Barnard prez shoots down anti-Israel divestment referendum

Barnard College says it will not divest from companies that do business in Israel despite a student referendum in favor of the idea.

The referendum, which passed last Wednesday with 64 percent support, called for Barnard’s Student Government Association (SGA) to write a letter to the administration demanding that the college divest from eight companies which “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians,” according to The Columbia Spectator.

[RELATED: BDS referendum moves forward at UMN]

While the referendum does not oblige the SGA to forward the proposal, Barnard President Sian Beilock took preemptive action Monday, saying in an email to the school community that the college will not be divesting its endowment regardless of whether the SGA officially makes the request.

“You are of course free to continue your discussions on this issue, but it would be misleading to not provide you with clarity on the College’s thinking prior to the SGA discussions on this topic that I understand will take place this week,” Beilock wrote, explaining that any changes to the school’s endowment must “relate directly to Barnard’s mission” and have the support of “a clear consensus across the Barnard community.”

Beilock asserted that the divestment referendum did not meet either standard, saying it “would risk chilling campus discourse” and pointing out that the students who voted in favor of the referendum constitute just 30 percent of the student body.

[RELATED: Barnard College to divest from ‘climate deniers’]

A Jewish student group at Columbia, Aryeh, released a statement praising President Beilock’s email, saying it is “encouraged by the President’s acknowledgement that choosing a side on this issue contradicts Barnard’s commitment to free discourse.”

“Enabling the BDS movement would only further damage campus discourse,” the statement continued. “Proponents of BDS at Barnard have consistently opposed free discourse by pushing for academic boycotts, promoting a policy of ‘anti-normalization,’ excluding critical voices from activist spaces, slandering their peers as ‘racists,’ and advancing a reductive view of the conflict that demonizes the Jewish state.”

Other student groups criticized the referendum as being one-sided, alleging that pro-Israel groups were not aware of the SGA meeting at which the referendum was approved until the evening before.

The president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel Talia Rubin, for instance, told the Spectator that opponents of the measure “had basically a day’s notice to think about what [the presentation] would mean, to make sure that people would feel safe going into that, and to make sure that people would have sufficient counter to [the presentation] even though there wasn’t an opportunity given to present.”

Albert Mishaan, president of Aryeh, sent Aryeh’s post-referendum statement to Campus Reform. It said that the “referendum is a defeat for all students that pursue peace between Israelis and Palestinians, seek intellectually honest discourse about Israel and the conflict, reject anti-Semitism both in intent and effect, and value an inclusive community at Barnard.”

“From the very beginning, this process was dishonest and opaque,” it continued. “The decision to initiate a referendum was made behind closed doors without hearing formally from any pro-Israel students—and in contradiction to repeated assurances that no decision or vote would be made during that session.” 

[RELATED: Tufts students pass BDS resolution on eve of Passover]

The SGA Executive Board wrote an op-ed defending its decision to release the referendum, asserting that its “primary responsibility as SGA is to represent the student body, and we are better able to do so now that we know the votes of the 1,153 Barnard students who participated in the referendum. We believe in the power of referendums, and think that they are the best tool for student governments to transparently represent the interests of their constituents.”

“Though the referendum has passed, SGA is not required to write a letter to administrators, as the referendum suggests,” the op-ed continued. “Instead, members of the Representative Council will make their own decision on whether or not the letter should be written and sent, though they will take the result of the student vote into consideration.”

Beilock made clear in her email, however, that the referendum is a non-starter, regardless of what SGA decides.

“It is imperative that all of us at Barnard work hard to foster a community in which difficult topics can be discussed in an environment free from fear and hate,” she concluded. “I urge you to consider how SGA can best foster civil discourse moving forward across a range of complex issues so as to allow for the highest quality education and scholarship on our campus.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mstein81