A photo posted by the Swarthmore College Instagram account of a snow-covered Mertz Field accumulated over 80 comments in five hours on the evening of March 4. The commenters refer to the school and its students as “anti-semitic,” “fucking Nazi scum,” and “racist bastards.” These were posted less than a day after the college’s Student Government Organization joined the student governments of NYU, Vassar, and multiple other colleges nationwide in its decision to publicly call on the school’s Board of Managers for divestment from companies that support Israel in its occupation of Palestinian territories on Tuesday, March 5.
The decision comes after weeks of intense debate among student groups who are invested in the issue, including the college’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and Swarthmore Students for Israel (SSFI). Yet students were not the only people to weigh in on Sunday’s vote — two days before the vote, several anonymous Twitter accounts began an ongoing campaign of targeted harassment towards members of SGO, SJP, and JVP who had spoken publicly about BDS.
The first vote regarding this resolution occurred in a closed meeting three weeks ago, on February 3. The vote failed. SGO, however, decided to hold a revote on the basis that student groups had not been heard out evenly or sufficiently.
On Feb. 24, SGO heard student groups on both sides of the issue discuss their concerns about the resolution. SGO then posted on their public Facebook page about the issue and invited members of the Swarthmore campus and community to attend their meeting on March 3.
On March 1, a public Twitter account calling itself “Stop Hate At Swarthmore” (@SwarthmoreHate) was created. In its tweets, the account called the proposed resolution to divest from companies that support Israel as “anti-semitic,” “hateful,” and referred to SJP “an anti-semitic hate group.” It also repeatedly referenced students who had spoken to student publications about the resolution by their full names and Twitter handles.
Another public Twitter account, @Radical Alerts, then tweeted the location and time of the March 3 meeting to its roughly 3,000 followers, calling on them to “show up and protest this hate.” As a result, SGO members asked Public Safety officers to be present at the meeting in case of any conflict. Radical Alerts also called the resolution “an anti-American/Israel BDS resolution that will force the school to defund from U.S. companies that support the Jewish people.”
With Public Safety officers standing at the back of the room, Swarthmore students gathered at SGO’s open Executive Board and Senate meeting. After discussion on the status of various committees, Fouad Dakwar ’22 and Amal Haddad ’22, members of SJP core, spoke to the Senators, Executive Board members, and more than twenty non-members present about strategies to protect one’s safety and identity when being targeted in organized, politically-driven online attacks.
“This is not new, this is something that’s been used against supporters of Palestinian human rights,” Dakwar said. “I, as a Palestinian, have witnessed my parents being the victims of these attacks constantly. There have been multiple times my parents’ jobs have been at risk, they have to defend themselves and prove that they weren’t doing anything harmful to anyone else, but only advocating for Palestinian lives, like their own.”
After the presentation, Matthew Stein ’20, co-president of Swarthmore Students for Israel, denied any involvement of him or his organization with the tweets, and emphasized his condemnation of the anonymous accounts.
At this point, SGO had been unclear on whether they planned to hold a revote on the resolution during the meeting. SGO’s president then motioned to hold a vote among members on whether to make the meeting closed, which succeeded. Once non-members, excluding the press left the room, the Senate began its discussion of whether to publicly support SJP in its demands that the Board divest from seven companies.
Around ten minutes after students vacated the meeting room, at 8:26 p.m., Radical Alerts announced that SGO had closed its meeting, criticized it for “silencing out the voices of students,” and demanded the Senate to “vote no on this anti-Jewish resolution.”
Around 8:45 p.m., at the behest of a few Senators, the President and Vice President decided to hold the vote. SGO voted in favor of publicly supporting Student for Justice in Palestine and its divestment campaign. They also voted to draft two separate statements: one in support of the SJP resolution, and another to call the Board of Managers to reverse its 1991 ban on socially-conscious investment. They released the following public statement on March 5 and sent the same statement to the Board of Managers, chaired by Salem Shuchman ’84.
“SGO thus calls on Swarthmore College and its Board of Managers to implement a screen on investments in companies involved in repeated, well-documented, and severe violations of international human rights law in Israel / Palestine, including: Elbit Systems Ltd, Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, Bank Hapoalim BM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co, Hyundai Heavy Industries Co Ltd, and Caterpillar Inc,” SGO wrote. “In the near future, we will release a longer statement calling for the removal of the Board of Managers’ 1991 ban on social movements influencing investment decisions.”
