Updated Nov. 16, 2017
A non-binding resolution urging the University of Maryland to divest from companies “profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine” failed Nov. 15 in a meeting of the Student Government Association.
The Maryland vote came one day after a similar resolution passed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
On a night during mid-terms, the Colony Ballroom of the Stamp Student Union was filled to capacity with nearly 400 people. Over more than two hours, about 40 students spoke against the resolution. Another 20 spoke in favor.
Sophomore Tamara Soleymani, spoke about the persecution her Jewish family faced in Iran and the role Israel played in saving them.
“The abuse they faced was so horrible that my grandfather, one of the strongest people I know, wasn’t able to talk all that had happened until his dying day,” she said. “My family was given a decision: flee or die. Israel quite literally saved my family’s lives from persecution and death.”
This divestment bill, she said, does not reflect the complexity of the Middle East or take into consideration the experiences of families like hers.
Junior Miranda Mlilo, president of Maryland’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, invoked the divestment campaign against South Africa’s apartheid system in the 1980s.
“Do we want to look back at history and find ourselves complacent with another colonialist power that’s gained its dominance through apartheid and ethnic cleansing?” said Mlilo, who is half Palestinian. “A lot of students mentioned how their families had to flee, either flee or die. And that’s horrible, but that’s exactly what Palestinians are going through right now. There cannot be hope for peace until there has been justice.”
Others spoke on behalf of coalitions or groups. The University of Maryland College Republicans urged a “no” vote. Sophomore Paula Molina Costa, representing Latino groups, said they support the bill because they stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized.
“Latinos, even those who know nothing about the conflict in the Middle East, know the Palestinian struggle,” she said. “We know the feeling of conflict and violence. We know mass incarceration and unjust imprisonment. We know displacement. We know marginalization. We all know injustice and we know Palestine, because how could we not?”
Other opponents of the bill argued that it was outside the purview of the student government to take up an international relations issue and that the bill could harm the university’s relationships with companies that provide many internship and job opportunities for students.
“You are not the United Nations,” said Samantha Levy, a senior at Maryland’s business school. “You are here to ensure the success of U-Md. students.” She listed companies targeted in the bill, including Lockheed Martin, General Electric and Northrop Grumman, that recruit from Maryland.
Once student input wrapped up, two student committees that had considered the bill reported to the legislature that they had given it an “unfavorable” decision by near-unanimous votes.
The bill failed in the full legislature by a point of procedure after a motion to overturn the committees’ decision could not garner the two thirds vote required to open the resolution to full debate of the legislature.
On Facebook, Mlilo expressed disappointment at the outcome, but said, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, “Any BDS campaign, whether it passes or not, is a success because it brings to light the blatant human rights violations being committed against Palestinians on a daily basis. As far as I’m concerned, we won this.”
Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel, said he was pleased the bill had failed but frustrated that its defeat had come without a full legislative vote.
Junior Avi Schneider, president of Terps for Israel, a pro-Israel group under Hillel, said he appreciated that the student government took the time to listen to all the students who wished to speak. He hoped the experience would inspire more students to pay attention to what happens in student government.
“It showed a strong message in the end that the legislature believes it is not in their purview to talk about this bill,” he said.
Fellow junior Mattan Berner-Kadish, a board member for J Street U, a pro-Israel group under Hillel, said that while he was happy to defeat the BDS resolution, the Jewish community isn’t addressing the underlying issues.
“Honestly, I’m really frustrated,” he said. “There were people who were talking about things like ‘this shuts down dialogue’ and ‘after this is defeated, we can talk.’ All the people saying those things have never shown up for dialogue events. They were empty words.”
Berner-Kadish said he, too, loves Israel and has had wonderful experiences there, like many of the other speakers — and that’s the point.
“There’s a reason no one on the other side came up to talk about their great experience in Palestine,” he said. “Because that pretty much doesn’t exist for them. There’s only so much we can do if the Jewish community isn’t willing to talk about these things.”
Since 2005, about 100 pro-BDS votes have taken place on American college campuses, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. Of those, 63 percent were defeated. Locally, George Washington University defeated a pro-BDS bill in May and a Georgetown University advisory board declined a divestment proposal from students in March. Last November, National Students for Justice in Palestine, a pro-BDS group, held its annual conference at George Mason University.