Following the controversial rejection of a campus-wide campaign to get the University of South Florida (USF) to divest from the Israeli occupation, students have discovered that members of the USF Foundation Board have ties to Israel Bonds and secretly met with Hillel officials in a campaign to “thwart” a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) divestment campaign.
In 2014, SJP USF made history, collecting 10,000 signatures for “the largest student petition in Florida’s history.” The petition was a divestment measure, calling on the USF board to divest from companies engaged in human rights violations against the Palestinian people and to invest in socially and environmentally responsible causes.
Organizers who spoke with Mondoweiss recalled they “did months of research on [their] university’s endowment” and produced a list of corporations in which USF was invested. Among these companies were Hewlett-Packard (HP), Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, G4S, Boeing, Caterpillar, and more—all of which provide Israel with the weapons and equipment it employs in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories.
In May 2014, SJP brought their research and 10,000-signature petition before the investment committee of the USF Foundation, members of which claimed to be ignorant of their investments in companies that regularly violate human rights. After a mere 13 minutes of deliberation, the board unanimously rejected the petition.
SJP USF created a video to detail how the university derailed their student petition and silence the voices of 10,000 students.
A Concerted Campaign to “Thwart” SJP
“This is all old news in a way,” one student said. What disturbed the activists most was their discovery of blatant unethical behavior in the USF Foundation and a deliberate campaign to “thwart” the efforts of SJP USF.
While SJP was gathering student signatures for the petition, USF Hillel was actively campaigning against it. The organization slandered SJP USF as “anti-Semitic,” a claim students called absolutely preposterous and dishonest.
In September 2014, Ed Rosenthal, Executive Director of Hillels of the Suncoast, leader of Hillels at USF and the University of Tampa, published an article boasting about how “[o]ur students did an incredible job, behind the scenes, thwarting the efforts of SJP.” Rosenthal made many accusations against SJP, claiming they engaged in deceptive tactics in order to garner more petition signatures. Members say this is patently false, and released a point-by-point rebuttal of his smears.
The Hillel director also openly admitted that Hillel members had private meeting with members of the USF Foundation board, “working quietly behind the scenes … in order to thwart the efforts of SJP”:
While SJP was busy getting signatures on their petition, our students prepared a brief for the USF Foundation Board showing how the signatures on the petition were not all valid, thereby drawing the entire petition into question. …This in addition to one-on-one meetings with Jewish trustees led to a unanimous rejection of the SJP motion for the USF Foundation to divest from Israel.
We have added an Israel Fellow to our staff and, with the help of several outside agencies, anticipate bringing speakers to campus and raising the pro-Israel profile at USF. For the past couple years, our students have been working quietly behind the scenes building alliances with other student organizations and getting involved with student government in order to thwart the efforts of SJP. This year, they are taking a much more open and visible approach to providing pro-Israel programs and educational events on campus.
It’s going to be a busy and difficult year, but we are certain that our USF Israel Activists [sic] will do a wonderful job of presenting Israel in the positive light that she deserves across the campus.
Here one can see that there was an intentional attempt, by Hillel and partner organizations, to derail the divestment measures. Hillel administrators, unaffiliated with the public university, actively worked with both students and the USF Board in order to crush the BDS campaign by having secret, one-on-one meetings with USF Foundation board members Hillel to covertly orchestrate plans to overturn 10,000 hard-earned student signatures.
Obvious bias towards Israel
The person who proposed the motion to dismiss the 10,000 signatures was Alan Bomstein. Bomstein was Treasurer of the USF Foundation until 2013. He remains a board member of the foundation, a position he has held since 1997.
In January 2011, Bomstein was honored at the State of Israel Bonds national campaign inaugural. Former Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and president and CEO of State of Israel Bonds Joshua Matza presented the USF Treasurer with the Theodor Herzl Commemorative Medallion, “created to honor the 150th anniversary of the birth of the founder of modern Zionism.”
Israel Bonds CEO Matza remarked “Finance Minister Steinitz and I look forward to presenting Nancy and Alan Bomstein with this well-deserved honor. Through their efforts on behalf of Israel … they have established an exemplary standard of leadership and self-example.”
A year later, in May 2012, Bomstein was awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Tree of Life Award, for his dedication to “the land and people of Israel.” Proceeds of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) event went to support the Friends of Israel Firefighters; Bomstein was a gold dinner sponsor.
