There’s something really exciting going on this week at DePaul University in Chicago, 1300 students signed a petition to get a divestment referendum added to the student government election ballot. If the referendum passes it will bind next year’s student government against passing anything that contradicts the outcome of the students vote. Yesterday students took over the SAC Pit on campus and turned it into a center for Palestinian culture, resistance, and community building at DePaul.
On its face this might not seem radical. But win or lose, the implication in terms of awareness, transparency, and student empowerment over future divestment initiatives across the country is huge. Why? Most universities approach this by trying to pass a resolution through the student government and by lobbying the student senators. And as the video above makes clear, the way the Israel lobby operates is “to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote.” That’s right, by taking over student governments on campuses all across this country, by targeting student leaders for the benefit of Israel’s interests, they seek to bind the outcome in their favor.
This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.
What creepy confidence, what chutzpa. Seeking to determine the outcome of future divestment initiatives on campuses across the country only through influencing student leaders, as opposed to directly approaching the entire student body, is the name of their game. They do not want a broader conversation on campuses and they certainly do not want a national conversation about our relationship with Israel.
As Leila Abdul Razzaq, 21, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at DePaul explains:
“The thing that these divestment campaigns do, they change the framework of the conversation…It makes the issue of Palestine relevant to people’s lives. When we see the way we’re complicit in these human rights abuses, it is no longer an option to be neutral and say, ‘It doesn’t concern us.’”
Yes, it’s the very framework in which this conversation is taking place that threatens to upset the status quo. The opposition knows it too and is willing to spread malicious rumors and engage in dirty tricks, like misrepresenting who they are, in order to win.
Which brings us to another amazing event that happened early this month at UCLA. After it was revealed that four Bruins United student council members had gone on trips sponsored by pro Israel lobbying groups, members of UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Armenian Students’ Association drafted a Joint Statement on Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC) Ethics asking candidates running for USAC officer positions to sign a pledge that, if elected, they would refrain from taking free or sponsored trips with AIPAC, ADL, Aish International’s Hasbara Fellowships, or other non-student centered external groups. The pledge was well supported by an array of student groups including the Muslim Student Association, Afrikan Student Union, and Samahang Pilipino.
A majority of candidates signed the pledge. FIRED UP! and LET’S ACT!, two of the three major party slates, did so as well, and the person who went on to be elected student body president signed. None of the candidates running with Bruins United did.
The pledge is a long time coming. After UCLA’s student legislators were exposed for taking pro-Israel trips during the debate over a “positive investment” resolution last fall, SJP member Rahim Kurwa told me that it was “a very captivating moment” when the entire focus of the room was riveted over the disclosure of a student leader who had been on one of ADL’s politically oriented trips; the ADL is known to have engaged in Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian campaigns marginalizing members of Muslim communities on campus. Later in the meeting another council member disclosed he too had been on an ADL trip, and then a third revealed he had attended an AIPAC conference as a delegate. At the time Kurwa noted the effectiveness of these pro Israel political jaunts disappears once it become a political liability, “once it becomes widely understood — and you can’t do it in the dark”
Yesterday I spoke with UCLA-JVP board member Gabriel Levine, a fifth-year math and economics student:
Instead of us being passive and calling them out afterwards, letting the whole student body know before they are elected sends a message we want to know who their affiliations are with, it is a move towards transparency.
As this Student Outreach at AIPAC video explains, more than 1300 students from 370 college and high schools campuses across the country, representing all 50 states, attended just one of these conferences and a whopping 25% of those students were student body presidents. But students should know when they vote for leaders if they’ve previously formed allegiances that could conflict with basic principles of human rights.
In the case of UCLA’s Sunny Singh, one of the beneficiaries of an ADL trip who has co-sponsored pro Israel resolutions in his capacity as a USAC student representative, the ADL openly stipulated its post-trip expectations of him, requesting that he apply what he’d learned on the trip well into the future. But elected student representatives on the student council are prohibited from having an “unauthorized financial interest or obligation” which might compromise their loyalty, and the bylaws advise that USAC members avoid the perception of conflicts of interest.
It is for this reason UCLA- SJP recently filed a complaint against Singh and another former USAC member and current Financial Supports Commissioner Lauren Rogers that led to a hearing last week before the USAC’s Judicial Board. The Judicial Board case will review their votes on a highly contentious divestment resolution that got voted down last February after 9 hours of public comment.
UCLA’s chancellor Gene Block put out a statement after the fact, claiming the pledge “sought to delegitimize educational trips offered by some organizations but not others” and that the pledge could “reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion.”
Levine stated there’d been a backlash. He’s been surprised by how much publicity the Joint Statement has gotten, but says that the publicity has been misconstrued as a banning on all Israel trips. Indeed the reports are still pouring in, including screams of McCarthyism.
Haaretz reported the situation is being closely followed.
Whether it is candidate pledges or student ballot referendums, these initiatives create an opportunity for a wider range of engagement on America’s campuses. DePaul professor Khalil Marrar believes student involvement should be praised. “I think the purpose and mission of education should be trying to find solutions to very intractable problems,” he said. “It is our duty as Americans to help Israelis and Palestinians resolve their differences.”
So how do folks do that? Cameron Erickson is president of “Demon PAC: Students Supporting Israel at DePaul.” Lately he was asked (on a WBEZ Worldwide interview) what “AIPAC trained” means. Erickson sidestepped.
“We really want to help the Palestinians and we should be supporting promoting their rights to self determination in the peace process…I really wish there was a truly pro-Palestinian voice on campus rather than just an anti Israel voice.”
Uh huh. That hasbara is never going to work, no matter how many trainings student leaders attend. The political climate has changed and we’re seeing a new wave sweeping campuses across the country.
— The DePaulia (@TheDePaulia) May 21, 2014