After a limited Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolution passed at New York University last week, pro-Israel students are gearing up for the next campus fight: reforming student government.
The initiative would be the latest chapter in what has become an increasingly volatile story about Israel activism on campus. NYU has been the site of especially divisive activity around Israel over the past year, with students from Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine recruiting more than 50 student groups to boycott Realize Israel and TorchPAC, two pro-Israel groups on campus. Complaints about representation in student government, where specific senators represent minority communities, have been ongoing for months as pro-Israel Jewish students complained that they were not adequately represented.
Last week’s BDS resolution, which passed with 35 votes in favor, 14 against and 14 abstentions, drove home the pro-Israel Jewish community’s lack of representation.
“Jewish students have not been represented on student government and that is something that we are going to change,” said Adela Cojab, president of Realize Israel and a former member of NYU’s student government. Though Cojab decided not to stay on student government this year, she encourages other pro-Israel students to join. “The next step is making sure that we are involved in student government, to start speaking up for ourselves instead of expecting other people to speak up for us when we are attacked.”
Last week’s BDS resolution, co-authored by three members of student government, called on the university to divest from three companies, Caterpillar, General Electric and Lockheed Martin. The resolution states that NYU “must dedicate itself to ethical conduct in its investment practices by divesting from companies that profit from human rights violations in Palestine and other communities globally.”
The resolution calls on NYU to do the following: “[U]pon passage of this resolution, NYU will communicate to the aforementioned companies, and any other companies complicit in human rights violations, that it shall not divest if, and only if, those companies warrant that they have put in place policies designed to ensure that none of their products are used by the State of Israel in the violation of human rights.”
“Palestinians have explicitly called for us, people of conscience across the world, to do divestment initiatives,” Rose Asaf, a leader in the campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, told Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper. “And nobody, other than Palestinians, is in any place to critique that.”
Asaf, who is Israeli, added: “Last year I was representing Jewish students at large and this year I’m representing a smaller section of the Jewish community. But I made it clear to them from the get-go that I am here to work with them on any initiatives.”
Students from pro-Israel clubs Realize Israel and TorchPAC, as well as the pro-BDS clubs Students for Justice for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, arrived at the meeting early last Thursday, hoping to demonstrate their support for or against the resolution. Dozens of pro-Israel students were not allowed into the meeting because the room had reached its capacity. Their voices were heard during the presentation of the resolution, though, as they sang “Am Yisrael Chai” outside the meeting room.
“We’ve shown that we don’t have a voice in student government, and it’s not just us,” said Mara Davis, a junior at NYU who is a member of Realize Israel, one of the school’s pro-Israel clubs that led the charge against the resolution. “We need to get this community to work with other communities and make student government be more representative of the NYU [student] body as a whole.”
According to Ezra Cohen, a junior and board member of Realize Israel, “They claim that [the push for greater student government representation] started only because now there’s a BDS vote — yes!” He said that pro-Israel students care most about student government when issues come up that impact Israel. “Yes, it started because that’s where we saw that people who were affected by the issues we’re talking about were not there discussing it.”
Whether the pro-Israel students can keep up the momentum — and gain seats on the student government — will be determined in the spring semester when those seats open up again. But for now, students are planning to work with sitting senators, some of whom reached out to Realize Israel after the vote with expressions of sympathy and support.
Despite the passage of the resolution by the Student Government Association, NYU has stated unequivocally that it will not adopt BDS measures against the three named companies.
“The University opposes this proposal,” NYU spokesman John Beckman said in a statement. “In addition, on an operational level, this would be a challenging proposal to enact given how we invest our endowment … the University will not move forward with these measures.”
A similar resolution was adopted by a student government referendum earlier this year at Barnard College. The resolution called on the school to divest from seven corporations, including the three corporations named in the NYU resolution.
Despite the statement from NYU’s administration, pro-Israel students plan to continue fighting. “With anti-Semitism being what it is these days, we have no one advocating for us,” said Davis.
“Why was I fighting? I wanted to change the narrative,” said Cohen. “I went there because I think there’s a bigger fight. And we’re going to start that fight.”