In an eleventh-hour meeting at the Aaron David Bram Hillel House, a tidy white house on campus, a very small, tense but determined group of students convened to find volunteers amongst themselves who would speak the next night before the University of New Mexico Student Senate (ASUNM). With less than a week’s notice, Sarah Abonyi, president of the recently formed student campus organization Lobos for Israel, had learned that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were bringing a resolution to the UNM campus on April 2 to ask the student senate to vote to divest in multi-national corporations that contribute to human rights violations against Palestinians. (See also "My soul longs for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and later story about graduate council: "Students for Justice in Palestine defeated again at UNM")
Six students agreed they would speak. Hillel director Sarah Koplik commended the students for their willingness to stand up. During the course of the meeting they also learned that each side would each be allowed ten speakers who could each speak for three minutes. The standard strategy by SJP on campuses to slip in their resolution quietly without alerting any possible organized opposition had in this one instance failed.
The UNM chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine group has been responsible for such activities as “Israel Apartheid Week,” which is taught in SJP national trainings. Their website states that in March “We hosted a day full of films, a teach-in with allies on Border Militarization, a Mock Checkpoint, and held a boycott SodaStream action!” Another event on April 7 was co-sponsored with the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice. SJP activities have contributed to creating an environment of hostility towards Jewish students.
As Rose Davenport, Hillel student president, would say the next night before the student senate, “The way this resolution reads this sends a clear message to me that I am not welcome at the University of New Mexico, a place I have called home for four years.” Hillel director Kopik has reported that UNM last year received the dubious distinction of having had more anti-Israel events than any other campus in the U.S.
The movement known as Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions (BDS) is considered the “soft war” against Israel. As the BDS movement found traction through anti-Israel academic boycotts, the first SJP group was formed at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001 and was subsequently banned there the following year after disruptive activity. The movement started to grow but remained fragmented.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s information bulletin on SJP, “SJP's chapters, which have largely operated independently of each other, recently indicated that they plan to collaborate more closely. To that end, representatives from more than 40 SJP chapters across the country attended the first national SJP conference from October 14-16, 2011. The conference, titled, "Students Confronting Apartheid," was held at Columbia University in New York. A second national SJP conference took place at the University of Michigan in November 2012.
The article continued, “SJP's "unification" efforts are a result of the influence and coordination of a national organization called American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), a group that promotes extreme anti-Israel views. In 2010, AMP decided to focus specifically on Palestinian advocacy on college campuses and targeted SJP for this effort.”
The ADL report continued, “SJP groups also plan anti-Israel events throughout the school year. These events often seek to draw attention to Israel's alleged wrongdoings in a sensationalistic way. For example, several SJP groups have displayed props like mock "apartheid walls" and Israeli checkpoints on main areas of campus to demonize Israeli soldiers and attempt to demonstrate the travel difficulties Palestinians face in Israel and the territories. These events sometimes have the effect of intimidating or silencing Jewish students on campus.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center acknowledges, “College Campuses See Rising Anti-Semitic Sentiment” (SPLC Intelligence Report, Fall 2008), that “College campuses are particularly susceptible to anti-Semitism that originates in certain sectors of the far left.” Further, the report points out that ironically this opens the door to extremists on the right. “The Intelligence Report took an in-depth look at two different examples of modern-day anti-Semitism on college campuses (neither of which occurred in the classroom or was sanctioned in any way by university officials). In both cases, legitimate concerns about Israeli treatment of Palestinians found expression alongside anti-Jewish canards and Holocaust denial. During appearances on public university campuses in California, two Muslim clerics have espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 and asserted that Jews control the media and other powerful institutions. Several hundred miles north, a discussion group seeking justice for Palestinians has morphed into a haven for white supremacists that's brought a string of Holocaust deniers to speak at the University of Oregon.”
While to date SJP has not been very successful in passing their resolutions, they have succeeded in getting a fair amount of media attention. Resolutions have passed at Hampshire College (whose regents later disavowed knowledge of its intent) and at Berkeley, but have been defeated elsewhere.
One resolution that made headlines recently was passed in March at Loyola University Chicago, but was subsequently vetoed by their student senate president following a week of protests by Jewish students and a second vote. It had initially been introduced without notice and with no opportunity for pro-Israel students to respond to it.
As reported in the National Catholic Reporter by Paul DeCamp, Loyola University’s president said that the university would have completely ignored the resolution anyways. He also was quoted as saying, “[. . .] we would not be interested in taking up this issue. It is one-sided, it is focused on one party in a complex international situation. It is felt as extremely unfair by our Jewish faculty, staff and students.”
Whether resolutions are passed or not, the issue is being brought to students’ attention on campus by pro-Palestinian groups, thereby forcing a small group of staunchly pro-Israeli students to react to these proposals.
PART TWO - A Tense and Contentious ASUNM meeting.
The room on the top floor at the Student Union Building filled up quickly. Of the hundred and fifty or so spectators lining the walls around the room, about 75% appeared to be there to support the Palestinian resolution, drafted by Students for Justice in Palestine (SPJ), and co-signed by seven other UNM student organizations including Dreamers in Action and the Arabic Club. Brittany Arneson, a tall young woman with a bright turquoise streak of bangs across red hair dressed in a tight black dress and tights, called out to the audience, “Raise your hands if you are in favor” of the resolution. A forest of hands went up around the room, surrounding the small pro-Israel group.