The JNF is a Zionist organization founded in 1901 to buy land in historic Palestine for Jewish settlement. In 2007, the JNF owned 13% of the land in Israel. The JNF’s slogan is “Your Voice in Israel,” and, according to its own bylaws, the JNF cannot rent land to “non-Jews.”
The Stop the JNF campaign describes the organization writing,
The JNF continues to serve as a global fundraiser for Israeli ethnic cleansing, occupation and apartheid. Despite its role in a State institution of Israel (the Israel Land Authority) and in institutionalized racism and apartheid, the JNF and its affiliate organizations enjoy charitable status in over 50 countries and many also enjoy consultative status with the United Nations.
That Bomstein, former Treasurer of the USF Foundation and board member of the USF Foundation, has these ties to Israel Bonds was never disclosed in the deliberation of the divestment measure.
Other members of the board are additionally suspected of having similar bias a well. Joel Momberg, CEO of the USF Foundation and Senior Vice President for University Advancement and Alumni Affairs, appears to be involved with Chabad, a Zionist student organization that hosts and recruits for Birthright trips to Israel and regularly sponsors and organizes pro-Israel events on campus. Momberg was featured in a late 2012 fundraising video for Chabad, and was effectively being used to advertise the organization.
USF Chabad also has a history of dishonest dealings. In September 2014, the group was audited and charged with embezzlement of over $1,000 of student government funds. The student senate voted overwhelmingly to freeze the organization’s account for 30 days and to require it to return the money.
Not Isolated Cases
This is not the first time USF has been exposed for having pro-Israel conflicts of interest. In May 2014, The Electronic Intifada published records revealing ties between Israel and USF Provost and Executive Vice President Ralph Wilcox, a USF trustee who was involved in the decision to reject the divestment petition.
Max Blumenthal also reported that USF President Judy Genshaft, while cutting worker benefits and engaging in a neoliberal attack on the public university, manages a family foundation that profits off of illegal settlement activity. Her pro-Israel activities have earned her, like Bomstein, a Tree of Life award from the Jewish National Fund.
Genshaft was furthermore bitterly condemned by the USF Faculty Senate, the United Faculty of Florida, and the American Federation of Teachers for firing Sami Al-Arian, a former USF professor of computer science, after he was publicly smeared on The O’Reilly Factor in late September 2001. The dismissal violated an array of university rules, and was described as a racist act of post-9/11 “anti-Arab hysteria” that “ruined an innocent professor’s life.” (Al-Arian was later accused of trumped-up terror-financing charges, all of which the US government dropped in June 2014.)
In April 2014, Huffington Post Live invited SJP USF president Ahmad Saad-Aldin on air to discuss USF’s attempt to stymie the student BDS resolution and the USF administration’s ties to Israeli institutions and illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
“Flagrantly Ignoring the Voices of 10,000 Students”
The USF board is “flagrantly ignoring the voices of 10,000 students,” one student insisted. SJP USF collected signatures from almost one-quarter of the entire student body—over twice the number of students who voted in the previous student government elections—yet the board “didn’t let us speak at all” at the meeting, a student disclosed. One member said “being a Palestinian and watching it really hurt. It’s a huge controversy.”
Concomitant with the anti-democratic tendencies of the university administration was its lack of transparency. While doing research on the USF Foundation, students made several public records requests. On numerous occasions, the university denied their requests. This activity alone is in legal gray area, if not downright illegal, considering the University of South Florida is a public university, funded by tax dollars, and appears to be in violation of Florida’s open government “Sunshine” Law. USF has a rather suspicious history of denying such records, even to Associated Press reporters. The university has butted heads with local lawyers who fight for more transparent government practices.
SJP USF members also reported being appalled at the sheer dishonesty and corruption they experienced in their divestment attempt. An activist told Mondoweiss “we spent an entire semester being outside every day, all day long,” gathering signatures for a petition that the USF Foundation dismissed in mere moments.
Organizer Rahma Elmohd averred students “should be concerned that their collective voices were undermined by a few people with connections. They openly admit to working in the shadows rather than try and challenge the content head on. We stand out in the open because the truth does not need to hide.”
The students say they will not give up. In early January 2015, SJP USF posted a Tampa billboard reading “10,000 students silenced – end USF investment in Israeli apartheid!” They insist that their campaign will continue and that they will not let the university silence the voices of its students.