Commentary Magazine

BDS at the University of Wisconsin Revisited

(AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

I have written before that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has secured the relatively few campus victories it has won this year at a cost. In particular, the movement’s leaders, who struggle to dispel the impression that BDS is anti-Semitic, have shown disrespect for Jewish students by holding significant votes on and around Passover. Now, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Student Judiciary of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) has called this strategy by its proper name: religious discrimination.

At issue is a resolution concerning “investment transparency and human rights,” one piece of an ultimately successful campaign to get the ASM Council to support divestment from companies alleged to be complicit in violating the rights of Palestinians. The resolution in question was rushed to a vote on the second day of Passover, even though Ariela Rivkin, a Jewish member of the Council, pointed out that the Jewish “community which is deeply affected by these issues [would] not be able to attend or participate in the meeting due to religious observance.” Rivkin’s concerns were ignored. Indeed, the rules were suspended to enable the resolution to come to an initial vote more quickly than the Council’s bylaws allowed.

Rivkin and others then petitioned the Judiciary to invalidate the vote and sanction the chair of ASM, as well as Representative Katrina Morrison. Morrison had not only led the charge to push the resolution through but also dismissed the problem of holding the vote on Passover. It would be a “hassle,” she said, to schedule another meeting. She would later distinguish herself by publicly denouncing Rivkin and others for having the gall to petition the Judiciary.

Here is the Judiciary’s decision. It relies in part on a provision in ASM’s constitution that forbids discrimination on the basis of religion. Introducing “legislation that members of the Jewish community had expressed interest in, when it was known that these members would not be able to attend due to religious observance, does violate [that provision of] the Constitution.” It is “wholly unacceptable to discriminate against Jewish students by denying them their full opportunity to speak in front of Student Council regarding an issue they had expressed interest in.”

The Judiciary invalidated the vote, though the broader divestment resolution that passed at a subsequent meeting stands. The student Justices could not sanction the ASM chair who presided over the meeting, as she is no longer part of the student government, but they do suggest that “Chair Gosey attend a training on religious tolerance and understanding, so she may better understand how her actions harmed Jewish members of ASM. It is also recommended that she apologize to the campus Jewish community for her discriminatory acts as Chair during and before the April 12th meeting.”

As for Representative Morrison, who was recently elected chair of ASM, she is required to issue a statement explaining “why the nondiscrimination clause of the ASM constitution is essential, why Passover is important to the Jewish community, and apologizing to all Jewish council members.”

These sanctions may not seem to amount to much, but on college campuses, in which administrations have never honored a call to divest, BDS’s whole game is public relations. Being called out for religious discrimination is a public relations disaster. Ariela Rivkin and those who stood with her deserve credit for showing that not only administrators but also students can stand for justice against invidious discrimination.

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