Ten speakers on each side were each given 3 minutes to speak. The SJP students spoke first. Palestinian student Danya Mustafa, SJP co-chair, stated their group had been working hard for four years towards this moment, attending national conferences and drafting their resolution. Others from SJP who spoke included their faculty advisor Les Field, UNM Professor of Anthropology and director of the Peace Studies program, who introduced himself as a Jewish son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors who has been unfairly called an anti-Semite by The New Mexico Jewish Link. Additionally two of the SJP student members also identified themselves as Jewish.
Then students from Hillel and Lobos for Israel and other members of the Jewish community, including Executive Director of the Jewish Federation president Sam Sokolove, Rabbi Paul Citrin, and Robert Efroymson of the New Mexico-Israel Business Exchange, spoke from various angles against the resolution.
A lengthy debate ensued between the senators and with further questions to the speakers. However, when it became clear that the senate was not likely to pass the resolution, a new strategy was floated by SJP. A motion was made to amend the resolution to take out any specific mention targeting Israel and to pass an amended resolution that would still ask for transparency and responsible investing by the university.
Small groups broke up to strike the clauses about Israel from the resolution. It was a tense period where it seemed to spectators that it would be hard to reason out of why to reject such a resolution that sounded reasonable on its face. Finally when the senate reconvened, this amended resolution did not pass, over the strenuous objections of student senator Ayham Maadi, sponsor of the original resolution. In rejecting the amended resolution, another student senator pointed out it only contained strike-outs, and did not contain any additional clauses from the opposing group who might want to add clauses.
Finally, after an almost four-hour debate, marked by deliberate and well-modulated speeches, and an audience that was almost entirely well-behaved and respectful, except for a few brief passionate outbursts from some of the older adults on both sides of the aisle who were quickly hushed up, the original resolution was defeated at approximately 10 pm, with a final vote of 12 against, 7 for, with one abstention.
The student senate requested that a new resolution be presented at their next meeting that would be drafted by all groups present, that would be more representative of the student body, and that would address transparency by the university about all its investments.
After the final vote was tallied, Danya Mustafa of SJP repeated loudly, “This is just the beginning,” and in a challenging manner loudly said that she had their email and would be in contact immediately with the Lobos for Israel group. But in the ensuing week, she would refuse to speak directly to Sarah Abonyi in meetings, and would not meet with UNM administrators at all.
When the meeting broke up SJP supporters and pro-Israel students mingled and talked with one another. Hillel member Ezra Rubinsky, who has family members living in Israel, and senator Ayham Maadi talked at length, and as they parted, Rubinsky said, “You seem like a cool guy,” and they shook hands. It seemed a hopeful moment, that some real dialogue could take place, beyond positions.
As the room emptied out finally it was after 10:30 pm. This reporter left alongside a group of Hillel students, one of the last groups to leave. As they approached the double doors to leave the building, a tall white-haired lady suddenly approached me who must have been waiting by the exit door. In a friendly manner she began in a normal tone by relating that she was at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1970’s, active in a divestment movement there against corporations that polluted. Her voice rose as she saw she had gotten the attention of the others who had turned to see what she was saying, and then her lips contorted as she suddenly spat, “You people make this (divestment) all about you.”
It was such a confoundingly irrational and frightening statement that I found I had no response except to walk on, but it served as a reminder that there is a long road ahead and that it will take new generations for the scars to fade that have for some turned into only bitterness and hatred.
New Mexico Jewish Link Editor’s Note and Update April 30:
On April 26, a resolution against Israeli companies passed through the Graduate and Professional Student Association’s Council (GPSA). It is very similar to the resolution that SJP tried to pass through the undergraduate ASUNM Senate. This resolution may be discussed at the next UNM Boad of Regent’s meeting on Friday, May 9 at 10:00 am.
On April 30, a new resolution authored by undergraduate Senator Earl Shank to encourage socially responsible investments was unanimously approved by the ASUNM student senate. This resolution did not castigate Israel or Israeli companies, and was a rare occasion where Students for Justice in Palestine worked hand-in-hand with Lobos for Israel. This is particularly unusual, as frequently, SJP chapters will lose funding if they coordinate activities with Zionist groups.
Examiner UPDATE: On May 10 after a five-hour meeting the GPSA voted to rescind the SJP resolution that had previously been passed on April 26. Because there had been no notification on the agenda and the SJP had claimed there was no opposition, the Hillel and Lobos for Israel students were allowed to address the GPSA. The final vote was tied ten to ten, and was broken by the chair in favor of rescinding the resolution. It is expected that SJP will appeal this vote and continue to press their resolutions and activities on campus. A full report on that meeting will be posted in June.
This article and photos by Diane J. Schmidt appeared as a special report for the New Mexico Jewish Link, May, 2014. Schmidt is an award-winning writer and photojournalist in New Mexico. She recently was awarded the 2014 1st Prize for Enterprise Reporting for her articles on the Con Man Red Feather aka David Rendon, and Honorable Mention for personal columns, including Our Prayers are Heard by the New Mexico Press Women, as published in the Gallup Independent, and which also appeared in expanded form in The Link.