After failing to pass their anti-Israel boycott resolutions last year at the University of New Mexico, the Students for Justice in Palestine student club returned to the final meeting of the undergraduate student senate on April 22 to present their Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution 12S, asking that the university divest from investments in corporations with ties to Israel.
The meeting got started a bit after 6 p.m. at the UNM Student Union Building and, following a drawn-out debate, the resolution was failed at 9:45 p.m. by a large majority, with 14 votes against, 4 in favor, and 2 abstentions. As soon as their resolution 12S failed, the SJP supporters filed out of the room en masse.
Following the defeat of 12S, the boycott resolution, Senator Caleb Heinz introduced emergency resolution 13S, which asked for transparency by the university on all its investments, and that would make it accountable in general about all human rights violations. 13S was quickly passed by the senate. The UNM Daily Lobo completely failed to report on the passage of this important resolution.
As the hearing commenced, the room became stifling, packed with about 70 observers, mostly SJP students and their outside supporters. Lobos for Israel and SJP were each allowed six speakers who alternated addressing the 20 senators for three minutes each. Then each of the 20 senators spoke, some of who gave their time to more students who wished to speak, and repeatedly voted down motions to end the debate sooner.
The six undergraduate students who spoke against the boycott were from Lobos for Israel, a centrist group formed on campus last year under the umbrella of Hillel. A small handful of their adult supporters came, including the Hillel director and some board members, and the new regional Anti-Defamation League director, Suki Halevi, who brought a letter signed by 11 rabbis and 13 Jewish leaders across New Mexico in support of Lobos’ for Israel opposition to divestment.
Of the six SJP speakers, there was one undergraduate Palestinian student, and three Jewish speakers, including two students and one senior citizen, a Jewish Voices for Peace representative.
As the lengthy debate got underway, Senator Travis Gonzales, a graduate of Rehoboth Christian High School in Gallup, originally from Idaho and new to the senate this year, commented, “I personally think the issue isn’t divestments, but the transparency of our administration – where our investments are going. Transparency is the issue, before divestments.”
SJP builds support among minority groups
SJP has enlisted sympathetic support from student groups at UNM by portraying their resolution as seeking justice and human rights for Palestinians being repressed by what they characterize as an apartheid, colonialist occupier of their land, and by calling for a boycott of companies investing in Israel with language taken from the playbills of earlier civil rights movements. Inaccurate parallels made to the U.S. border with Mexico, and academic rhetoric that falsely attempts to portray Israel as white, strike a chord with minority students groups.
The boycott speakers focused on wrongs by Israel, saying “there is an occupation.” The corporations they singled out to boycott, copied from SJP resolutions presented at other campuses, include Hewlett-Packard, whose “biometric components at checkpoints scan your fingerprints and your face,” and G4S, an international security corporation that is also employed along the U.S.-Mexico border.
One senator spoke up at that point, who said she had looked into this, and protested that they don’t even have any idea if UNM has investments in these companies.
Comparisons to the U.S.-Mexico border challenged
A Lobos for Israel Mexican American student, a junior majoring in civil engineering, directly addressed the issue of security at the U.S. border with Mexico and comparisons being made to the barrier in Israel. Saying that he has been in this country for more than ten years, he explained, “I unfortunately have experienced many types of discrimination, for being Latin, and most importantly for being Jewish.”
He continued from his prepared statement, “Just as I stood in front of most of you last year I stand again in front of you … to inform about the real situation that is happening in the border of Israel and Palestine, which does not compare to the situation that we witness every day between the Mexico and U.S. border. . .”
He went on to explain that the barrier in Israel, which prevents snipers and suicide bombers, and was erected after 550 suicide bombing attacks occurred in Israel, is completely different in its construction and purpose compared with the border security here, which he said, “…does not protect U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks, it simply prevents hard-working people to come and better their lives.”
As the student stood and spoke in a clear calm voice, he said that he was grateful to be at the University of New Mexico and urged the senators not to support a resolution that he said would create a hostile environment, like he had experienced in Arizona. In closing he addressed the senators in Spanish, saying “Many thanks for the opportunity to express my opinion and allowing my voice to be heard.”
