SJP and JVP Members Show Solidarity at SGO Forum on BDS

On Sunday, February 24th at 7:00 PM in Sci 199, members of Student Government Organization (SGO) and other students gathered for a public forum about SGO’s vote against publishing a statement supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution proposed by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Members of SJP, Swarthmore Students for Israel (SSI), and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) were invited to speak to SGO members about their thoughts, concerns, questions, and reflections on the vote. The meeting was widely attended; Sci 199 was packed with concerned students, such that there were not enough seats for everyone in attendance. At approximately 7:00 PM when the meeting was set to begin, students filed in, many of them in support of SJP and BDS. SJP members held signs decorated in red, black, green, and white, the colors of the Palestinian flag.

Each group was invited to spend an equal amount of time voicing thoughts and concerns about the BDS vote and offering perspectives and ideas on the purpose and function of SGO. SGO members began the meeting by discussing the internal work they have been doing to interrogate SGO’s role on campus and its stance on the issue of BDS. SGO members noted having conversations with College staff and administrators (including Michael Ramberg, Jewish Student Advisor; Chelsea Hicks, Special Assistant for Presidential Initiatives; and Greg Brown, Vice President for Finance and Administration) about BDS and its financial implications for the College. One SGO member, Will Bein ‘21, said that upon meeting with staff, they were told that “divestment was impossible,” or would prompt the College to “lose all of its money.”  An SJP member, Killian McGinnis ‘19, offered a correction about this claim, having been at the same meeting with College staff, saying that divestment would not jeopardize all of the College finances. It became clear that staff were not entirely sure of or transparent about the ways divestment would or would not impact College finances, with either SGO or SJP.

The discussion then moved to the nature of SGO. Questions like “should SGO be political or apolitical?” and “does SGO have an obligation to represent all students or a majority of students?” were raised, and SGO members and other students were given the opportunity to voice thoughts on the matter. Many SJP members and concerned students noted that SGO is inherently political, and voiced frustrations that an inclination toward “apolitical-ness” has become salient in reference to this specific issue, perhaps as a way to avoid speaking out on it. Many SGO members, most notably SGO’s Chair of Student Organizations, who presented a document titled “SGO Cannot Be Apolitical,” stated that SGO is political in the decisions it makes when choosing to speak out about some issues and remain silent about others. SGO’s president emphasized that establishing a precedent as to what SGO does or does not vote on and speak out about will be a long and deliberate, but necessary, process. SGO members and SJP members alike noted the need for internal “institutional memory” within SGO itself, because there is much turnover from year to year in membership.

After the initial discussion, members of SJP were invited to give a 20 minute presentation. Amal Haddad ‘22, a Jordanian student and member of SJP,  told the story of her family’s proximity to the Israeli occupation, before voicing concerns that the conversation about the BDS resolution has been “co-opted” to talk about SGO more generally, rather than remaining focused on the Israeli occupation and the BDS movement. Haddad also noted the various campus-wide events SJP has held, including teach-ins, lectures, and meetings, which were not attended by SGO members, many of whom have said they weren’t “educated” enough on the issue.

Other SJP members, Joy George ‘20, Taylor Morgan ‘19, and Zoe Jannuzi ‘22,  contextualized the occupation and the aims of the BDS movement, describing it as “not a call for the end of Israel, but a call for the end of occupation.” They also described the role of the seven companies from which SJP is calling on Swarthmore to divest in “Israeli human rights abuses,” and detailed the history of the BDS movement and other institutions and companies that have divested. SJP members also challenged SGO’s proposal to “facilitate dialogue,” noting that this is not a “conflict between two equal sides.” Lastly, Palestinian SJP members explained the dangers and risks presented to themselves and their families in their public support of BDS, and the importance of SJP and BDS to them personally.

