BDS Vote Leaves SJP Frustrated, SGO Divided

Note: due to the targeted harassment towards individuals who have spoken about BDS, we have made certain individuals anonymous at their request.

As reported by The Phoenix last week, the Student Government Organization (SGO) voted down a resolution brought to them by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). After objection from many members of the student body, SGO is deciding between a re-vote or changes to the statement of the resolution. Entangled with the question of the BDS resolution are discussions about the nature of SGO as an organization.

SJP introduced the resolution to SGO during the January 27 SGO Senate meeting. Throughout the following two weeks before the vote, SGO was in constant discussion with SJP regarding the topic. According to Kelly Finke ’21, sophomore class senator, the resolution was also discussed by SGO on February 3, but was not voted on due to the lack of attendance. The topics of that discussion were then brought to the meeting on February 10 when the vote took place, despite the presence of a student outside of SGO.

SJP’s resolution expressed explicit support for SJP’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The resolution calls for SGO to advise the board of managers to reverse the 1991 ban on political statements through the endowment. BDS would oblige the college to divest from the seven companies that are directly invested in the Israeli occupation, such as Lockheed Martin, which supplies the Israeli air force with fighter jets, and Caterpillar, a construction company that produces bulldozers that are used in the demolitions of Palestinian homes by the Israeli government. The vote that occured on February 10 decided whether or not, in that moment, SGO would send out the exact statement that SJP previously proposed

The BDS online petition from October 2018 has received more than 1000 signatures, which the general student body considers to be a representation of the majority’s view. Throughout the past week, students have expressed concern that SGO failed to represent the majority of the student body by not passing the resolution. According to one SGO member who requested to remain anonymous, SGO is justified. They believe that SGO also needs to value the voice of the one-third of the student body, who disagreed with BDS or did not vote.

“Despite the fact that 66 percent of the students may have or may not have supported the BDS campaign, we still have 33 percent of the students, one-third of the students, still saying no or did not respond or did not poll,” they said. “We may have students within the 66 percent that aren’t fully educated on the issue. So we need to make sure that SGO sends the whole message to the student body that this is a forum where everyone can come and bring their political opinions, despite their political ideologies.”

However, Nathalie Baer Chan ’19, a SJP core member, expressed frustration that SGO has communicated that the amount of majority support BDS had was not enough.

“We think it is very harmful to say that 1000 voices and the voices of oppression and narratives of oppression are just not enough to sway,” Baer Chan said. “This is especially because there is a history of movements against white supremacy being called divisive, being called fringe groups, when in reality, what we are asking for is just not that much. It is important and an undeniable issue that we need to confront at some point.“

Fouad Dakwar ’22, another member of SJP, also thinks that SGO’s response to the outcome of the vote has been harmful to the Swarthmore community. He believes that the college prioritizes the discomfort of anti-BDS Israeli and Jewish students over Palestinian students.

“They are saying that they are worried about Israeli and Jewish students feeling uncomfortable, right? What they are saying is that those students are above Palestinian students. Not to mention that the Israeli and Jewish students I know on campus are pro-BDS,” Dakwar said.“I feel like this is an opportunity to tell Palestinian students, other Arab students, and anyone that cares about humanitarian crisis in Palestine that we are on your side, and they totally ignored that.”

While some are enthusiastic about sending a national message about BDS, other students are cognizant of threats that activists for Palestinian human rights constantly face. These are exemplified by phone calls and emails that SGO members received last week, as The Phoenix reported.

Abby Saul ’19, a member of SJP and a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) core member, calls the community to action in spite of threats.

“In the face of this, in this particular moment, it is more important than ever that we don’t stop talking, especially those of us who have privilege to not be as affected by those threats,” Saul said. “We have to keep on talking and keep on pushing. If we stop then they will win.”

Marios Vafiadis ’22, an international student from Egypt, felt the danger of attaching his name to the cause of Palestinian human rights activism and decided to refrain from SJP.

