On Monday, March 16, the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate voted “no” on a referendum proposed by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which advocated for divestment from 4 companies that support Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The companies – Raytheon, Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola – have sold products directly to the Israeli military that, according to SJP, led to human rights violations. (1) But, because the Senate voted “no,” the larger student body will not have the chance to debate the merits of these claims. On a broader level, the decision was a denial of free speech perpetuated by a Senate that has lost sight of its responsibility to the students of this university.
I was present for the Senate hearing. Based on the arguments I heard last Monday, the Senate would probably justify its decision by saying that they were simply following the articles of their bylaws, that they had to make sure the referendum passed the three criteria of feasibility, fairness of wording, and adherence to university policy before it went on the ballot. They would probably say that the SJP referendum failed to adhere to each of these criteria: that it was not feasible because administration would never divest from the specific businesses, that it was unfairly ambiguous in its wording, and that it threatened the safety and security of the students on this campus.
In essence, the Senate denied us our right to referendum — our greatest tool to change university policy — because, according to them, students cannot handle the responsibilities of free speech. According to them, we are not smart enough to debate, understand, and vote on a complex issue. The entire fairness of wording argument was based on the fact that the word “engaged” was too ambiguous a word for students to understand. Really? Engaged? I think that was on my 6th grade vocab list. The Senate also made it very clear that they think a good portion of Northeastern students are so inherently racist that they cannot talk about Israel without being anti-semitic. That was the basis of the adherence to university policy argument, that students will inevitably be targets of racial harassment if this issue is debated, even though there is nothing racist about the referendum itself. Under that logic, none of us should ever debate Israel-Palestine. We’re all just too racist for it.
The real irony of this decision is that Senators are students. The idea that the SGA Senate, a Northeastern student group, can freely debate and vote on an issue while denying that same right to vote to the rest of the student body is almost laughable in its hypocrisy. But that’s exactly what happened. The Senate’s failure is even more egregious if you consider their stated responsibilities. According to the SGA website, the Senate “is charged with expressing the general will of the student body.” (2) What better way to express that will than through a student-wide vote? What’s the point of having Senators represent us if they silence us on the issues we care about? Student Senators denying students the right to vote is the most blatant overreach of power imaginable. Considering we hardly ever get to vote on anything regarding the policies of this university (not even on the Senators who represent us), it’s borderline autocratic.
What makes this entire decision even more suspect is that the other three referenda that were up for debate on Monday night all passed resoundingly. Two of them passed without a single “no” vote. The SJP referendum, conversely, lost 9 to 25. From the start of the debate, SJP’s referendum held to a much higher standard than the others. That’s because the debate was never really about fairness of wording or feasibility or adherence to university policy. After SGA announced the rejection of the referendum, NU Hillel, a Jewish student group at Northeastern, posted a very long facebook status praising the hard work of its team in getting Senators to deny the initiative. This wasn’t an objective, depoliticized vote. It was a carefully coordinated effort to stop students from speaking about Israel-Palestine. Many of the Senators who argued against the SJP referendum had prepared speeches beforehand demanding a no-vote. First of all, that level of organization was nowhere to be found in the previous three debates. Second, it made it clear that many Senators had no intention to consider both sides of the debate. Their minds were already made, completely defeating the purpose of the hearing in the first place. SJP, and through them the entire student-body, was never given a chance.
In Hillel’s previously mentioned Facebook status, they dedicated a paragraph to thanking all of the outside organizations and political groups that supported their efforts. It was an unfortunate reminder of how little power we as students have to freely talk about Israel-Palestine and how, at every chance they get, outside groups will try to stifle student speech in order to support their own interests. This happens on both sides of the issue. It’s even more unfortunate that student-run groups employ the support of these organizations in order to silence the opinions of the rest of the Northeastern community.
In the end, the greatest victim of the Senate decision is the Israel-Palestine debate itself. We had a chance to inform students about the complexities of Israel-Palestine through campaigns on both sides of the initiative. We had a chance to involve fresh, objective perspectives to this age-old controversy. We had a chance, as a student body, to firmly take a stand on arguably the most important problem in the world. Whether we passed the referendum or not, we could have shown that Northeastern students are informed about societal issues and that we care enough to speak about them. But the Senate has denied us all of these opportunities. Now, the Israel-Palestine debate stays locked in the margins of the Northeastern community. Discourse has been shut down. And most regrettably, students have been silenced. We have once again been told our opinions don’t matter. But this time it wasn’t Northeastern administration doing the silencing. It was our own student Senate.
Senators who voted “no” on this referendum have failed their fellow students. They have put their own biases above their constituents’ right to free speech, and they have shown that they have no faith in the intelligence and civility of this student body. Unfortunately, Senators face no negative repercussions because students do not vote for them. The Senate is a body representative of students, but there is no accountability to students. The current system not only allows but encourages Senators to disregard the will of the student body in favor of their own interests. Last Monday’s decision isn’t an isolated incident. It is the product of an inherently undemocratic process that does not truly allow for student voice to be heard.
- “Letter: SJP Calls to Divest.” The Huntington News RSS. March 19, 2015. Accessed March 26, 2015. http://huntnewsnu.com/2015/03/letter-sjp-calls-to-divest/.
- “Become a Senator.” Accessed March 26, 2015.