Surprise visit disrupts SGO vote on BDS resolution

Two weeks ago, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) approached the Student Government Organization (SGO), proposing a SGO resolution in support of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) campaign. SJP launched the campaign in October 2018, which calls the Swarthmore College to divest from seven Israeli companies that actively participate in harming Palestinian lives. This past Sunday, SGO voted to not pass the resolution; this, however, does not mark the end of SGO’s involvement with SJP regarding the BDS campaign.

According to Katherine Capossela ’21, vice president of SGO, throughout the two weeks before the vote, individual members of SGO were tasked with communicating with SJP to learn more about resolution and SGO’s role. Before the meeting, SGO asked SJP to not come to the meeting before the vote to prevent any external influence on the outcome. Matthew Stein ’20, co-president of Swarthmore Students for Israel, however, unexpectedly attended the meeting and spoke to SGO regarding his disagreement with the BDS campaign before the vote. Capossela explained why a pro-Israel student was allowed to speak at the meeting despite the fact that SJP was told not to be at the meeting.

“When a student says to student government their voice wasn’t being heard, it would be very wrong for student government to be like ‘actually, goodbye,’” Capossela said. “So we didn’t really have a choice. It was definitely a surprise. But at the end of the day, we want to make sure everyone’s voices were being listened to.”

According to Capossela, she would have delayed the vote if she had thought about it longer. However, SGO voted because they felt responsible for their promise to SJP that they would come to a conclusion at that meeting.

“But at the end of the day, we want to make sure everyone’s voices were being listened to. Now, I disagree with the closeness of the speech with the vote. I think, looking back on it, I wouldn’t have voted during that time. I would say, we should probably think about this a little longer,” Capossela said. “But we also promised SJP that we would come to a conclusion at that meeting so we were kind of at a tough spot.”

While meetings are welcomed to have visitors, SGO votings are meant to be internal, without the presence of any external participants. In an initial interview, Capossela was under the impression that Stein was not present during the vote. However, on Wednesday evening, in a conversation with Capossela, Murtaza Ukani ’22, class senator, recalled that Stein had been present.

“To the best of my knowledge, he was present in the room during the voting process which was done anonymously through an online program,” Ukani said.

In addition to Stein’s unexpected appearance at the meeting, several SGO members were contacted by Joel Griffith — a right-wing journalist who has written for several publications including the Daily Signal, the Wall Street Journal, Fox Business News (television), National Interest, Investor’s Business Daily, Orange County Register, National Review, and The Hill. The emails named the BDS resolution as anti-Israel and questioned the members’ personal opinions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. According to Capossela, she also received a phone call from Griffith.

The call concerned her deeply. “I was the only member of SGO that got a phone call from him, which was kind of scary,” she said.

Although the resolution failed, there is still forward motion in terms of SGO’s involvement with SJP, according to Akshay Srinivasan ’21, chair of student organizations.

“It’s important to understand that obviously this could framed as an up-and-down vote on BDS, but it’s just very much not that,”  he said. “it was just a vote on this specific form on this specific resolution at this specific time.”

Capossela stated that SGO is not only in constant conversation with SJP, but also has extended their reach to a variety of new perspectives. This includes Swarthmore Students for Israel, Jewish Voice for Peace, Rabbi Michael Ramberg, and Chelsea Hicks ’14, Special Assistant for Presidential Initiatives, who is knowledgeable about divestment history at Swarthmore.

According to Capossela, SGO is also planning to send a letter to the Board of Managers. The letter would encourage conversations between the Board and the students regarding SJP and the fossil fuel divestment. It would suggest repealing the 1991 ban, which allows the Investment Committee to prioritize “best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” The Board, however, has reaffirmed the 1991 ban several times. Most recently, in spring 2018, the referendum banning the ban passed by SGO was also voted down by the Board.

Despite the failed resolution, Srinivasan remains optimistic. “We can still consider doing a variety of things,” he said, “and can still consider banning the ban, releasing a statement of support, like a referendum, like all those kinds of things, so this doesn’t end the discussion, it just starts one.”

The Phoenix is going to interview other groups and individuals in a follow-up article next week.

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