Tuesday night’s debate and vote on a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions divestment resolution against Israel would be exciting — if it weren’t so repetitive. This is the 10th time this spectacle has taken place, and every time, with a lot of acrimony, the resolution is voted down — and largely for the same reasons. I support Palestinian rights and statehood. I oppose the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But I opposed this resolution. And now, I’d like to send a clear message to divestment supporters, identifying the things they can do to strengthen the next divestment campaign and enable a resolution to pass.
First, don’t make it a BDS resolution. The BDS movement is toxic because of both its means and its ends. The BDS platform is that Israel, and only Israel, should be subjected to total political, economic and cultural boycott: Everything Israeli should be totally off-limits. And the BDS platform’s express purpose, per its own central committee members, is to destroy Israel. This time, divestment campaigners tried to insist that their resolution didn’t support these means or ends, even as the text of the resolution and the campaign around it were all about BDS. Next time, really and sincerely cut yourself off from BDS. Denounce it in the text.
Second, legislate a process, not an outcome. This resolution was directed solely against Israel without any effort at neutrality or consistency and identified specific companies to target. Pro-resolution speakers insisted that the resolution was the beginning of a conversation, but the outcome was baked in. Next time, write the resolution properly. Identify an objective and neutral set of criteria for divestment on human rights grounds and empower a body to apply them consistently to every country and company the University of Michigan invests in. Or, better yet, empower a body to take broad input from students and professors across the University to create divestment criteria. And if occupation is a consistent criterion for divestment, be prepared to divest from Turkey, China, India, Russia, Israel, Morocco, Ethiopia, etc., for their respective occupations.
Third, be extremely scrupulous about avoiding anti-Semitism. A lot of council members voted no because they were worried, reasonably, about intercommunal stress. These divestment campaigns are run in such a manner that they can reasonably be interpreted as attacks against Jewish students. The Palestinian campus group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality began its divestment campaign this time with incendiary public demonstrations against Israel only, timed specifically to take place during two major Jewish holidays. Then, last night, its speakers disparaged anti-resolution speakers for “hanging out at Hillel” and “going on birthright.”
Last year when this resolution was up, it was even worse. Jewish council members were doxxed and received death threats. SAFE activists shouted ethnic slurs on the Diag and posted online under their own names. SAFE, in its institutional capacity, protested Central Student Government inviting a University of Michigan professor to speak on the history of the region on account of his Jewish ethnicity. Next time, divestment supporters should be extremely careful not to do any of these things. They should run their campaign in a scrupulously non-prejudiced manner, and act immediately to condemn and correct any prejudice instances that do occur. That would do a lot to reassure people.
Fourth, be open about the process. This resolution was launched as a sneak attack. The vote was only announced two days beforehand. Space in the hall was limited with a ticket process. The text of the resolution wasn’t announced until the day of the vote, and even then, only by request. The authorship of the resolution was kept secret until halfway through the council session, and then disclosed only after several points of order. Pro-divestment council members tried to insist that the council vote secretly; they wanted to enable people to pass the resolution without owning up to their support for it. These are all red flags. Next time, write a resolution you can proudly vote on in public, and put the text out with authorship well before it’s introduced. Engage people to figure out how to improve it and address concerns.
With these measures, a divestment resolution, not against Israel, but against human rights abusers defined by reference to objective criteria, would enjoy a much higher chance of passing. After 10 attempts, I think divestment advocates owe it to themselves more than anyone to take their movement seriously and address the mistakes of the previous campaigns so they can pass something productive.
And if they don’t? If the 11th and 12th and 13th campaigns look just like this one, with a BDS resolution against Israel alone rushed through with the greatest possible surreptitiousness amid a flurry of anti-Semitism? That would be a clear signal to the rest of us about what the purpose of these campaigns really is.
Ari Allyn-Feuer is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Bioinformatics.