Creating an atmosphere of hostility on campus towards Jewish students
The digital revolution was in evidence throughout the meeting, as students feverishly tweeted and texted on their cell phones to an international audience. One particularly vivid moment came when a senator expressed outrage that the SJP group had completely twisted her words online, and concluded, “We need to create something bigger than these two groups.”
Another awkward moment arose when a SJP student deliberately stood behind a Lobos for Israel student while he addressed the senate, to distract their attention. After this reporter photographed her mocking behavior, another SJP supporter came over and shoved their camera in the reporter’s face.
The Lobos for Israel students stressed to the senate that SJP activities are creating an atmosphere of hostility on campus for Jewish students. Senators who spoke out against the resolution said that it discriminated against Jewish students on campus. As Senator Mack Follingstead said to the assemblage, “Divestment will only divide the student body.”
And, student senators perceived that it singled out Israel while not addressing a single other corporation’s investments in other countries around the world whose civil rights violations are significantly greater.
Senator Gabriela Eldredge, in commenting on the resolution, stressed that any resolution the ASUNM passed needed to be their own opinion – not SJP’s – or Lobos for Israel. “Empathy to all,” is how she characterized earlier resolutions they had passed that year, supporting undocumented, indigenous and African-American students “without polarization,” noting that “passage of these resolutions did not cause a climate of feat. This resolution can do this.” Eldredge stressed that there was “perception versus intention,” with the potential of creating a “negative effect on our campus.”
The university has not provided leadership against SJP activity
The university has not taken a stand against SJP activity on campus. While SJP’s boycott resolutions, if passed, would in practicality have no legal authority unless voted on by the UNM Board of Regents, their activities are succeeding here and at other campuses in demonizing and delegitimizing Israel, and making Jewish students who speak out in classes to defend against these attacks feel traumatized and stigmatized, while others said they have been singled out and harassed after speaking out.
The American Studies Association passed a boycott of Israeli scholars in mid-December 2013. Universities immediately condemned the ASA academic boycott, and following other universities, on January 10, 2014 the University of New Mexico issued a statement signed by the university president and vice-president saying that they did not support academic boycotts.
250 universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT, have condemned ASA’s academic boycott, and a letter signed by 134 members of Congress (69 Democrats, 65 Republicans) called the boycott “thinly veiled bigotry.”
The growing popularity of SJP was in evidence on the front-page coverage by the UNM Daily Lobo campus newspaper following the event, which characterized the SJP resolution as a vote for transparency, and downplayed that it was a boycott against Israel. The caption for the prominent front page photo leading off the story stated, “If it had passed, the resolution would have asked UNM to be transparent with its investments.”
And the Lobo left out that following the boycott resolution defeat, the senate pushed back by passing their own emergency resolution 13S that called for accountability and transparency of all of UNM’s investments.
University Foundation responds to Call for Accountability and Transparency of All University Investments
When asked on May 21 if they were responding to 13S, a UNM Foundation spokesperson said that they hadn’t received it yet, but that the university has a standing committee, and in a written statement for this reporter, said,
“The UNM Foundation’s Board of Trustees has been considering the topic of divestment based on social, corporate, environmental or governance issues since early 2013.
“In January 2015, the Board of Trustees formed a subcommittee to fully study these issues in depth. The investment subcommittee is comprised of Foundation Investment Committee representatives, faculty, and students to review this topic in detail. Once this issue has been fully reviewed, the subcommittee, through the UNM Foundation Board of Trustees, will provide a recommendation to the UNM Board of Regents on this specific topic.”
While this year the level of intensity and drama was significantly lower than it was last year, it is expected that the SJP will be back again next year with their boycott resolutions against Israel.
Background on the BDS Movement
The movement known as Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions is considered the “soft war” against Israel. As anti-Israel boycotts in the U.S. found limited traction over the last sixty years, their strategy shifted to campus groups. According to an Anti-Defamation League information bulletin, SJP came under the “influence and coordination of a national organization called American Muslims for Palestine, a group that promotes extreme anti-Israel views . . . In 2010, AMP decided to focus specifically on Palestinian advocacy on college campuses and targeted SJP for this effort.”
40 chapters attended the first national SJP conference at Columbia University in New York in 2011. A wave of boycott resolutions has followed on college campuses annually to this day.
A longer online version of this article appeared in the New Mexico Jewish eLink, and a print version in the daily newspaper, The Gallup Independent, May 30, 2014 news section.