SGO Votes Down SJP's BDS Resolution
Edit: This article was updated on February 15th, 2019 to note that Akshay Srinivasan ‘21 is SGO’s Chair of Student Organizations. The article previously referred to him as “Chair of Student Affairs.”
On Sunday, February 10th at 7pm in Sci 199, members of the Swarthmore Student Government Organization (SGO) met to vote on a resolution proposed by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The resolution, initially brought before SGO two weeks prior, would support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that SJP launched last October, calling on Swarthmore College to divest from seven companies that support the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since the announcement of the campaign, dozens of student groups have written letters of support for the BDS campaign and for SJP. SJP members shared with Voices that, upon proposing the resolution to SGO, SGO members seemed “ready and open to working together to end our college's support of the occupation and human rights violations.”
Class Senator Tyler White ‘22 noted that SGO was “initially approached by BDS and SJP about essentially promoting a resolution, and the bare minimum of it was that we supported the BDS campaign from the perspective of divestment in general.” He continued, “They gave us the room to be as specific or as non specific as to what that looked like and the different permutation that can take on.”
Ken’delle Durkson ‘20, SGO’s Diversity Chair, told Voices that the day of the vote, he received an email from Joel Griffith, a reporter who has written for The Daily Signal, The Wall Street Journal, Fox Business News (television), National Interest, Investor’s Business Daily, Orange County Register, National Review, and The Hill. Although he did not share this with Durkson, Griffith is also a reporter for The Times of Israel. The email referred to BDS as “anti-Israel,” asking for Durkson’s personal views on the matter, how he planned to vote, and the rationale for this vote. Durkson said to Voices, “He works with a pretty big newspaper and he’s a conservative lawyer… [he] asked us what do we think about the BDS campaign, the potential that the SGO would support such a proposal, and are we aware of the particular geopolitical context that this proposal would be influenced upon? And that context really led the conversation.” When asked how Griffith knew that the vote was occuring, Durkson said he had “no idea.”
Other SGO members also received emails and phone calls, though it’s unclear as to how Griffith knew the vote was happening and obtained students’ contact information. SGO Vice President Kat Capossela ‘21 added that she was one of the students who received a phone call from Griffith. “He called me, so someone from our community gave him my phone number, which is really disturbing and unfortunate,” she said while affirming that she did not believe anyone from within SGO shared her personal information with Griffith. Akshay Srinivasan ‘21, Chair of Student Organizations, also noted that the outreach was oddly targeted towards executive board members and those more heavily involved in SGO.
Prior to Sunday’s vote, members of SJP were asked not to attend the meeting. According to one anonymous SJP member, “Gilbert [Orbea ‘19, President of SGO] and Kat [Capossela], told us not to come to the meeting. When we offered a compromise—to wait outside in case members had any questions—we were told that would still ‘pressure’ members too much.” Orbea confirmed this, writing in a statement to Voices, “we asked to refrain from a possible sense of pressure on members should they have attended.”
Other SGO members, including Durkson, expressed that they were unaware that SJP was barred from attending the meeting. White said he was “not entirely sure why SJP was not there.”
Matthew Stein ‘20, who attended the meeting as a “concerned student,” gave a presentation of his perspectives against the BDS campaign, and participated in the debate between SGO members that took place prior to the vote. In his statement to Voices, he added that he had mentioned his connections with Swarthmore Students for Israel (SSFI) when speaking at the meeting. Orbea, Capossela, and Durkson all shared that they were unaware that Stein was going to attend the meeting until it took place. Stein wrote, “I was not invited, I merely heard rumors that BDS was going to be voted on in SGO so I attended with the hopes of potentially swaying people’s minds.” In his speech, he “stressed two main points. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is highly complex and all parties to the conflict have played, and currently play, the roles of both oppressor and victim… Second, passing a BDS resolution in SGO would be extremely harmful for students who hold Israel as part of their identities, most of whom are Jews but certainly not all.”
According to Capossela, prior to Sunday’s meeting, SGO had been in conversation about the proposed resolution with only SJP. “That hit home for me, I think he was right,” Capossela noted, “We didn’t do our due diligence in interviewing other people and speaking with them.” She also addressed concerns that Stein was able to speak to SGO members immediately before and after the vote, while SJP was barred from attending, mentioning, “we went in telling SJP that we were going to come out with a vote and we were thrown an obstacle of a student saying, ‘hey, you’re not listening to us’ and we’re going to take that very seriously.” Durkson, however, noted that “the conversation was imbalanced because [the presentation from SJP] was weeks [before the vote], compared to listening to the fresh perspective of Matthew Stein coupled with the journalist who contacted us.” Both Capossela and Srinivasan affirmed that the Stein did not remain in the room when the vote was taken.
