SGA Tramples Student Speech…Again

Sara O’Brien is the President of Northeastern University Students for Justice in Palestine.

Late Sunday night, I received an email from Eric Tyler, President of the Student Government Association, presenting the Cabinet’s decision on the referendum that Students for Justice in Palestine put forward for consideration. SGA’s memo did not contain a by-person voting record, as was agreed upon by the Cabinet in prior meetings, ostensibly to promote transparency. The memo cited the Cabinet’s reasons for rejecting our proposed question on all three of the grounds on which the Cabinet was supposed to be voting. The short form of our proposed question appeared as follows;

“In accordance with international humanitarian law, human rights protocols, and the values of Northeastern University, should we ask the University Board of Trustees to divest any shares it may hold in Raytheon, Hewlett­-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar, which are complicit in human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?”

Our full proposal included a number of clauses detailing why we think this question is important and numerous sources to back our conclusions. Among our sources were watchdog groups that track investments and profiteering, as well as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. However, the most important aspect of the clauses was the documentation of what are considered human rights abuses by most major non-governmental organizations, including Israeli human rights groups.

Before moving on, I’d like to provide some background regarding SJP’s motivations: Northeastern SJP is part of a national organization and an international movement involved in working towards justice for Palestine. SJP exists because, in 2005, Palestinian Civil Society put forth a call to people of good conscience to engage in a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction campaign against Israel, in order to financially pressure the state to abide by international and humanitarian law. The BDS campaign is modeled after the successful BDS movement against apartheid South Africa, and is a non-violent method of achieving basic human rights.

By putting forward this referendum, we aimed to have the University divest from companies that are actively engaged in or complicit with human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian Territories. Northeastern’s administration would like to present itself as having no position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but we believe that as long as they continue to do business with these companies, they are choosing a side. The goal of the referendum was to ask the administration to take a neutral stance, since as it currently stands, there are members of the Northeastern community whose tuition money goes to companies that partake in the abuse of their loved ones in Palestine. This is reprehensible, and so we decided to put forward this referendum to make Northeastern a safe place for all of its students.

I’d also like to clarify something that came up during a recent town hall meeting where students and community members met with SGA to discuss the proposed referenda; SJP is NOT an anti-Jewish group. We are dedicated to fighting all systems of oppression and have stood in solidarity with causes like #BlackLivesMatter, divesting from fossil fuels and the prison-industrial complex, and standing for queer rights. We are not a hate group, as some people have claimed. We have members and allies who come from all walks of life, including Jewish backgrounds, because racist sentiment of any kind is contrary to the progressive values we hold. We cannot reconcile Israeli policies with the world we want to live in. This has nothing to do with being Jewish or being Muslim – a false dichotomy presented to us. It has to do with Israel undertaking a settler-colonial project, a 19th century venture, carried out in the 21st. Colonialism, racism, and oppression are wrong, period. We don’t make apologies or excuses for this position. Israel is one of the only settler-colonial states in the world today, which does set it apart from other global injustices. Those who make excuses for Israel ask, “Why target Israel?” They do not appreciate that Israel is, in fact, unique in this respect.

I should also provide some background on the referendum vetting process; this year, organizations proposing referenda were supposed to present at a town hall, which was open to senators and the public. Each organization gave a five-minute presentation on why their proposed referendum meets all of SGA’s criteria (fairness of wording, feasibility, and adherence to university policy), followed by five questions from the audience, followed by 10 minutes of comments from the public, which we were not allowed to respond to. Before the floor was opened to the public, the moderator reminded the audience that questions and comments must deal directly with the three criteria, and nothing else — no personal experiences or anything of the like. However, persons arguing against the referendum proceeded to discuss their personal feelings uninterrupted, including irrelevant information such as personal experience with activist groups on campus, or one student who said he couldn’t support the referendum because Israel was “[his] mother’s homeland.” Meanwhile, one Palestinian person stood up, started with, “I’m Palestinian-” and was immediately shut down by the Parliamentarian. I mention these instances to give you a sense of the room.

