The backlash was swift. Just a few days after Barnard College students — in a first for the university — voted last week to demand the school divest from eight companies that allegedly benefit from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Barnard alumnae reared up.
Barnard’s alumnae, who count among their number actress and New York City mayoral candidate Cynthia Nixon and entrepreneur and TV personality Martha Stewart, are known for their strong connection to their alma mater. So after nearly two-thirds of the 1,153 Barnard students who cast ballots backed the boycott of companies such as Caterpillar, Boeing and Hewlett Packard, a group of some 3,000 alums pushed back with a petition criticizing the referendum. They include Barnard board of trustees members Nina Rennert Davidson and Ruth Horowitz, former president of the New Israel Fund Naomi Chazan and former Barnard Dean Dorothy Denburg.
“At Barnard, we received an education that prioritizes intellectual honesty, social justice, and an impassioned search for truth,” they wrote. “But this referendum, and the manner in which it was brought to a vote, reflects none of these ideals and instead silences and marginalizes a community on our campus by refusing to accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.”
The divestment vote, Lizzy Brenner, a Barnard alumna and one of the organizers of the petition, wrote in an email to The Jewish Week, “gives the impression that all of Barnard supports BDS. When in fact, there is a large alumnae community who wholly rejects BDS.”
Barnard President Sian Leah Beilock responded to the referendum on Sunday, saying that Barnard would not take any action to divest its endowment. “First, taking an institutional stand amid the complexities of the Mideast conflict would risk chilling campus discourse on a set of issues that members of our community should be able to discuss and debate freely. Choosing a side therefore would be inconsistent with our mission,” she wrote. “Second, there is clearly not consensus across the Barnard community on whether or how to address the issue.”
This is not the first time students at Columbia University, of which Barnard is a part, have called for divestments based on political movements. Columbia was the first Ivy League school to divest from South African companies in 1985 and the first U.S. university to divest from the private prison industry in 2015. Nor is this the first time the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel has been a topic of discussion at Columbia. Just last year, an effort to introduce a similar referendum at Columbia College was defeated by a majority in the Columbia College Student Council.
Those on the pro-BDS side of the debate were ecstatic after hearing the results of the referendum, sensing that the tide may be changing in support of their cause, though they were disappointed to read President Beilock’s letter on Sunday. More than 50 student groups at NYU recently endorsed a boycott of two pro-Israel student clubs on campus as well as Israeli goods and academic institutions in an effort organized by NYU’s Jewish Voice for Peace.
“It’s pretty frustrating for a school that tries to pride itself on student involvement and social awareness and seeing that this is the response from the president is pretty disheartening,” said Lucy Danger, a first-year at Barnard and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. “We want the administration to respect the thoughts and choices of the student body.”
Some Barnard alumnae voiced frustration with President Beilock’s decision in a Columbia Spectator article. “Stating that the college refuses to take a side in the Middle East while continuing to invest in companies that contribute to the oppression of the Palestinian people is a contradiction,” Yousr Shaltout, a former member of Students for Justice in Palestine and a 2017 graduate of Barnard College, told the student paper. “[Barnard] has effectively shut the door in the face of free speech, student expression, and obligation to morality and human rights.”
Several students in the pro-Israel camp felt that the process by which the referendum was conducted was unfair. The referendum was initiated by Barnard’s Student Government Association (SGA) after Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a coalition of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, gave a presentation asking Barnard’s student government to send a letter urging Barnard to divest from eight Israeli companies. The referendum asked students if they thought SGA should send a letter to the school’s administration asking it to divest from eight companies “that profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians,” according to the text of the referendum. The companies named were Hyundai Heavy Industries, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Elbit Systems, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Bank Hapoalim and Mekorot. Though Barnard does not make its endowment’s investments public, CUAD believes the endowment is likely invested in these companies based on their size and stock value.
Leaders of Aryeh, Columbia University’s pro-Israel group, said that they were not given an opportunity to present their case or contribute to the wording of the referendum before the SGA decided to administer the vote a few weeks later. “After last year, everybody understood that you don’t just go to a referendum on anything to do with Israel or Palestine without having a long, three-hour debate,” said Albert Mishaan, a junior and president of Aryeh. “Everybody recognizes that this is a huge deal, except for SGA apparently.”
In an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator, members of SGA’s executive board explained the process by which the referendum was held. “The executive board believed then, and continues to believe now, that although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a contentious subject, the decision to hold a referendum was not contentious,” they wrote.
“The referendum asked for student opinion on the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestine and Palestinians,” said a student at Barnard College who is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, who asked for anonymity because of the volatility of the subject. “It didn’t ask about the State of Israel generally; it was very specific.”
In light of the Barnard president’s statement, student activists across the spectrum are figuring out their next steps. Danger said CUAD will encourage SGA to send a letter of support for divestment to Barnard’s administration in spite of Beilock’s statement. Leaders of Aryeh will assess their work this year in order to improve the next time BDS comes up at Columbia.
Aliza Lifshitz, a sophomore and president of the Jewish Activist Collective, a Jewish social justice group, said the polarized atmosphere on campus has left many feeling unrepresented by any campus group.
“I feel like the people in the middle — the people who feel that their voices were not represented by those campaigning against the referendum or for the referendum — felt very alienated by the conversation,” said Lifshitz. “When that debate is now put within this paradigm of good-guy versus always-bad-guy, it stifles the ability to really grapple with your Jewish identity and your relationship to Israel.”