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Columbia University Students Pass College’s First-Ever BDS Referendum
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Columbia University Students Pass College’s First-Ever BDS Referendum

President Lee Bollinger responded that the university "should not change its investment policies."

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

A mock apartheid wall at Columbia University. Pro-Palestinian students successfully lobbied for a pro-BDS statement by the student body. (Facebook via JNS.org)
A mock apartheid wall at Columbia University. Pro-Palestinian students successfully lobbied for a pro-BDS statement by the student body. (Facebook via JNS.org)

Students at Columbia College passed a first-ever referendum to boycott and divest from companies that “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians,” The Jewish Week has learned.

The news was released to the Columbia student body via email Tuesday morning, the day after the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur. According to the vote results shared with The Jewish Week, 61 percent of the Columbia College student body (1,081 votes) voted in favor of the referendum; 27 percent of the student body (485 votes) voted against the referendum, and 11 percent (205 votes) abstained.

Results of the vote were emailed out to the student body. Screenshot via Facebook

Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger released a statement Tuesday morning that the university “should not change its investment policies on the basis of particular views about a complex policy issue, especially when there is no consensus across the University community about that issue.”

Bollinger clarified that “questions about possible divestment of endowment funds are not decided by referendum” but rather through a process involving the University’s Advisory Committee.

Still, the vote, which represents the first time the Columbia College student council passed the referendum and brought the vote to the student body, represents a “symbolic loss,” said pro-Israel student leader, Romy Ronen.

“After everything that was done to pass this referendum, the president immediately came out with a statement that the university has zero plans to divest,” said Ronen, a junior in the joint degree program of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University and the vice president of Students Support Israel on campus.

(Ronen, 20, was not allowed to participate in the vote because she is not officially a student of Columbia College; students of Barnard College, the university’s women’s college, were similarly not allowed to participate in the vote.)

Still, what the vote has accomplished is making the majority of pro-Israel students on campus feel unsafe, victimized, and disappointed.

“Still, what the vote has accomplished is making the majority of pro-Israel students on campus feel unsafe, victimized, and disappointed,” said Ronen. “It makes it feel normalized to boycott and divest from the only Jewish state, a place a lot of us call home.”

Members of Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a collaborative student group that includes Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, did not respond to a request for comment when this article was first published.

The group posted an announcement with the voting results on its Facebook page Tuesday morning, shortly after the results were released.

“We are so excited to announce that our divestment referendum has passed with majority student support at Columbia College! Thank you for your support and for voting, we couldn’t have done it without you! Full statement coming soon,” reads the post.

A CUAD flyer advertising the divestment vote on campus. via Facebook

The referendum follows several previous attempts by Palestinian groups on campus to bring a BDS vote to the student body.

An advertisement encouraging Columbia students to “vote no” to the BDS referendum ran on Sept. 20 in the Columbia Daily Spectator, a week before the vote.
The advertisement, sponsored by the pro-Israel group SSI, said “vote NO to hate! Vote NO to keep Jewish student safe on campus.”

Hours after publication, the Daily Spectator published an apology for running the advertisement. The apology was signed by the publication’s editor-in-chief Karen Xia, managing editor Shubham Saharan, and vice-president Isabel Jauregui.

“The message, which referenced the Columbia University Apartheid Divest referendum, was clearly inappropriate and did not meet our standards for distribution,” the statement said. “We deeply apologize for giving this advertisement space on our platform and are immediately reviewing our internal processes to ensure that publication of such material will never happen again. Neither The Columbia Spectator nor Spectator Publishing Company endorses Students Supporting Israel and Columbia or its products, services or views.”

Advertisement submitted by SSI Columbia to the University newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator. (Screenshot)

Earlier this year, Bollinger published a statement tying the Boycott Israel movement to the current rise in anti-Semitism.

The referendum vote follows a federal complaint filed in Dec. 2019 against Columbia University accusing the school of anti-Semitic discrimination. The case was the first filed since President Donald Trump’s executive order on combating anti-Semitism, which grants Jewish students the same protections as other minority groups.

In the complaint, student Jonathan Karten alleges “pervasive and ongoing” discrimination against Jewish students by other students and faculty at the school. It asks the U.S. Department of Education to investigate and consider pulling all federal funding from the university.

The university’s director of media relations, Caroline Adelman, previously told The Jewish Week said the school had “no comment at this time” on the suit.

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