GW SA Senate passes divestment bill after dramatic public debate

Originally published by Evan Bennett at gw.therival.news on 4.24.18.
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In a Student Association meeting Monday night, the Senate by a vote of 18 votes in favor to six votes against passed the Protection of the Palestinian Human Rights Act (SR-18-S21). The bill seeks to persuade GW to divest from companies they perceive as supporting human rights abuses in Palestine, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.

During the meeting, the Senate also voted down a censure of Senator Brady Forrest for his widely dubbed anti-Semitic comments during his campaign for Executive Vice President.

The public comment on SR-S18-21 was wrought with emotion, from readings of poetry to stories of dead loved ones in atrocities in Israel and Palestine. The SA Senate heard from former IDF soldiers, Palestinians, student activists, and passionate speakers seeking to have their voices heard in front of hundreds of their peers.

Monday night’s meeting was also marked by several dramatic events. Former Senator Joe Vogel accused the Senate of failing the students of GW due to their rejection of the censure of Forrest, then refused to yield the microphone after his two minutes had expired, to a standing ovation. Another student against the bill caused a mass walkout saying "I’ve come to tell you how this bill sucks,” and that the proposal was “full of lies." She then proceeded to invite students against the bill to walkout with her.

Students in support of the bill noted the difficulties Palestinian students face feeling safe on campus and argued Israel commits countless human rights abuses in Palestine. One student, who was in support of the bill, said the time for discussion was over.

“The conversation has been happening for 70 years, so tonight we’re going to call for action,” the student proclaimed during public comment.

Over the course of the testimonies, the Pro-SR-S18-21 side read several testimonies from anonymous Palestinian students. They noted with disgust that these students could not read their stories themselves without fear of what might happen.

“Divesting from Israel has been the only tactic for resisting my occupation that I can grasp in my hands”, one said, noting the atrocities their parents have faced, including sheltering in buildings during bombings.

One student in favor of the resolution noted the significant advantages her family had received, having hailed from Israel.

“They used a piece of land ripped away from people and handed to another... My family was only able to do this because they were white,” She said. Another student named Becca, a Student for Justice for Palestine member, also pointed to the important symbolism the bill had for Palestinian students, even if GW doesn’t respond.

Those against the divestment resolution fiercely shot back. Sophomore Henry noted, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that this conflict is not one sided."

Henry, as well as the others in opposition to the bill, urged the Senate to consider a more holistic view. Students against the resolution argued that the bill would accomplish the opposite of its intended effect, and instead silence those who support Israel on campus.

“It creates an environment where I am made to feel my identity is taboo on this campus," one student said.

Another student noted the difficulties Israelis already face on campus, stating: “Saying you’re an Israeli on campus comes with some baggage.”

“BDS resolutions do not provide practical steps for ensuring the protection of Palestinian students on campus," according to another student.

Like those in favor of the bill, the opposition also pointed directly to the events of the Middle East, noting instead the difficulties Israelis face every day.

“My Israel is also my memory of sitting in a bombshell at age ten… and the fear we had realizing my grandfather had not made it in in time,” one student recalled. “I am here today to tell you about my Israel."

A student whose grandparents survived the holocaust and sought refuge in Israel implored Senators to vote no on the resolution.

“I am proud to say that Israel is a home for Jewish refugees all across the world, and that I would only be able to stand here if for Israel… You were not elected to the Senate to take stances on complex international issues," the student pressed.

Some students against the resolution noted that a “multigenerational conflict” was not for the Student Association to get involved in.

The one thing that many on both sides of the argument seemed to agree upon was the fact that Forrest should have been censured. Throughout the evening many took the microphone and lambasted the Senate for what they perceived as a failure to support the Jewish community on campus.

The sponsors of the bill received time to present after the public comments had concluded, and compared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to South African apartheid, pressing many of the same concerns students who supported the bill had stated during public comment. Following their presentation, the Senate moved into executive session, and after an hour-long session voted in secret where they voted to pass the bill.

Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson and President Peak Sen Chua, who expressed disappointment in the Senate's failure to censure Forrest, indicated that they would not stand in the way of the bill if passed. Chua said it would not be vetoed, as this was the student body and Senate's decision to make, not his.

The meeting showcased hours of fierce debate, leaving some to wonder if the final vote really ends the problems on campus, or simply introduces new ones.

“Will divestment end our disagreement?” one student asked the Senate during public comment.

*Correction on April 24, 2018 to correct a quote in the story.*

CampusEvan Bennett