Members of SGO were split on the proposal, though it is possible that some were unsure of exactly what they were voting on. Both Senators At-Large David Buckley ‘21 and Dawson Epstein ‘21 were contacted and declined to comment, with Buckley stating that he may have been mistaken on what the vote was about. Many, though, stand by SGO’s ultimate decision to vote no, regardless of how they personally voted.
Srinivasan mentioned, “I think the important thing is that this isn’t necessarily even what Kat [Capossela] and I personally think… I guess, it’s what all our members came to a consensus—well, not a consensus—came to a general agreement on, so that’s what we’re going to represent because that’s what makes sense.” He continued, “It would probably be irresponsible for us to say, ‘ignore this group of people,’ because we may personally believe those things, or we may not personally believe those things, but I think the most important thing is, we had a vote, and people had reasons for making their vote.”
Capossela continued by saying, “I brought this up in the meeting but [there are] a lot of the times when the majority has been wrong, and I don’t think that should be the basis, like ‘oh, the majority of students believe this, therefore SGO has to represent the majority.’ I think it’s more like, the majority has been wrong in cases and I don’t think that should be the reason why SGO speaks out.”
Durkson echoed a similar statement, saying “It is the duty of SGO to represent the students… a majority of students support the SJP group and the [BDS] proposal… [but] the majority isn’t sixty-six percent, it’s one hundred percent and our constitution endows us to be an apolitical organization that represents one hundred percent of the students.”
Along these same lines, at the meeting, many SGO members cited the importance of SGO maintaining its status as an “apolitical body” as reason to vote against the BDS resolution. Other members found the notion of “apolitical-ness” to be untrue. Class Senator Murtaza Ukani ‘22 wrote to Voices, “Labeling this governing body as ‘apolitical’ is nothing more than a defense mechanism to numb contentious debate and muffle voices from the campus community. SGO needs to fundamentally grasp that everything we do, from what we decide to include or exclude on the agenda to which individuals we will or will not speak with, is inherently political. ‘Apolitical-ness’ is a myth, a fallacy, something we tell ourselves so we can fall asleep at night. And if we don’t get that idea out of our head, I worry that justifications for key decisions made by the group will be skewed based on this delusion.”
Orbea wrote to Voices that SGO’s vote “should NOT be taken as an SGO rejection of SJP or the BDS campaign.” Class Senator Margaret Cohen ‘19 said that SGO is crafting its own statement about BDS in an attempt to remain inclusive and not alienate students by supporting SJP’s specific statement. She said, “we want to do this because we recognize that saying nothing/having voted against endorsing SJP's statement is itself a political issue; remaining silent is an inherently political statement. Therefore, by crafting our own document, we hope to neither stay silent nor directly endorse SJP's BDS campaign.”
Capossela, who is also open to further communication with SJP, stated that she felt that the “vote was too soon,” and that it required further deliberation and education among SGO members. She also noted that, to her, the issue at hand is not as black and white as other moral issues that SGO has taken stances on in the past. She said, “Of course we want to support literally everyone, but it’s just not enough time to educate every single member of SGO on the intricacies of the Israel/Palestine conflict. It’s just much more complicated than that. It’s much different than the Ku Klux Klan people showing up a Strath Haven. Like that is just racist and bigotry and we can speak up against that, but I do think there is a separation there that a lot of people may not recognize.”
Srinivasan noted the different channels for SGO to take beyond passing a resolution, including holding a referendum to get what he feels would be a more accurate representation of the students’ beliefs than the petition submitted by SJP. “My personal opinions aside, the way we have to interact with the fact that 66% of people believe a certain thing doesn’t have to be us putting out a statement or anything. Holding a referendum and then doing something about it, or facilitating another conversation or helping with meetings with the Board. So we want to make sure these people are represented, we also don’t know to what extent people oppose it... but that’s something we took into consideration.”
Srinivasan also highlighted the importance of the view of Board of Managers, as well as that of the wider community when making this decision. “A lot of it was not even about the conflict itself, but about the impact of a resolution like what will the Board think?” he said. “What do different members of the community think? What is the effectiveness of this? So, there were a lot of things that came into this that were not just an up or down on do we support BDS because I think that would be a radically different vote and I think, just like a do you support human rights vote would just be flat out different.”
