USG overwhelmingly votes to pursue divestment from “Israeli apartheid”

CWRU is unlikely to acquiesce to USG’s demands as Kaler calls the resolution and supporters “naïve” and “anti-Semitic”


Shreyas Banerjee/The Observer

USG President Ananya Hari speaks ahead of the USG vote to encourage civility and respect.

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

After years of debate, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) of Case Western Reserve University took a strong stance against the actions of the Israeli government, the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex.

On Nov. 8, the USG General Assembly (GA) voted decisively in support of Resolution 31-15, the “Students for Justice in Palestine” bill, which calls on CWRU administration to investigate whether any of its financial assets are invested in companies that support violence against Palestinians, and divest from them if they are found to do so. Though the vote was expected to be close, having been put off by previous years’ USG bodies since 2018, the final vote was conclusive, with 35 votes in support of the resolution, 17 votes against and seven abstentions.

The bill lists specific targets for divestment, including weapons companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, private prison companies like the GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America) and various companies that “facilitate the building, maintenance, or economic development of illegal Israeli settlements, outposts, and settler-only roads and transportation systems on occupied Palestinian territory.”

The hours before the final vote were heated, with almost 30 students speaking on the resolution in order to sway USG GA members’ votes. GA was moved from Adelbert Hall to Tink Ballroom to better accommodate the large number of students present for the vote. Fears of outside interference led to USG requiring all in attendance to provide their CWRU ID to prove they were CWRU students. The public minutes for the GA were also redacted to remove all names of speakers so that all students would feel safe to speak freely without fear of doxxing by outside organizations, which has occurred to CWRU students who have voiced their opinions on this matter in the past. Accordingly, The Observer will also not be naming students who spoke at the assembly, whether they supported or opposed the bill.

Before debate began, USG President Ananya Hari reiterated that civil discussion must be the goal, saying, “My utmost concern today is the safety of every single one of you. So I implore all of you to respect all the people here that are making their voices heard and to treat them with the utmost respect and kindness you all would like to be treated with.”

Numerous Jewish students spoke out against the resolution, citing fears for their personal safety on campus. They mostly reiterated that resolutions passed on college campuses that support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel lead to increased antisemitism.

One speaker said, “Before tonight, I reached out to every Jewish student I knew on campus, asking them to come speak. They either said yes, and are here, or were too afraid to speak out. This is because of one simple fact: BDS acts as a litmus test for Jewish safety on campus.”

Other students listed incidents that have happened on other campuses targeting Jewish students, along with increased public instances of antisemitism, specifically by celebrities such as the rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and basketball star Kyrie Irving.

Another Jewish student said, “If you pass this resolution tonight you are condemning the only place in the world where I feel safe being Jewish,” referring to the State of Israel. Another said, “Voting ‘yes’ on this bill is a vote blind to rising antisemitism, it’s a vote for division on campus, it’s a vote that tells me as a Jewish student that my concerns aren’t valid.”

Others opposed to the bill explicitly supported the State of Israel, with one saying, “BDS perpetuates the notion that Jewish self-determination is solely responsible for the Israeli-Palestine conflict. This oversimplifies thousands of years of Jewish history in the land, not to mention that this rhetoric makes no acknowledgement of Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.”

Supporters of the bill reiterated that this was not strictly a BDS bill, though it is born out of that movement, and instead was purely investigatory to see if CWRU was supporting companies and institutions that cause human suffering.
“This bill is to determine where our money is going,” one student said. “This is not a Jewish versus Palestinian issue. This is a ‘look at where we are spending our money’ issue.”

Other students spoke up for the current attitudes people had towards Palestinian students on campus. One student noted how they had met a supporter of Israel wearing Palestinian clothing as a “Halloween costume,” and that the fears of discrimination that Jewish students had were currently being faced by Palestinians both at CWRU and abroad.

One Palestinian-American student stated, “I can’t go back home to my home country,” referring to the travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians in Israel. “My family is getting bombed, rocketed, and all of that and yet here I am trying to let my voice be heard. I was scared to even put on the hijab on campus because when I said I was going to, I had friends that said we would not associate with you.”

