MINNEAPOLIS – Earlier this month, students at the University of Minnesota (UMN) narrowly passed a divestment referendum targeting Israel.
The referendum, UMN Divest, was proposed by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and forced into a campus-wide election, despite receiving pushback from multiple campus groups claiming it unfairly targeted the Jewish state. The referendum reflects the anti-Semitic national Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which seeks to dissolve all U.S. support for Israel. According to Campus Reform, a leader for SJP said the university “shouldn’t be invested in companies that commit human rights violations.”
The measure demands the Board of Regents divests from companies like G4S, Raytheon, Elbit Systems, and Boeing alleging they are “1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, 2) maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers, or 3) violating Indigenous sovereignty.”
According to the Minnesota Daily, the referendum passed by a narrow margin of 3.4 percent, with 3,392 students voting “yes” and 3,175 students voting “no.”
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro addressed the controversial referendum during his speech at UMN last month, calling it an anti-Semitic program “designed to strike at the heart of the State of Israel, the Jewish state. The only reason anyone is even considering it is because it is the Jewish state.”
Shapiro also highlighted that the referendum would ignore several countries around the world with “egregious human rights records.”
“I am not aware of any movement on the campus here for divestment from Iran, for divestment from Afghanistan, for divestment from Indonesia, for divestment for Saudi Arabia, for divestment from Jordan, for divestment from Egypt. I am not aware of any of those, all places with egregious human rights records,” Shapiro said.
Benjie Kaplan, the executive director of Minnesota Hillel, said the referendum was rushed through the process with “extremely biased language” that would lead students to vote “yes” simply based on the wording of the question.
“This was a referendum that was launched on three days-notice and with extremely biased language specifically so students didn’t have time to get educated and would be led to vote yes simply by the question’s framing,” Kaplan told Twin Cities Jewfolk. “Having now been through three different BDS attempts I have learned that those launching these attacks are not interested in debate, they use BDS as a way of spreading their narrative, and then they use the misinformation they spread to polarize the communities most invested in the conflict rather than seek out constructive dialogue and understanding.”
Following the passage of the referendum, several students were reportedly subject to hateful comments and vitriol for their position on the issue. UMN President Eric Kaler has since come out and rebuked the referendum and the BDS movement as a whole.
“I want to state clearly that the University does not endorse — and I personally oppose — the action advocated in the referendum, which echoes, in part, the language and sentiment of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement,” Kaler said in a statement. “The BDS Movement, while not directly mentioned in this referendum, has called for a comprehensive academic, cultural, economic and consumer boycott of Israel. In general, our University should be extraordinarily wary about such boycotts, given our core values of academic freedom and our commitment to the free exchange of ideas, uncertainty about the impact of such efforts, and concerns that we may be unfairly singling out one government and the citizens of the country in question.”
“We live in divisive times, both in our country and internationally. This referendum, while narrowly approved, exacerbates those divisions and thus may damage our ability to come together as a University community in common efforts as we hope for — and work for — peace and reconciliation in the Middle East,” Kaler added. “We won’t solve this problem alone, but surely we can be better than a place where unhelpful rhetoric is hurled from side to side.”
The referendum will now go through a complaint review process before being handed off to the Board of Regents for review.