I feel that those presenting the SJP referendum (myself included) presented excellently. We answered the questions asked and provided specific examples when necessary. In our opinion, the referendum met every requirement, and our opening statements spelled out why; in the past, Northeastern has cut ties with companies it had close relationships with, such as Adidas, due to student pressure and human rights violations. There is no reason that the same precedent cannot be applied again. The way Northeastern has its investments maintained, it would be not only possible, but easy, for the university to switch to a more morally sound package. Finally, all of the terms we used in the referendum are based on definitions or conclusions derived from the NGOs listed before, and as such were in no way a misrepresentation of factors on the ground. All of these citations were listed in the referendum longform, and are easily accessible to anyone interested in pursuing the information contained therein.

The Cabinet rejected our referendum on a vote of 4-0-2 against, and raised contentions with all three criteria. Regarding adherence to university policy, the Cabinet’s concerns are worth assessing in their entirety:

“The history of the proposed referendum…on other college campuses…has shown that lack of nuance behind a ‘yes or no’ vote can negatively impact the inclusionary principles of the campus community. The history on other college campuses has already begun to present itself on Northeastern’s campus as a result of the referendum being put forward for consideration, as was evidenced during the Town Hall meeting held for public comment on each referendum where individuals stated feeling socially excluded and isolated from other students due to the ‘yes or no’ format of the ballot question.”

I will admit that I am at a loss here, as I’m unclear on what nuance is needed in a question of doing something about human rights abuses. The question does not mention Israel, and the companies it targets are not Israeli companies.We all like to think of ourselves as good people, with good values, so of course we oppose human rights abuses — what more is there to say? As for the people who stood during the meeting and spoke to this feeling of social exclusion, I suspect this was mainly due to the fact that we simply don’t see eye to eye on this issue. For example, as president of SJP, I would not cite feeling “socially excluded” from Huskies for Israel as grounds to oppose what they were doing, but would claim a straightforward, political objection. The use of such claims in SGA were disingenuous at best. Further, as we stated in the meeting, we believe the Northeastern community is capable of making the distinction between Zionism (a political philosophy) and Judaism (a religion), something we stress regularly in SJP. The Cabinet clearly does not have that same confidence in the student body. I will add, however, that we constantly strive to be as welcoming to people new to the conflict as we can. We often sit down with people to explain our point of view, ask them what they think, and so on. I believe that if a person considers themselves progressive, yet actively seeks reasons to oppose divesting from companies profiting off of human rights violations, then that individual should reflect on that privately, rather than obstruct people who are trying to accomplish something.

For fairness of wording, the Cabinet wrote,

“The question is leading, suggesting that a ‘no’ vote suggests support of human rights violations when there is a much more complex, evolving, multi-faceted issue behind the question. This presentation unfairly strips students of the choice to make an educated decision while voting on whether Northesatern [sic] should divest from the four companies.”

That’s an interesting claim coming from the entity that is not allowing students to have the conversation in the first place, which is what actually strips them of the choice to make an educated decision. In addition, as stated before, all of the terms used come from generally recognized authorities on human rights, and/or agreements of international law. So a “no” vote means that a person supports human rights abuses? Yes, that sounds correct. Additionally, Mr. Tyler states that the sources “present biased viewpoints on the issue.” It is possible that the Cabinet was referring to other websites from which we obtained our information regarding how the enumerated companies are involved in these abuses, but the conclusions about human rights violations are well-documented facts, and that distinction is not made in their letter to us. Listed among these allegedly biased sources are the United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Really? All these organizations are biased? If any Cabinet member has ever cited even one of those as sources for school, they should probably go back and rewrite/redo their project because apparently those sources aren’t credible. The kicker, though, is that — juxtaposed to this accusation of biased sources — the Cabinet quoted the Anti-Defamation League (a well-known pro-Israel lobby group) and Wikipedia.

