Where next for OSUDivest?

April 4, 2016

Coco Smyth looks at the lessons learned by Palestine solidarity activists during two years of campaigning for Ohio State University to divest from companies complicit with Israeli apartheid.

THE UNDERGRADUATE Student Government (USG) at Ohio State University (OSU) voted on March 23 against a resolution calling for divestment of university funds from three corporations that profit from Israel's occupation of Palestine.

But the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign at OSU has learned important lessons along the way and made inroads, despite intense opposition.

The vote followed weeks of debate, including the intervention of six members of the Ohio state House of Representatives opposing the resolution.

But despite a heavy representation of careerists and committed Zionists in the student government, OSUDivest was able to sway nine senators to support the BDS resolution and 18 to abstain, while 21 voted against. The abstentions were likely cast by senators who supported the resolution, but were shaken by threats from the OSU administration.

DESPITE LOSING the vote by a large margin, the end of the campaign marks a qualitative growth in BDS at Ohio State.

During the prior school year, OSUDivest, a coalition of forces spearheaded by the Committee for Justice in Palestine, launched a campaign to end Ohio State's investments in G4S, Caterpillar Inc. and Hewlett-Packard because these three companies directly benefit from human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Supporters of OSU Divest attend a student government meeting
Supporters of OSU Divest attend a student government meeting

The campaign gathered more than 3,000 signatures to put a divestment referendum on the ballot last march, alongside candidates for student government. The referendum would have alloed the whole undergraduate student body to vote on the issue. However, after fierce resistance by pro-Israel opponents, the Judicial Panel of the USG disqualified the signatures based on a retroactively and selectively applied rule--thus pushing the OSUDivest campaign off the ballot.

After witnessing this coordinated collusion between the USG senators, university administrators and the Zionist opposition, the campaign decided to take a different approach for this school year.

OSUDivest garnered the support of more than 20 cultural and political organizations at Ohio State, including the African Youth League, Arab Student Union, Muslim Students Association, United Students Against Sweatshops, Jewish Voice for Peace, OSU Coalition for Black Lives, FemUNITY, International Socialist Organization and Committee for Justice in Palestine.

On March 9, OSUDivest brought more than 100 supporters representing diverse student organizations to a USG meeting where Sami Mubarak, a USG senator and leading member of the OSUDivest campaign, put divestment forward as a resolution.

After the resolution was proposed, one USG senator made a point of stating on four separate occasions that he would call the police if the crowd that had shown up to support divestment got out of hand. USG's typically short and bureaucratic meeting was transformed into a four-hour-long political debate between those for and against the resolution.

A majority of senators expressed either doubts or outright hostility to the resolution. Those with doubts said they feared misrepresenting their constituencies and politicizing the student government. The hardline opposition denounced the resolution as an anti-Semitic smear against Israel.

The audience took on these arguments. The resolution aimed to stop OSU's investment in companies that benefit from the occupation in Palestine and did not call for a specific political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Despite these moderate positions, however, the opposition repeatedly characterized the resolution as anti-Semitic and divisive.

After four hours of debate, the resolution was tabled to USG's March 23 meeting.

IN THE interval between the meetings, the controversy only became more intense.

Anti-divestment USG senators solicited a letter from Ohio state Rep. Tim Brown, which was signed by five other representatives. Brown cited House Bill 476--which was introduced February 24, but is not yet law--in a bid to delegitimize BDS at OSU. If passed, House Bill 476 would prevent "any state agency from entering into contracts with companies that participate in the BDS movement against Israel."

Similarly, Ohio members of Congress Patrick Tiberi and Steve Stivers, for the Republicans, and Joyce Beatty, for the Democrats, drafted a letter in opposition to OSUDivest. "Since its inception, the BDS movement has failed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in peace," declared the letter.

In fact, decades of occupation and false peace negotiations led by the Israelis have had even less success in ensuring peace, let alone justice, in the Middle East.

But more than confirming the cynical and politically ignorant bipartisan consensus of unconditional support for Israel in American politics, these letters expose the determination of American politicians to interfere with student politics around BDS.

With BDS campaigns gaining traction throughout the country and solidarity with the Palestinian people growing, politicians are beginning to fear the potential for a grassroots movement against the special relationship between America and Israel.

The March 23 USG meeting began with a town hall format, featuring an open mic. Though USG meetings typically attract few beyond the 40 senators who make up the body, on this day, more than 200 people attended.

The lines of argument duplicated the earlier meeting. On one side, a diverse crowd of students and community members spoke in favor of the resolution as a means of supporting Palestinian human rights; creating a neutral campus atmosphere instead of one that favors Israel; building genuine solidarity between Palestinians and Israelis; and combating oppression in all forms. On the other hand, Zionists argued that the resolution was anti-Semitic, divisive, anti-Israel and harmful for OSU's profit margins.

When one senator opposed to the resolution questioned the campaign about human rights abuses committed by G4S, an OSUDivest member described how G4S props up mass incarceration. In reply, the senator attempted to downplay the inhumanity of mass incarceration. It seems there is an intersectionality of the oppressor as well as that of the oppressed.

Another senator claimed that there were specific instances of anti-Semitism committed by the campaign, but when asked to elaborate, failed to offer any meaningful information or examples.

After six hours of debate, the USG conducted its vote by secret ballot.

WHILE THE vote itself went against OSUDivest, the campaign was successful in educating huge numbers on campus about the issue of Israeli colonialism and apartheid, and in exposing the bankruptcy of the defenders of Israel. Like last year, a heavy-handed intervention by the political establishment and campus administrators was needed to strangle this campaign for justice.

The defeat also revealed some hard truths about the nature of the USG and campus democracy.

The USG is invariably portrayed as the voice of the student body that allows students themselves to make decisions about how they want the university to run. But this rosy picture leaves out the reality of the many institutional and other pressures on USG that limits its range of decision-making. In the end, USG is less a neutral vehicle for the expression of student voices and more a student-run wing of the administration. The administration is interested first and foremost in maintaining profitability and respectability.

This contradiction between the will of the students and the pocketbooks of the administration cannot be rectified by dialogue, lobbying and a debate with a couple hundred students at a USG meeting.

Instead, OSUDivest must mobilize the hundreds who have already come out to actively support BDS in order to build a grassroots campaign that exposes rather than conceals this contradiction between the student body and the administration.

OSUDivest has been resisted fiercely by USG, the OSU administration and both the Democratic and Republican wings of the U.S. political establishment. But strong links of solidarity are being built and broader layers of students are radicalizing around the issue of Palestine. Students are realizing their own power. So long as the occupation continues, OSUDivest will continue struggling.

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