Next, three members of SSI, Noah Landay ‘19, Sam Marks ‘22 and Tennyson Teece ‘19, were invited to present for 20 minutes. As SSI presented, SJP and JVP members and concerned students and allies formed a chain of solidarity, linking arms and standing. SSI students noted that SGO supporting BDS “would invalidate the identity of those who view Israel as part of their fabric.” They also said that the BDS movement makes them feel “unsafe” and that they were concerned about the “serious social ramifications” SGO’s potential support of BDS might have on them. They went on to say that SGO’s potential support of BDS might contribute to a “hostile climate towards Jews,” and that “we are an institution that believes that everyone should have a voice and no one should be afraid to express who they are.” SGO’s president responded, emphasizing that the BDS resolution “in no way says that Jewish voices shouldn’t matter.” SSI members continued to cite fear of social stigma and “backlash” as a reason why Jewish students feel “uncomfortable” or feel as though BDS has made Swarthmore a “hostile” environment for them. When SGO’s president asked, “how does divestment equal a negation of Jewish voices?” SSI members answered that divestment “invalidates the State of Israel’s right to exist.” A back and forth about divestment and whether or not it invalidates Jewish identity ensued.

Next, JVP was invited to present. As soon as members introduced themselves, they were met with applause by SJP members and other students in attendance. JVP members refuted the claims by SSI members that some Jewish students face harmful social repercussions as a result of BDS, stating that such consequences are a “form of accountability.” Member Sydney Covitz ‘20 noted that criticizing the State of Israel and criticizing Judaism are not the same thing, and outlined many reasons that BDS is not an example of anti-semitism. One JVP member also noted that “Israel does not speak for all Jews.” Further, this member said that Israel harms Jewish values, stating, “Judaism is about liberating all people,” including Palestinians. This member also noted that conversations about anti-semitism should be centered on white nationalism, not on the BDS movement. She pointed out incidents wherein swastikas have been painted in bathrooms and on trees as concrete examples of the way anti-semitism manifests itself on campus. Abby Saul, founding member of JVP, emphasized that the true issue that threatens Jewish people is not BDS, but white supremacy. Several JVP members also noted the ways that race intersects with Jewish identity, citing racism faced by Black and Mizrahi Jews and referencing the white privilege of many white Jewish students on campus.

JVP then engaged with attendees and members of SSI about “safety” on campus, encouraging SSI members not to conflate feelings of being “unsafe” with feelings of being “uncomfortable.” George thanked JVP’s white Jewish members for using their privilege to uplift issues facing marginalized communities. A debate about Jewish identity, privilege, and power ensued between members of SJP, JVP, and SSI, until McGinnis asked to re-center the conversation around BDS, calling for the self-education of white, US citizen SGO members around the issue. There was much debate, conversation, and engagement about the Israeli occupation, as well as commentary from SGO members about SGO’s role and about the BDS resolution. SGO opted to continue the forum instead of moving forward with the original plan of having a closed deliberation between members, a decision that was reinforced by community members, after being asked by senator Murtaza Ukani ‘22 about their feelings. The SGO Vice President said she felt that SGO “rushed” the previous vote on the BDS resolution without proper education around the issue, noting that she felt differently after hearing the perspectives of SJP, JVP, and SSI members. Ultimately, the meeting ran past its end time, and some SGO members began to leave. However, many concerned students, SJP, JVP, SSI, and SGO members stayed to continue the conversation.

After the meeting, SGO posted the following message to its public Facebook page after the meeting, and sent it out to the student body in an email on Wednesday, February 27th:

Dear Swarthmore Campus and Community,

This past Sunday, students representing Students for Justice in Palestine, Swarthmore Students from Israel, and Jewish Voices for Peace joined us at our weekly meeting to discuss SGO's recent vote against a resolution supporting the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement.

As members of SGO, we would like to profoundly thank the brave students who shared their thoughts, opinions, and stories with us. The Israel-Palestine conflict is one that we recognize as deeply personal to countless students, and we are grateful for everyone who attended our meeting and made their voices heard.

Together, we engaged in a meaningful discussion that we will all look to as an example of what SGO should strive to be. We hope that Sunday's meeting will set a precedent for our meetings becoming open forums for discussion, where both individuals and student groups will feel comfortable participating in dialogue with us. In the coming weeks, it is of the utmost importance to us to continue to consider SGO’s potential involvement in the BDS movement. We’ve been given a lot to think about.

Once again, we extend our sincere gratitude to every student who attended our meeting on Sunday, and we invite you to attend our future meetings as well (7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Sundays in Sci 199). Please share your voice with us.

