Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign voted down a divestment referendum targeting companies that do business with Israel, the Campus Student Election Commission announced earlier this week.
A total of 3,133 students voted against and 1,700 others in favor of the measure, which called on the university to divest from companies “that actively normalize, engage in, or fund human rights violations as defined by the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
While the referendum question did not explicitly mention Israel, an explanatory note submitted alongside it and made available to students included references to “Israeli wars of aggression” and alleged violations against Palestinians.
The anti-Zionist campus group Students for Justice in Palestine — which petitioned to place the question on the ballot — promoted its initiative under the campaign UIUC Divest, with a logo that seemed to elucidate its goal: the word “divest” overlaying an outline of Israel and the Palestinian territories, depicted as a single entity.
SJP’s proposal was endorsed by several allied organizations, including the Muslim Students Association, Asian Pacific American Coalition, Campus Union for Trans Equality and Support, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, and Black Lives Matter Champaign-Urbana. But it faced steep opposition from UIUC’s Jewish and pro-Israel community, which saw the referendum as an extension of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and launched a multi-front drive to educate and mobilize the student body against BDS.
Under the banner of the United Illini for a United Campus campaign, over 100 student volunteers joined forces “and helped in all the ways they could, whether it was making phone calls, going out and talking to students, or helping us organize,” Elan Karoll, co-president of the pro-Israel campus group IlliniPAC, told The Algemeiner.
“We had African-American leaders, we had Latino leaders, a lot of non-Jewish students came out and supported us,” he said. “It was really a broad coalition.”
Various motivations appeared to spur different supporters of the campaign, some of whom Karoll indicated preferred to remain unnamed.
“Some of them care about it because of the Israel angle, antisemitism angle,” he explained, “but a lot of students got involved because they care a lot about the jobs and internships that were at risk because of divestment, and a lot of students got involved because they really felt like BDS campaigns are very divisive on campus and they want to support unity and inclusion among students.”
United Illini also benefited from the experience of activists who faced a UIUC Divest referendum in 2017, which failed by a slimmer margin than this year.
The group worked to spread awareness of what they saw as the real impetus behind SJP’s referendum — the BDS movement, which was repeatedly endorsed on UIUC Divest’s social media pages and by speakers at its events, even though it failed to appear on the referendum.
“Part of BDS and SJP’s tactics are to sort of hide their true intentions,” Karoll said. “They didn’t mention any specific countries in the actual question.”
“So one thing we did is we told people, don’t just read the first sentence, read the whole explanatory statement, and look what they’re really about,” he added.
“Ultimately,” noted Liora Bachrach, a campus coordinator with the advocacy group StandWithUs, “students at UIUC saw through the propaganda and realized that tearing down Israelis is not the same as supporting Palestinians or upholding human rights.”
The campaign drew further support from 17 UIUC faculty members who signed an op-ed authored by English professor Cary Nelson, a member of the anti-BDS Academic Engagement Network who warned against holding another “acrimonious divestment debate” on campus.
During a student government hearing on the divestment referendum in February, “Jewish and Palestinian students alike testified that they felt harassed and threatened by the hate speech the campus debate generated” the year before, Nelson wrote.
Nonetheless, “referendum advocates made their strategy clear: they were going to reintroduce the referendum year after year,” he recalled. “A clear expression of student opinion opposing it in a democratic vote didn’t matter.”
The ensuing divestment campaign ultimately did leave some students feeling targeted.
“Whenever these things come up, it’s always an opportunity for increased hostility, particularly toward the Jewish community, and we definitely saw that,” Karoll said. “But … it’s not just the Jewish community that’s affected.”
He shared the account of a peer who said he was approached by a leader of the divestment campaign while in his dormitory, and called names after refusing to sign a petition in support of the referendum.
“We saw in person SJP being very hostile to students, pressuring them into voting, lying to them about what this was about, approaching pro-Israel students and trying to intimidate them,” Karoll said. “Our students were incredibly professional and mature about this, they know how to deal with SJP, they know not to react to them.”
Yet according to complaints lodged with the Campus Student Election Commission (CSEC), United Illini and “their agents” were also allegedly involved in illicit behavior, including “bribing students with Insomnia cookies, Papa John’s pizza, free breakfast, canvassing at bars, filling out ballots using other student’s devices, setting up mobile polling places,” and “confronting students at midnight pressuring them to vote.”
Karoll dismissed these claims, saying “the United Illini campaign and its volunteers did not bribe any students in any way for votes.”
“We offered food to students who came to our events and met with our volunteers, as is usually for student groups on campus,” he continued. “We never required students to vote a certain way or to vote at all in exchange for food. Many students accepted food without voting. Some students even accepted food and voted against us. The alleged violations of actions that broke student code are false.”
SJP, for its part, was accused in complaints submitted to the CSEC of “allegedly targeting and harassing Jewish students on multiple occasions.”
The CSEC also found that a leader of UIUC Divest had offered a study guide to a 75-person class in exchange for signatures on a petition supporting the referendum, which was necessary to bring the measure to a vote.
CSEC said the student violated “academic integrity,” and retroactively deducted 75 signatures from the petition, reducing the total to 2,476 signatories — still above the 2,291 necessary to include a referendum on the ballot.
For now, United Illini is focused on preventing another referendum from being introduced and straining student relations on campus, Karoll said.
“This was defeated twice, the student body has clearly spoken on this,” he emphasized.
Sam Sitzmann, a freshman who was involved with the campaign against UIUC Divest, said he now felt like “I can again safely walk around campus, proudly displaying a Jewish star around my neck, which I haven’t felt in weeks.”
“The BDS movement has meant divisiveness, antisemitism and intolerance for our campus,” added Josh Mellody-Pizzato, a UIUC senior who also volunteered with United Illini.
“I am proud to say that our student body has overwhelming said no,” he continued. “And I am hoping that we can cast aside what divides us and work together on what unites us as students.”
UIUC Divest and SJP did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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