One Jewish student who voiced support for the bill expressed distaste for other students claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community, stating, “One concerning thing I’m hearing today, especially from other Jewish students, is the conflation of Judaism and Zionism. It’s often an attack used by antisemites to push antisemitic rhetoric. Just because someone is Jewish does not mean they’re Zionist.” He also added that while antisemitism is a real issue, “voting ‘no’ on this bill will have equal if not greater consequences for the opposing side, oftentimes a less represented group on campus here.”

One of the final speakers expressed confusion as to the controversy surrounding the bill, stating, “I want to ask how voting ‘yes’ on a legislation that asks for investigative reports on whether we fund apartheid, murder, and military complexes is threatening Jewish identity on this campus. We just need to ask that one question. Jewish people are being connected to terrible practices on human beings. Personally, I would be threatened, if my identity was connected to those practices … Tell me, how funding [the aforementioned practices] represents Jewish students on campus. Tell me how removing funding [for those practices], or in fact just investigating whether we are funding [those practices] removes representation for Jewish students on campus.”

Following the passage of the bill, supporters of the bill stood to their feet in applause while opposers walked out. Cleveland Hillel, an organization that supports Jewish students on campus, released a statement following the vote castigating the resolution. In it, they said that the resolution’s authors “attempted to hide anti-Israel rhetoric” and that “the legislation falsely smears Israel, Israelis, and many Jews as anti-peace” and that the debate during GA “rested on familiar and repeated antisemitic tropes.”

Despite the overwhelming USG vote, CWRU is unlikely to follow through on the bill’s action items. The administration has already confirmed multiple times that they would not investigate the investments discussed in the bill, nor would they divest from them even if they were found to support the actions of the Israeli government and the aforementioned companies. While supporters of the bill point out that CWRU took a similar stance when USG first passed a resolution calling on the university to divest from fossil fuel companies—before eventually acquiescing and following through six years later—such a course of action is unlikely to happen in this case due to our leadership.

Even before coming to CWRU, President Eric Kaler has been outspoken against any attempts by academic institutions to boycott or divest from the State of Israel. When the American Studies Association, which works to promote the interdisciplinary study of U.S. culture and history, voted in 2013 to boycott Israeli academic institutions, President Kaler publicly pushed back. Then the president of the University of Minnesota, he released a public letter denouncing the endeavor, stating that he believed that “such boycotts undermine academic freedom, which is a fundamental value of American higher education” and that he “personally oppose[s]” actions posed in the referendum as they do not “distinguish between opposition to the policies of the government of Israel and opposition to the existence of Israel.”

This led to an open letter being drafted and signed by various members of the Minnesota community which criticized Kaler’s statement and argued that “those who are genuinely concerned with academic freedom should deplore the lack of academic freedom that Palestinians experience due to Israeli institutional constraints on their movement.”

This, in turn, led Kaler to respond that “it is the fact of the boycott itself that undermines academic freedom.”

Additionally, in 2018 at UMN when a campus-wide referendum calling for the university to boycott and divest from the Israeli state passed, Kaler was similarly aggrieved. Kaler described how he was concerned that the campus community “may be unfairly singling out one government and the citizens of the country in question” and suggested that the referendum led to UMN becoming “a place where unhelpful rhetoric is hurled from side to side.”

This pattern continued this time around, as Kaler met with members of Cleveland Hillel prior to the vote to assuage fears and reaffirm that CWRU would not act on the resolution if it was passed. No such meetings to listen to the concerns of the Middle Eastern Cultural Association, the Muslim Student Association or Students for Justice in Palestine, are known to have occurred before or after the resolution’s passage.

Kaler also sent out an email to the CWRU student body on Nov. 9 the morning after the vote, decrying the resolution and expressing his disappointment in its passage. He condemned the clauses of the bill as being either “anti-Israel” or “irrelevant,” and described the entire disinvestment endeavor as “naïve” in its targets. He also characterized the resolution and its roots as “profoundly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.” In his most pointed statement, Kaler made it clear that he believed that “A vote for this resolution is clearly a vote against Israel and an aggression toward the Jewish members of our community.” He ended his statement by saying that while “vigorous political debate is welcome and encouraged” at CWRU, “hate toward any group will be opposed at every step,” and described the resolution and the actions it calls for as such acts of hate.

Despite the passage of the bill following years of discussion, it is clear that debate will continue to rage across CWRU, as it does across the nation.