SGO Chair of Student Organizations Akshay Srinivasan ’21 explained what he believes is the significance of the resolution.
“[The vote] recognizes the marginalized voices of both Palestinian students on campus and also throughout the world. We are showing that we support them,” Srinivasan said. “I think a lot of members of SSFI expressed concerns that this is anti-Semitic, but we are literally just calling for divestment from companies that hurt people.”
In the days after the vote, Stein stated that he feels the voting process was unfairly and poorly conducted.
“SGO decided to tell everyone they were not planning on voting and closed the meeting before voting secretly in favor of BDS. The whole process was messy and concluded in a shameful manner,” he said.
However, according to SGO President Gilbert Orbea ’19, the closed vote was a necessary safety measure as a result of the online harassment.
“We held a closed, anonymous vote for no other reason than to protect our members,” he said. “Each and every one of us believes deeply in transparency and accountability to votes, which is why they are rarely ever anonymous and meetings are rarely ever closed. But for this issue, we recognized the heightened possibility of a public vote following members into the future. We did not want to risk members being detained, especially members with ties to the region, or members facing potential harassment or physical violence for any reason. It is unfortunate that voting to support human rights puts our safety in jeopardy.”
Dakwar felt that the result of the vote showed bravery and solidarity.
“I am very pleased with the result, and I am thankful for SGO. I know this is a hard choice to make, especially with the recent organized cyber attacks that we’ve been receiving and what is sure to come.” Dakwar said. “I am so thankful that they join the movement and are willing to put their security on the line for Palestinians all over the world.”
In the wake of the public announcement, criticism of SGO on social media has escalated exponentially, as evidenced by the Instagram comments left on multiple Swarthmore College instagram posts, dozens of retweets on Radical Alert tweets about Swarthmore, and continual Swarthmore Hate tweets targeting specific members of the student government. On March 4, the day after the vote, Chairman of Students for Trump Ryan Fournier, tagged Stein under a Radical Alert tweet.
Stein, however, replied a few hours later, writing, “This ‘radical alert’ twitter account is not helping at all; in fact, as a student, I can say confidently that it’s making everything worse on so many levels. Please don’t tag me on this post.”
In an email to the Phoenix, Stein also stated that he believes the Twitter attacks impacted the decision-making process negatively, both ethically and in their impact on the result of the vote.
“The tweets were wrong, plain and simple,” he wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Individual members of Swarthmore should obviously not be called out from anonymous twitter accounts and right wing Twitter accounts should not be calling for protests against a college student government meeting; the whole thing was absurd. In terms of its impact … this was terribly negative to SGO’s deliberation. On one hand, some members likely felt intimidated to pass the resolution and risk being called out publicly, but on the other hand I think the much stronger effect was that all anti-BDS arguments were associated with these twitter accounts in the minds of SGO members and that primed them to vote in favor of BDS.”
Srinivasan believes that the scope of the public online attacks comes from the influence of right wing lobbying groups that distribute misinformation.
“The reason why so much misinformation exists, and why people perceive this as anti-Semitic, and why there’s so much backlash against this, and why, I’m assuming, some SGO members voted against this is that these groups, which are powerful right-wing lobbying groups that exist in the United States right now have waged basically a campaign of misinformation against this and have been so effective at it that people are so afraid to speak out,” he said. “I think that definitely influenced people’s vote, but I also think it’s important because SGO is in itself in a position of privilege on this campus, and so while there are members of community who can’t speak out, because they are worried for their safety, that’s where we step in. it is important for us to take that step for them.”
In response to criticism from within and beyond the community that the vote quelled discourse, Orbea contends that SGO made the decision from a place of respect, not dismissal.
“What I hope is that people realize on both sides how much listening we did, how much conversation we engaged in,” he said. “I hope [people] take what JVP said at our meeting, which is that this vote isn’t against Israel existing as a state, it is not against Jewish Students or Judaism, it is not against those beliefs. It really was just a call for a movement of harm to not be perpetrated against a group of people.”
The President of the College, Valerie Smith, and the Board of Managers have yet to respond to SGO’s entreaty that the college divest. SGO will soon release a longer official statement about 1991 ban on socially conscious investment in the coming week. The Phoenix will continue to cover this story as it develops.