MADISON – Unethical, intimidating and undemocratic tactics preceded the approval of a Student Council resolution critical of Israel on Wednesday night, according to pro-Israel students at University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Pro-Israel Jewish students were feeling hurt and disappointed after student government approved a resolution calling attention to various progressive causes while also criticizing Israel. Even the school administration weighed in, issuing a late-night statement after the vote that called for “the need to act with integrity.”
The resolution, approved with 24 yes votes and 2 abstentions, was for “the UW Foundation to divest from Private Prisons, Fossil Fuel Corporations, Corporations that build Border Walls, Arms Manufactures” and several banks. It is not binding.
In the preamble, the resolution targets an array of causes, including the “destruction of Black, Brown, and Indigenous Lives” and those who “suffer under Israeli military occupation.”
When the resolution was first introduced early in the evening, it contained no language on Israel. Several pro-Israel Jewish students who spoke at the podium to their representatives did not oppose the resolution. “It means a lot that you have drafted a resolution that addresses many of my concerns,” said student Julia Brunson.
The language critical of Israel was added after public comments were closed, and with no notice that Israel would be discussed, prompting some to question whether it was all handled fairly. At a March 29 meeting to discuss divestment, hundreds of pro-Israel Jewish students reportedly attended and the measure didn’t pass, 12-13. This time, it seemed only a handful of pro-Israel students were present, since Israel was not on the agenda.
“It feels really premeditated to me,” said Student Council member Vanessa Studer on Wednesday. She noted that there was not a large pro-Israel representation in the room; a large group representing the other side was present, holding signs claiming “oppression” and sometimes interrupting the proceedings with loud comments.
“It’s really difficult for me as someone who really doesn’t know a lot about this issue,” she added. When it came time to vote, hers was one of two abstentions.
“It was a very intimidating crowd,” said Yogev Ben-Yitschak, a freshman from Bayside. “There was no respect anywhere.”
For pro-Israel students like Ben-Yitschak, this added insult to injury. A vote to create a controversial committee had been held during Passover when Jewish students were not present; it was later blocked by a student court.
The Passover vote was held even after students reportedly raised objections and noted that Jewish students were not present due to the holiday. The April 12 vote — later blocked from taking effect by a student court — was to create a Student Council subcommittee on financial transparency and ethics. It was reportedly promoted by the same students who sought divestment from Israel.
“We didn’t like the legislation but what we are more hurt by and floored by is the disregard of our communities’ request for this to not happen on Passover,” said Ariela Rivkin, a junior from Teaneck, New Jersey. “Frankly I believe that (Student Council) owes the Jewish community an apology,” said another Jewish student, speaking at the podium to her student representatives on Wednesday.
More than 100 students attended the meeting, with some holding signs. Rivkin said she saw her name on a poster and felt she was being targeted when the chair of the Student Council shouted “(expletive) white supremacy” after she spoke in support of Israel and Jewish inclusion.
“We’re pretty horrified. This has been now a systematic excluding of our voices,” Rivkin said. “This was premeditated and frankly its undemocratic.”
Rivkin said the other side has been unethical. She said she’s got another year left at Madison and she plans to continue the fight.
Soon after the Wednesday vote, the University of Wisconsin – Madison administration issued a statement distancing itself from the measure by Student Council, also known as Associated Students of Madison (ASM):
“UW-Madison values and welcomes members of all faiths and identities. We have heard clearly from the Jewish community how targeted they feel by the actions of the last month. Chancellor Blank has made clear her opposition to the concept of BDS and academic boycotts.”
Chancellor Rebecca M. Blank plans to meet with the incoming Student Council leadership for the next academic year, according to the statement. She will “emphasize the need to act with integrity and in ways that promote involvement by all students.”
“The behavior of members of ASM to publicly target and harass the Jewish students … was reprehensible,” said Executive Director Greg Steinberger of UW Hillel. “We look forward to engaging the university and the state in a review of what happened tonight at the ASM meeting.”