During the town hall, I gave three examples of violations of international law and UN resolutions currently taking place: a) the 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment for the Crime of Apartheid; b) UN Resolution 194, which details the right of refugees to return to their land; and c) UN resolution 242, which states that countries in the region have a right to live in security. The Cabinet mentions these in order to dismiss us, saying “Neither Resolution [sic] contains any reference to the four companies in the short question.” Correct, but that was not the argument. The point being made was that, human rights — codified in those resolutions in particular, among a host of others — are being denied. This is absolutely correct.

The last component to be assessed was feasibility. During the meeting, we stated why it would be possible for the university, given the way that investments are held, to change investment packages. The Cabinet’s arguments that this would not be feasible were based on statements from the ADL that no other school has actually divested from Israel, despite passing referenda to do so. Therefore, they conclude, there’s no reason to think NU would actually divest, even if we passed the referendum. Really? “We don’t think there’s a good chance Northeastern will actually follow through”? That argument is not compelling in the slightest. Even if it was true, which our history with Adidas has shown it is not, it still wouldn’t be a good reason to prohibit the student body from making its voice on the issue heard. There is no reason to respect that rationale, since, as we said at the town hall, the point is to both divest and make a point that we don’t want to be a part of profits from practices that hurt our fellow man.

I quickly want to discuss another referendum that was rejected by the SGA Cabinet. The proposal was aimed at making SGA more accountable and responsive to students through a democratic restructuring of the current constitution. This referendum was also rejected, and I believe this is evidence if not proof that SGA is entirely, unequivocally, and irrevocably unable to meet the needs of students at Northeastern. Last year, SJP’s referendum was rejected early in the process, but still got almost 800 signatures from students saying they wanted the chance to vote on it. This shows that SGA is neither representative of nor accountable to students. Presented with an opportunity to address this problem, they rejected it. SGA cited potential “student isolation” as a reason for rejecting our referendum, but it would seem that they felt they didn’t need to apply this critique to their own organization.

This is clearly an issue of freedom of speech as well. The SGA Cabinet was not voting on whether to divest from these companies; it was voting on whether to allow students to vote on divesting from these companies. The Cabinet made this decision for you. Our referendum was about so much more, but at this point in the bureaucratic process, it was only about making sure that the student body did not get to be a part of that conversation. That is despicable. If SGA really wants us to have dialogue, they have the power to make it happen. They have the ability to let this conversation happen, and they didn’t. They prevented us, prevented you, from having it, because they knew they would lose. From their perspective, it would be so much easier if that conversation didn’t happen at all. The student body should be angry. We *are* angry.

I imagine that the Cabinet’s personal reasons for voting against this revolve around what is a truly disheartening fact that Palestine is a third rail in American politics, and these senators believe that they are protecting their future careers by voting against this. In this case, I can see only two possibilities; first, if voting against SJP’s referendum is the politically “acceptable” option, there should be no reason that the votes of Cabinet members should not be public (and not just because the secrecy of this information is a renege on an agreement made at the Referendum Reform Committee meeting); or second, Cabinet members realize to some extent or another that they are on thin moral ice, but their principles are subordinate to their ambitions. If this is the case, then they should be ashamed. We on the other hand will continue to work to raise awareness about the situation in Palestine, whether we are stonewalled by SGA or not.


Correction (April 25, 2016): The language was adjusted to reflect that Israel is one of the only settler-colonial states in the world today, not the only settler-colonial state in the world today. 

Related articles

In Defense of NUPD

It’s been a week since Northeastern University Police Department (NUPD) announced it would deploy semi-automatic rifles in campus police vehicles during “high-level threats.” Condemnations of the decision have been strong, if expected. Trevor Noah compared Northeastern to prison, which, if you lived in IV freshman year, isn’t completely inaccurate. Northeastern’s ability to make blindly controversial […]