College is often described as the first opportunity for young adults to explore new ideas and form their own opinions outside the confines of home. This can explain the fervor with which Jewish institutions prepare today’s youth to combat anti-Israel propaganda on campus.
Local politicians and community leaders applauded efforts by students and campus organizations at University of Maryland (UMD), College Park this week to step up to the challenge.
On Nov. 15, the UMD Student Government Association (SGA) voted on a bill titled “A Resolution to Promote Human Rights by Divesting from Companies that Profit from Investments in Palestine.” Calling on the university to divest from companies associated with Israel, the bill was riddled with the intersectional language that casts being anti-Israel as being pro all things progressive. References to the university’s status as a sanctuary campus and its commitment to providing “a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students” were mixed in with the rhetoric about military checkpoints, “a separate, unequal legal system,” and that the companies listed implicitly support the killing of Palestinian civilians.
“Our immediate reaction to this bill was one of concern but also of composure,” said Aaron Bernstein, student spokesperson for the coalition of campus groups organized known as UMD Against BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). While the passage of the bill would merely serve as a “suggestion” to the administration, said Bernstein, its passage would have represented a serious failure of the representative responsibilities of the SGA as a campus institution.
“The pro-Israel community on our campus is strong and extremely well-organized, and we knew that, through the dedicated work of a number of individuals, the reality of public opinion on this campus would shine through,” he said.
“I’m so proud of the mature and thoughtful reactions of our student leadership,” said Maryland Hillel Director Ari Israel. “With guidance from our Hillel staff, they quickly mobilized to engage legislators in the student government, create petitions, and more.”
“We have been fortunate to tackle this issue with the experience and guiding counsel of many partners and friends,” he said, including the university administration, Hillel International, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), Academic Engagement Network (AEN, an anti-BDS organization), and other external parties.
Like anxious but proud parents watching their own children undergo a rite of passage, some community leaders offered their resources but stood back to let the students lead the charge.
“In many ways, college is a training ground for adulthood,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, “so while we contacted Ari Israel and told him we’re here for you if you need us — if you need us to raise money, if you need us to organize — whatever you need us to do, we’re happy to do and support, but we really have to let Hillel and the college students be the driver of the strategy.”
Andrew Friedson, a UMD alum and Democratic candidate for Montgomery County Council (D-1), sent a letter of opposition to SGA before the vote with friend and fellow former student body president, Jonathan Sachs. “This was the first time I have ever publicly weighed in on an SGA issue since my term as SGA president ended,” said Friedson. He was pleased to see he wasn’t alone, with many elected officials, professors, and other notable community members also weighing in.
“The sponsoring student should be enrolled in Middle East History 101 and the history of anti-Semitism,” said State Delegate Ben Kramer (D-19) after reading the proposed bill. “In doing so, perhaps the individual will be able to have even a tiny understanding of the miracle that is Israel and how Israel is in the West Bank as a consequence of Arab military aggression.”
When the floor opened for comments from UMD undergrads before the vote Wednesday evening, members from both camps had a chance to make their case for or against the bill. While the students speaking out against the resolution were predominantly Jewish, there were students from an array of religious and ethnic backgrounds on both sides. Of the 61 students who shared their views, students opposing the bill outnumbered those for it by two to one; all present, including the audience, received praise from the presiding student legislator for their civility.
The students who were in favor of the bill focused their comments on the historic persecution of Palestinians, the theft of their land, and the violence and oppression they continue to face while Israel carries on “with impugnity.” Palestnians were described as having “miniscule control over their own lives, owing entirely to subjugation” by Israel. The Jewish value of justice was invoked. Solidarity was the word of the hour — even people who readily admitted they weren’t well-versed in the history of the conflict said supporting the Palestinian cause through BDS measures was an obvious choice as minorities or formerly colonized peoples.
Most of the students urging their representatives to vote against the bill spoke with expertise and nuance about both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the BDS movement; expressed their awareness that supporting Israel does not mean they think Israel is perfect; and conveyed with unblinking clarity their understanding of the role of the BDS movement in fostering an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic atmosphere on campuses across the U.S. They emphasized the inherent divisiveness of the bill to the campus community, and encouraged balanced discourse pursuing a path to peace, tolerance, and respect for human rights on all sides rather than villification of one side under the guise of financial transparency and social justice.
“I urge you to vote against this bill so we can transcend narrow narratives,” said one female student.
At the close of over two ours of public comment by UMD undergrads, multiple legislators argued that the student government was an innappropriate venue for debating what was essentially a bill on foreign affairs, something outside the scope of the student government, while others argued that to avoid the debate and the decision on the resolution would be shirking an important symbolic gesture.
While the resolution’s failure in the Student Affairs Committee (1 yes, 21 no, and 3 abstensions) and Government Affairs Committee (0-14-2) prior to Wednesday’s gathering gave legislators the option of killing the bill rather than debating it and putting it to a vote – an option they ultimately took by a vote of 23-13-1 — the evening’s proceedings showcased the strength of the pro-Israel student presence at UMD.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.