Student leaders in Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania voted to endorse a controversial boycott campaign targeting Israel on Sunday, after initially rejecting it three weeks ago.
In a closed meeting, the Student Government Organization voted in favor of a resolution introduced by members of the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) club, which supports the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. The measure calls on the college and its Board of Managers to divest from companies accused of involvement in violations of international law in Israel and the Palestinian territories, ranging from American aerospace company Boeing to Israel’s largest bank, Bank Hapoalim.
In a message sent this week to the Swarthmore student body, as well as the school’s president, chairman, and Board of Managers, SGO expressed that the vote was “not a repudiation of the Jewish faith or of our fellow Jewish and Israeli students.”
The email cited students from the newly formed anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) club, who claimed that divestment was “not in any way a measure taken against the existence of the state of Israel. This vote only condemns the human rights violations occurring in Palestine due to the Israeli occupation.”
Yet leading Jewish and Zionist groups in the United States and globally have accused BDS advocates of rejecting the Jewish people’s fundamental right to self-determination in their historic homeland, and ultimately aiming to replace Israel with a single Palestinian state.
SGO’s claim also appeared to contradict stances taken by BDS supporters on campus. When presenting a petition on Dec. 12 to President Valerie Smith calling for divestment, around 100 students were recorded marching while repeatedly chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The slogan — often used by Islamist groups like Hamas and other Palestinian nationalists to refer to the establishment of an Arab state in the territory between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, in place of Israel — also featured prominently on several of the marcher’s posters, some which depicted an image of a Palestinian state overlaying all of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
SJP followed its demonstration by presenting an SGO divestment resolution earlier this semester. SGO’s vice president, Katherine Capossela, told the student-run Phoenix newspaper that individual SGO members were required to communicate with SJP members for two weeks to learn more about the resolution.
The measure ultimately came to a vote on Feb. 10, during a meeting that SJP was requested not to attend for fear of exerting undue influence on SGO members. Matthew Stein, a junior and president of Swarthmore Students for Israel (SSI), told The Algemeinerthat he learned of the meeting about three hours before it took place, and decided to show up in the hope of sharing another perspective on divestment.
Stein said he was concerned about antisemitic tropes shared by BDS advocates on campus and nationally, and wanted “to let people know that there are proud Jews and non-Jews out there who support Israel and think it’s important to protect it from illegitimate criticism.”
His presentation ultimately resonated with many SGO representatives, who voted against the resolution.
Yet the outcome drew protest from SJP members, who in a Feb. 24 meeting were given additional time — along with JVP and SSI — to explain their position on the resolution. As SSI presented, “SJP and JVP members and concerned students and allies formed a chain of solidarity, linking arms and standing,” the student-run daily Voices reported. Stein said speakers from his group — who expressed concern that BDS makes the campus a “hostile” environment for them, and invalidates their Jewish identity by rejecting Jewish self-determination — were denigrated by some as “racists” and “fascists” during the meeting.
Following the discussion, SGO pledged to consider its “potential involvement in the BDS movement” and invited community members to reconvene on the issue on March 3rd.
The debate on campus — already tense — appeared to have taken a turn for the worse around this time, largely due to the involvement of two public Twitter accounts. One, called Radical Alert and created in February, shared both right-wing content unrelated to Swarthmore, as well as several tweets accusing SGO of considering an antisemitic resolution. A second Twitter account, Stop Hate At Swarthmore, was even more direct, condemning the “hateful” BDS resolution while tagging the personal handles of various SJP members and student government representatives.
Swarthmore Students for Israel repeatedly distanced itself from the tweets, denying any knowledge of their backers and condemning them as inappropriate and harmful to their cause.
Stein said he believed these activities in part helped persuade SGO representatives to ultimately vote in favor of BDS on March 3.
He observed that the campus climate became “extraordinarily negative” for many Jewish and Zionist students during the divestment debate, reiterating concerns previously raised by both SSI members and numerous Jewish students who spoke with The Algemeiner about their experiences with BDS campaigns at other American and European universities.
A 2015 study by the watchdog group AMCHA Initiative found that activity related to BDS “is the strongest predictor of anti-Jewish hostility on campus.”
“There were already many Jewish students and a couple of non-Jewish students who spoke to me personally, who were admitted to the school and decided not to come because of the anti-Israel climate, which can often be antisemitic,” Stein shared.
“I think this is an extreme [escalation] now that Swarthmore is in the news for all this BDS stuff and Swarthmore student government now officially endorses BDS,” he added. “I don’t think we’re going to have any Jews who support Israel on this campus in the next few years.”
SGO and Swarthmore College did not immediately respond to requests for comment.