“My parents told me to not get involved with SJP, because back at home this is a very contentious issue. That’s why I stopped regularly attending the meetings,” Vafiadis said.

Following contact from right-wing journalist Joel Griffith to some of its members, SGO faces internal division regarding the nature of the organization. Tyler White ’22, freshman class senator, asserted that the vote against the resolution positions SGO as a political body.

“When you support things for SGO, or when you support other things through funding, that is a political stance, and there is no way to be apolitical, ever, period. Whatever you buy, whatever you consume, that’s a political stance,” White said. “[SGO is] using this as a scapegoat to not offend or upset the status quo, I think that’s very cheap. I think we have to be consistent if we have to say we don’t want to political, but we can’t pick and choose when we get to be political.”  

However, the anonymous student in SGO, believed that SGO should remain apolitical. They expressed support for a referendum instead, so that the Swarthmore student community can make a decision altogether as a student body.

The student said, “fundamentally, I believe that SGO has to act as an apolitical or unbiased forum where all students can bring their grievances.”

In regards to the discussion surrounding the definition and role of SGO, Baer Chan feels that SJP needs to recenter its mission instead of getting tangled up in SGO’s internal changes.

“In the last couple of weeks, SJP and our campaign, our mission, our purpose, has become entangled with a dialogue about internal processes at this college, dialogue about SGO and what SGO means. I think that is a very important conversation to have, especially based on SGO’s very harmful history,” Baer Chan said. “I also think that we need to get back to what BDS is, we need to get back to thinking what our campaign is. I think it has really decentered Palestinian rights when we are talking about this.”

SGO faces divisive choices regarding the resolution: a re-vote or a differently worded resolution. According to Finke, there are two reasons why SGO should have a re-vote: the unexpected presence of Matthew Stein ’20, co-president of Swarthmore Students for Israel, during the voting procedure and the inclusion of the votes of newly elected senators. Due to the fact that SJP was not given a platform after Stein presented his argument against the BDS campaign, Baer Chan considers the voting process as unfair and supports a re-vote on the resolution.

“But at the end of the day, [Stein’s] was the final voice they heard… in a very different setting. We were meeting in Sharples, in lounges, talking over Facebook Messenger.” Baer Chan says, “to give a diatribe before the vote was an explicitly unfair way of expressing opinion when it is not shared on the other side, particularly because SJP had no idea this was happening.”

At the Executive Board and Senate meetings on Sunday, Ash (Anatole) Shukla ’22, chair of outreach, advocated for a re-vote due to the occurence of a violation of voting procedure and thinks of it as a step to correct SGO’s mistake. (Shukla serves as Chief Copy Editor at The Phoenix but was not involved in the production of this article.)

“I think it was supposed to be a private vote, and other people shouldn’t have been there, but Matthew Stein was there, which breaks the voting procedures.” Shukla said at the open SGO meeting last Sunday, “I think it would be wrong for us to not vote on it again, even if it would have the same result. If we do something that breaks our own bylaws, we should right it.”

In the aftermath of the vote, Baer Chan says that SJP’s next steps are to educate the student body; SJP has a mass training at some time later in the semester in addition to coming events that center Palestinian narratives. While there are no formal plans for potential SJP collaboration with SGO, Baer Chan is hopeful for potential future support despite facing external pressures leading up to the vote.

“Unfortunately, standing for BDS and for Palestinian rights often means facing intimidation tactics, and many of us have felt it before.” Baer Chan said, “I hope we can support SGO as they navigate that, and frankly I hope they will double down on their commitment to Palestinian rights after seeing some of the tactics used to silence this movement.’”

Several upcoming events in Swarthmore community follow up on the fate of the BDS campaign. SJP hosts its regular open meeting on Thursday. The Board of Managers has a meeting on Friday in which the 1991 ban will be discussed. On March 24, Kehilah is sponsoring a town square discussion for Jewish students on BDS with funding from SGO. Following the aftermath of the vote, the conversation around BDS campaign continues to buzz.

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