For some, this event calls into question the transparency and accessibility of SGO. Many students were not aware that SGO was discussing voting on a resolution supporting BDS, let alone the fact that they would be voting on it this past Sunday. One reporter from Voices attempted to attend the meeting but was unable to find the room in which this discussion was happening since it was changed at the beginning of the semester. While Orbea noted that meeting times are all published on the SGO website, Capossela also admitted that they had been operating without an Chair of Student Outreach since Peiyi Mei ‘21 stepped down at the end of last semester. Senator At-Large Anatole Shukla ‘22 will be taking over the role and, according to Capossela, will “release a biweekly newsletter talking about our upcoming agendas and funding and also a lot of statements we are releasing.”
White also expressed concern over the lack of transparency as well as the lack of connection between SGO and the student body. “I think that gets to a very thematic element in SGO in general that we are definitely trying to combat, is this lack of trust between the student body and SGO,” he said. “The student body almost has no idea what is happening at SGO. A lot of people do not know that they are able to come to SGO, people do not know where the SGO meetings are being held, a lot of people do not know how SGO works. I think that onus is on us, because we are supposed to be serving the community and we are supposed to be their representatives and we need to be doing more to be uplifting their voices and supporting them.” He encouraged students to attend their weekly meetings on Sundays at 7:00PM in Sci 199.
Others, however, argued that too much transparency could put members of SGO in tenuous situations. Durkson emphasized the importance of acknowledging the risk involved in publicly voting on controversial resolutions, like BDS. He said, “I think that people have to remember that these are topics that pose considerable risk to the elected representatives. It poses considerable risk to anyone who decides to take a stand on these topics especially in an official capacity when your opinion or your vote could be reported.”
Being contacted by an external conservative reporter influenced Durkson’s feelings and behavior regarding the vote on Sunday evening. He said, “It was very scary to be contacted. The fact that the public didn’t know we were having this conversation about SJP and BDS but a New York Times reporter knew? That’s very very very very scary. I think that exposure is unacceptable. I don’t think it’s something the student body would accept other students to assume or to take up necessarily.”
Furthermore, Srinivasan addressed the dangers that voting posed towards international students who may be on SGO. “I personally am not concerned because I live in the U.S. and am fine, but people who either on visas or things like that can face job blacklists because of that,” he noted. “it could also mean an international student couldn’t get a job. There are BDS blacklists.” Capossela added that those who had families in the Middle East could also face repercussions from their communities back home. “It’s literally about [the fact that] we’re gonna put members of SGO in danger, and that’s not something we’re ever going to subscribe to,” she stated.
On the subject of risk, SJP members note the risks they face in engaging in campus activism around such a controversial issue as the Israeli occupation. When SJP announced their BDS campaign during the fall, a Palestinian student who was set to speak was unable to because of the immediate physical, social, and political risks posed to them and their family if they were to do so.
All members of SGO stressed that this no vote would not be the end of the conversation on SJP and BDS. As Cohen said, “I really want to emphasize that SGO is working on a statement that we will release once it is in its final form—we want to make clear our commitment to upholding Swarthmore's Quaker, anti-violence pro-human-rights stance—but we want to do so in a way that is not making an explicit endorsement of a political stance.”
Capossela noted that she has reached out to Rabbi Michael Ramberg, Jewish Student Advisor; Chelsea Hicks, Special Assistant for Presidential Initiatives; and Sydney Covitz ‘20, one of the student leaders of the new Swarthmore chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP).
In a statement to Voices, Covitz wrote, “The very existence of JVP on Swat's campus directly disproves the argument that SGO passing the BDS resolution would alienate the entire Jewish population, a claim I have heard floating around this school. Of course, there are some students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who will disagree with me on this issue. Notwithstanding, it is important to acknowledge that no singular voice speaks for all of us and that there does exist a substantial contingent of Jews at Swarthmore, along with the majority of the student body, who have openly thrown their support towards the BDS campaign. As representatives of the Swarthmore student body, I believe SGO should vote with the majority here and pass the resolution.”
Note: Though Capossela said in an interview that Stein was not present for the vote, it was later revealed to her that he did remain for the entirety. Capossela holds that since the votes are anonymous, Stein did not see how each individual member voted. According to Capossela, the final vote was 20-7.