israel views.” SJP was a fragmented group founded at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001. “In 2010, AMP decided to focus specifically on Palestinian advocacy on college campuses and targeted SJP for this effort.” 40 chapters attended the first national SJP conference at Columbia University in New York in 2011. A wave of boycott resolutions has followed on college campuses annually to this day.
The first SJP resolution hit UNM in dramatic fashion last year, but was failed by both the undergraduate ASUNM and the Graduate Professional and Student Association (GPSA). (See New Mexico Jewish Link stories: May, 2014 “The Anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement arrives at UNM,” and June/July, 2014 “UNM’s Graduate Student Association Votes to Rescind anti-Israel Resolution.”)*
Rabbinical and Jewish Communal Support for Lobos for Israel
The letter brought by ADL’s regional director Suki Halevi that was signed by 11 rabbis and 13 Jewish community leaders was read aloud to the senate by Lobos for Israel student Fran Narain and distributed to the senators and is reprinted in the Link.
Additional comments appended to the letter were united in support for Israel while offering a diversity of perspectives:
Rabbi Rosenfeld and Cantor Finn wrote, “As the clergy of Congregation Albert, the oldest and largest Jewish congregation in Mexico, we completely and fervently endorse the statement supporting Lobos for Israel in their opposition to any divestment resolution proposed to the University of New Mexico student senate. We strongly endorse the statement made by Jewish community leaders throughout the state.”
ADL Regional Director Suki Halevi emphasized: “Divestment resolutions targeting Israel do nothing to promote peace. BDS campaigns are a hostile tactic that rests on a fundamental rejection of Israel’s right to exist or defend itself. Instead of divestment, concerned individuals should promote initiatives that build connections, encourage interaction, foster relationships and help prepare both societies for peace.”
Peter Weinreb, Former Secretary, New Mexico Human Rights Coalition; Former Chair, New Mexico Anti-Defamation League; Former Secretary, Jewish Federation of New Mexico, penned a thoughtful note that said, “I join the members of Lobos for Israel in their opposition to the divestment resolution. The students offering the resolution need to look beyond biased votes in the United Nations and ill-advised settlements. A peaceful future for both the Israelis and the Palestinians requires that both parties acknowledge that they have both been on the land for millennia. Both parties must find a way to live with the other. Both parties must find a way to convince their political leaders to reach an accommodation. The proposed resolution will not advance that goal.”
While the students did not refer to it, the boycott resolutions follow a pattern set in the United Nations where alleged human rights violations by Israel are the constant target of resolutions, while any other country is given only a second thought.