EDITOR’S NOTE: In the April 2019 edition of Jewish Rhode Island, “Brown Divest referendum ‘deeply harmful’ ” offered an opinion on the student referendum vote held in March at Brown University. This presents another opinion.
In March, Brown University students voted to support a referendum calling on the school’s administration to “divest ... from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.” Sixty-nine percent of those who voted supported the referendum.
As members of the Brown University Divest coalition and committed leaders in Brown’s Jewish community, we want to explain why we believe in the campaign, and to clarify some misconceptions about the referendum and campaign.
Often, divestment has been described as “bad for the Jews,” as it strengthens the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and puts economic pressure on Israel. While there are undeniably connections between the Brown University Divest campaign and the BDS call put out by Palestinian civil society in 2005, there are important differences between our campaign and the global BDS platform.
Specifically, we named no political solution to the crisis in Israel/Palestine, we made no mention of the Right of Return, and our proposed resolution did not target Israeli companies. Allegations that Brown University Divest aims to “cripple Israel’s economy” or “take down the one Jewish state” are simply incorrect.
The campaign is instead concerned with divesting from companies that profit from human-rights abuses in the Palestinian territories.
As American Jews, we constantly make choices. We can choose to wear a kippah regularly, as both of us have at times. We can choose to attend services, to open our hearts to the Shabbat queen, and to include the matriarchs when reciting the Avot v’Imahot. We have each pondered how best to apply our Jewish values to our relationship with Israel/Palestine.
How do we understand and respond to stories of demolition in the West Bank or worsening conditions in Gaza? What would it mean to ignore the voices of Palestinians who lack food, water and electricity, who protest and hope for a better future, merely because our leaders deem the situation too complicated?
Like many other Jews, we considered these questions – and chose not to support Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or its sequestration of Gaza. When it comes to the question of Brown’s investment in companies like Safariland LLC, an American company that supplies tear gas used to suppress protests at the U.S.-Mexico border; in Ferguson, Missouri; in Standing Rock, in the Dakotas; and in Gaza, we say no. We don’t want institutions in which we are involved to profit from the pain and suffering of oppressed people around the world.
Critics of Brown University Divest claimed it is “divisive, misleading and counterproductive.” While we acknowledge that BDS, and BDS-related campaigns, can bring out intense fear and anger for many Jews, we vehemently disagree with claims that our campaign stifled discourse.
Leading up to the vote, Brown University Divest co-sponsored 12 events to discuss the issues at hand in Israel/Palestine, how they relate to other crises around the world, and Brown’s complicity in all of it. Brown Jewish Voice for Peace held a teach-in on anti-Semitism to try to clarify for a predominantly non-Jewish audience how criticism of Israel can and often does overlap with anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, critics of the campaign made vague references to our enabling anti-Semitism on a campus already hostile to Jews, but did not take any visible steps to combat anti-Semitism beyond encouraging students to vote no on a resolution crafted and supported in significant part by members of Brown’s Jewish community.
We understand that anti-Semitism exists on our campus, just as it permeates American society, and we believe that it should be called out and fought whenever it shows its face. That said, making false accusations of anti-Semitism against Jews and others organizing for Palestinian rights is dangerous and counterproductive.
Campaigning for divestment while continuing to assert ourselves as proud members of Brown’s Jewish community has been messy and painful. One of us is a member of Towards Liberation Together, a discussion group that Rabbi Michelle Dardashti convened to bring Jewish students together to discuss complicated topics such as anti-Semitism and Israel/Palestine. At the same time, simplistic and unbalanced responses from Hillel’s professional leadership and Brown’s administration have painted the referendum as counter to both Jewish values and the university’s stated goals without engaging with the campaign.
Hillel’s response in particular has been personally hurtful in that it painted opposition to the referendum as the only legitimate response for Jews on campus.
We are grateful to members of Brown’s faculty who have come out in support of student activism, and hope that the administration of both Brown and Hillel can follow their lead.
We acknowledge that the campaign has been grueling and damaging for many involved, ourselves included, and we want to work within our community to heal the pain felt by all sides and affirm everyone’s sense of being welcome on our campus.
SAM FROLICHSTEIN-APPEL (he/him), of Evanston, Illinois, is a senior at Brown University. BRIAN SOLOMON (they/them), of New York City, is a senior at Brown. Both are organizers for Brown University Divest, and are committed to building Jewish communities on campus that are accessible and welcoming to all.