Note: due to the targeted harassment towards individuals who have spoken about BDS, we have made certain individuals anonymous at their request.
This past Sunday, a regularly scheduled Student Government Organization meeting ran nearly half an hour over its allotted time with nearly 60 non-SGO members and 25 SGO members in attendance. After the downvote of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions resolution last week, this meeting was organized to allow student groups to present to SGO members before the upcoming revote. Campus organizations Students for Justice in Palestine, Swarthmore Students for Israel, and Jewish Voices for Peace were invited to the meeting to present and answer questions for twenty minutes each, after which the Senate opened the floor for discussion.
SJP had the largest presence with around 40 students in attendance. They centered their presentation on the BDS campaign and had several members share their personal experiences with the conflict. In the meeting, members gave background on the occupation of Palestine, the BDS movement, and the resolution SJP presented to SGO a few weeks ago. Additionally, Palestinian-American students gave personal examples of how the occupation affected their lives and their families.
“I felt really glad that students were watching the process … with SJP giving a fact-filled, concise, and pointed argument and a clear set of actionable steps to a position that is rooted in personal experience, history, and the current political context in Palestine,” said Taylor Morgan ’19, a core member of SJP.
SSFI presented their viewpoint on the BDS resolution and argued that passing it would not only single out Jewish students, but also end dialogue on campus. Representatives of SSFI expressed wanting to go to the meeting to warn against the potential silencing of voices and end of dialogue if the BDS resolution passes in the revote.
“I wanted to be there for people who support the idea of the state of Israel,” said Tennyson Teece ’19, a member of SSFI who spoke at the meeting. “I think BDS is threatening to that.”
JVP presented themselves as supporters of SJP’s BDS campaign and as a Jewish perspective distinct from SSFI’s position. In the meeting, JVP highlighted that criticism of Israel is not the same as criticism of Judaism and that Israel does not represent Judaism.
“I think the presence of JVP at that meeting was important in making sure people understand that the Jewish community, at large and at Swat, is not a monolith,” said Sydney Covitz ’20, co-leader of JVP. “Seeing a group of Jewish students here who openly support BDS proves to SGO that the campaign is not at all antithetical to the Jewish identity and that there are a lot of Jewish students at this school who support BDS because of our Jewish identity, not in spite of it.”
Abby Saul ’19, a member of both SJP and JVP, also thought JVP’s attendance at the meeting was important for presenting non-Zionist, Jewish perspectives that support BDS.
“We thought it would be important to speak on our own as well as to fully support SJP’s BDS campaign using our positionality as Jews on campus,” said Saul.
One student in SGO, who requested to remain anonymous, was happy with attendance, as well as the back and forth discussion throughout the meeting. “It was one of the most successful moments of students hearing out other students (in all directions) I’ve ever seen in my time here.”
The discussion appeared to be going well enough for SGO members to decide against having a separate SGO discussion for the final part of the meeting, continuing an unplanned discussion that continued after the meeting officially ended.
For many SGO members, this meeting functioned not only as a means for dialogue on campus, but also as a way to educate SGO members on the Israel-Palestine conflict and about SJP’s BDS campaign.
A member of SGO, who requested to remain anonymous, highlighted an insufficient level of knowledge about the issue on SGO’s part.
“At previous meetings, the educational disconnect between SGO and the understanding of movements on campus was quite apparent,” they said.
Another SGO member Will Bein ’21, chair of visual and performing arts, felt the meeting itself helped SGO members learn more about the conflict and its importance.
“I think having the ability to really sit down and talk it out for as long as we needed to really debate and discuss this helped to get a good grasp of the gravity of these issues,” said Bein. “I think it was extremely helpful for SGO members … to have the chance to hear from people who don’t just know about [the conflict], but who have lived it.”
Killian McGinnis ’19, a core member of SJP, also felt grateful for the students — especially Palestinian students — who shared personal experiences. She also noted the efforts to keep the conversation centered around BDS and the occupation of Palestine in the meeting.
“I think, generally, SJP supporters did a really good job of recentering [on] the structural reality of the occupation, on the need for moral action on the part of SGO and the administration, and on responding to Palestinian civil society’s call for BDS,” said McGinnis.
Saul also noted that the focus of the conversation should have remained centered around BDS and solidarity with Palestinians. She expressed frustration at moments where the conversation shifted its focus to topics such as broader questions about SGO’s role.
“It was difficult to feel like there were moments, whether it was from student government or folks from SSFI where it felt like we were shifting conversation away from what it was meant to be about,” said Saul.
While the meeting served in part as an educational moment for SGO members, some students at the meeting expressed concern about the SGO members not present at the meeting — some of whom were believed to be the most vocal about voting against the resolution.