- SGO

Many attendees were pleased that SJP and JVP were offered platforms, and expressed appreciation for each group’s presentations. Bappe ‘20 said of the meeting’s large turn out, “it was cool to see people show out for SJP, it shows how people are taking the occupation of Palestine and BDS seriously. Israeli hegemony and the U.S.'s role in it is being challenged by everyday people and the sheer number of people that showed out is a testament to that.” Paul Buchanan ‘21 had similar sentiments. He wrote to Voices, “I think the meeting went as well as can be expected. SJP and JVP managed to convey their beliefs in a powerful way, and it seems as if their arguments genuinely moved a lot of SGO members and may have served to change the vote in our favor.” Fouad Dakwar ‘22 felt the meeting to be a valuable educational opportunity, writing to Voices, “what I thought the meeting and JVP's presentation in particular made very clear is that the BDS movement is often politically manipulated to be deemed anti-semitic, when it is rather an economic tactic agreed upon by Palestinian civil society to end their continued suffering and oppression, looking towards South Africa as precedent.”

On SGO’s facilitation of the meeting, Frijol Alfaro ‘21 noted that “SGO did an alright job, it seemed like they were trying to undo a lot of what had transpired these past weeks.” He went on to say, “But, SGO can still improve, and SGO needs to hold their members accountable. One student [SGO’s Diversity Chair, who has asked not to be named in this article], did not show up to the meeting, which I thought was also disrespectful [...] it is a sign that that member of SGO does not want to face the criticism that he so rightfully must come to terms with.” Bappe had similar impressions, noting “[SGO behaved] pretty responsib[ly] for those [SGO members] that were there. Those who weren't there really needed to be and its shame they weren't. [Attendance] should've been mandatory. I don't know how one can make an informed decision [about BDS] and not have been there.” Zara Williams-Nicholas ‘20, who attended the meeting as a concerned student, noted, “SGO tried to remain impartial, which I do understand. I felt that they went off-topic at one point, and at times co-opted the meeting into a general discussion of what SGOs role should be, or a call for students to run for office.”

Alfaro noted frustrations at the way SSI members conducted themselves during the meeting. He noted that SJP was present for all of SSI’s presentation, yet “while SJP was presenting, no member of SSI was present during a majority of the conversation, with the SSI members walking in at the last moments of SJP’s presentation.” He also said, “SSI members saying they ‘fear for their life and well being’ because of [BDS’ supposed threat to] their Jewish identity is insensitive to those who do actually face the dangers of having violence and harm done unto them. The presentation reeked of straight, white, male privilege.”

Teece (of SSI) wrote to Voices that he felt the characterization of his position as “fascist” and “racist” during the meeting to be “anti-semitic” noting, “It should not come as a surprise [...] that so few Jewish students that share some of my views about BDS will speak up. They don’t want to face intimidation and anti-semitism.” JVP members maintain that BDS is “not an example of anti-semitism,” and that salient forms of anti-semitism on campus manifest themselves in “white nationalism.”

Williams-Nicholas wrote in a statement to Voices, “I want to reiterate that the fear that [SSI members] feel of being held accountable by the rest of the student body is not and will never be equal to the fear that students who are Palestinian (and, in fact, Palestinians who are not students) must feel every day as their rights are actively being violated.” They continued, “it is important that SGO and the administration of Swarthmore College take the differential weight of these fears into account when deciding how best to respond.”

As for what SGO can do moving forward, Alfaro said, “SGO has to realize that this doesn’t stop or start with more people running for positions in SGO, it starts with SGO first recognizing that there are already problems that need to be addressed within the organization. [...] It shouldn’t be all on students to transform SGO, SGO should have the ability and capability of transforming from within first.” Bappe expects that, following this meeting, the BDS resolution will be passed. He said, “My expectation is that SGO will pass a resolution since majority of the student body wants them to.” Dakwar has similar hopes. He wrote to Voices, “I still feel incredibly disappointed and, honestly, dehumanized that ending our institutional funding of only a handful of corporations particularly responsible for human rights abuses of Palestinians who are just like me was initially voted against, but I have hope for future votes, particularly after a number of promising SGO statements during the meeting.”

Bappe maintains that justice does not end with BDS, asserting “my personal take is that BDS is a first step. It’s only the beginning and we need to keep marching forward for the Palestinian people.”