Commentary Magazine

A BDS Defeat at Columbia

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Here in New York, the Columbia College Student Council has handed a resounding defeat to student activists calling on Columbia to divest from the State of Israel. Over a year since the launch of their BDS campaign—and with exactly zero tangible progress to show for it—the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the ironically named Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have once again been reminded how little support exists for their initiative on Columbia’s campus.

The deliberations before the April 2 vote—which lasted just under four hours—involved formal presentations from Columbia University Apartheid Divest (an amalgamation of SJP and JVP), Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel, and JStreet. It bears noting that the Columbia J Street chapter proved an important ally in last night’s events. There are many lessons for campus activists around the country to glean from the success at Columbia, one of which is the strength of the pro-Israel movement when right, left, and center can put aside their differences and work in tandem in order to achieve a common goal.

After the formal presentations, audience members and the student council members themselves were given ample time to address the things that had already been said and to issue statements of their own. The question that was ultimately voted on was whether the student council should tack a referendum onto the upcoming student council election ballot asking if the university should divest from companies that Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) had smeared for being “complicit in Israeli apartheid.”

By an overwhelming margin, the Columbia College Student Council voted not to pose the question as a referendum to the student body. Even if it had decided to add the question to the ballot, and even if the majority of students voted for their initiative, Columbia University will not be divesting from the State of Israel. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has explicitly stated his opposition. “I want to state clearly that I will not lend any support to this proposal,” he said in 2002 regarding a similar call for divestment. “The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive.”

As with so many other campuses across the U.S., the BDS campaign at Columbia is not really about any tangible economic ramification that divestment might have for the State of Israel, but about defaming the Jewish state in an academic forum. This is a battle not of military might or even economic advantage, but of ideas.

This became clear when interlocutors on both sides debated the fairness of the language in which the referendum had been drafted.

Pro-Israel activists made clear that the phrasing of the question, which asked the student body whether or not they supported Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s campaign, was inherently biased since it included the “apartheid” libel. One of CUAD’s members responded, “the word of apartheid is part of our name, we’re not asking you do you think apartheid exists, it’s part of our name.” It was indeed clever for these students to incorporate the label of apartheid into their name, thus making sure every relevant discussion included the term, but a lie told a thousand times is still a lie.

Last night’s victory was no miracle or happy accident. It was the culmination of many late nights and early mornings for Columbia’s Israel activists. Decisions are made by those who show up at the right places, at the right times, and in the right ways. The vote reaffirmed that the best way to advocate for Israel on a college campus is not just to attend rallies or public demonstrations with large signs and raised voices, but to build relationships, network, and articulate your position from multiple vantage points.

Demonstrating the diversity within their own community, the pro-Israel speakers who spoke last night at Columbia were right wing and left wing, men and women, Ashkenazic and Sephardic and Mizrachi, gay, transgender, and straight. They were united in their opposition to BDS, and that unity enabled them to deliver a stunning victory for the students on Columbia’s campus and on campuses around the country that support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.

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