“Of course, there were members of SGO that were not present, some I understand that were critically vocal about the resolution when it was initially voted [on],” said Joy George ’20, a core member of SJP. “This of course means they need to do their due diligence and educate themselves on the issue.”
While students expressed concern that members who were not present would not have the education they needed for a revote, SGO members were already planning to accomodate that immediately following the meeting.
“Immediately after the meeting, several members of SGO stayed behind to chat and we agreed that it’s important that [the absent SGO members] get the same education that we got,” said Bein.
While concern over the absent SGO members was vocalized at the meeting and afterwards, 25 out of 30 members of SGO were in attendance, according to information from an SGO member who requested to remain anonymous. Of those absences, many of them were due to prior commitments. The student also expressed that measures may be taken to account for any the senators who feel as though they don’t have the proper knowledge to vote again on the resolution.
“We have had people and groups reach out to discuss the meeting, answer questions, and any other sort of informational things those senators may need,” said the student. “I think there’ll be a discussion about whether senators, present or not, should abstain if they don’t have the proper knowledge and grasp of the last meeting and/or the issue at hand.”
While students appreciated the ability for discussion in this setting, critiques on the structure and content of the meeting still arose. One of those critiques centered around the allocation of equal time to SJP, SSFI, and JVP.
“The room was filled with mostly black and brown students and supporters of BDS and SJP. We were given equal time to [three] white men who came and were given equal time by the institution and structure of SGO,” said McGinnis.
According to the student, SGO was unaware that there would only be three representatives from SSFI. He also noted that thinking about the division of the time allotted based on support for or against the BDS resolution changed how the conversation was skewed.
“If you were to condense [the time] down to pro and anti-BDS, then it was double the amount of time for pro-BDS viewpoints or opinions to be shared,” they said. “I think it made sense for SGO to not deny [SSFI] that form and give them equal time to share their views. It’s wrong, in my opinion, for student government to shut out a sight from the process without giving them a voice, even if the voices aren’t equal.”
Noah Landay ’19 was one of the three people representing SSFI, not as a member but as a student who was concerned about SGO passing a BDS resolution that would discourage dialogue on campus surrounding the issue. This concern, according to him, was already highlighted by the nature of the discussion at the SGO meeting.
“I was unsurprised by the animosity and intolerance towards … any sort of non-uniformity of belief,” said Landay. “Which is not to say it’s deliberate … but I think that at this college and others like it, it’s almost a natural consequence of these student movements.”
Landay and Teece both expressed concern over the way the SGO meeting went in terms of how the discussions went. While they both acknowledged that there were students present who engaged in constructive conversation, they believed some of the discussion were intolerant of their positions.
“There were absolutely people who were extremely civil and were promoting and engaging in the exact sort of constructive conversation that I would hope that we would see,” said Landay. “There were also people doing the exact opposite and those who were complicit by not calling out their community members for doing problematic things.”
However, members of SJP and JVP took issue with the premise of the representatives of SSFI’s arguments. Namely, supporters of SJP and JVP disapproved of SSFI’s fear of voicing their opinions being equated with the fear that Palestinians under occupation face.
“Personally, I cannot support [SSFI] as an organization that affirms privilege as more threatened than marginality,” said George.
While SSFI focused part of their argument on the importance of dialogue, students at the meeting asked why the presenters were absent for SJP’s portion of the meeting. The presenters for SSFI expressed not only a sense of intimidation caused by meeting in front of a large group with beliefs opposed to their own, but also confusion about the nature of the meeting.
“I didn’t know I would be speaking to SJP and taking questions from SJP,” said Teece. “I thought I would be speaking to SGO … that was an intimidating circumstance.”
While dialogue at the meeting was critiqued, students overall felt that the meeting was educational and productive.
“This was constructive dialogue,” said McGinnis. “[It] takes a number of forms and I think that’s what people said over and over again in the meeting — talking about discourse for the sake of it is not enough.”
In the meeting, Vice President of SGO, Kat Capossela ’21, expressed that the meeting’s discussion changed her mind on what was said by Matthew Stein ’20, President of SSFI, before the initial vote took place. Addressing the SSFI representatives, Capossela recalled that Stein made the argument that passing the resolution would undermine his identity. However, Capossela felt that the information presented by SJP and JVP changed her viewpoint on that argument.
“After hearing so many voices today I don’t understand that argument anymore,” said Capossela. “Especially because a lot these folks here are saying that the BDS movement isn’t saying ‘we’re anti-Israel’ or that your identity is invalid.”
There will be a revote on the BDS resolution at this upcoming Sunday’s SGO meeting.