Controversial Associated Students of Madison legislation that harshly criticizes Israel drew impassioned backlash from Jewish students and other members of the UW-Madison community at a tense and packed ASM open forum Wednesday.
The contentious provision is part of a bill that demands UW-Madison divest from businesses that are “complicit in the violations of Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives.”
The legislation, introduced by Shared Governance Chair Omer Arain and ASM Reps. Denzel Bibbs, Beau Burdett and Tyriek Mack, details human rights abuses in Israel, including “unlawful killings of Palestinian civilians,” operation of “an apartheid legal system” and incarceration of Palestinian children.
It calls on UW-Madison to cut ties with companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which have ties with the Israeli government. It also demands university administration block future contracts with any company complicit in human rights abuses worldwide.
Over 200 students packed into the meeting room—which was over capacity—to hear speakers and voice their opinions on the legislation. During the heated open forum that lasted about four hours, some students took the microphone to support the legislation.
One student, who did not wish to be quoted by name, said she supports the bill because “human lives are more important than money.”
“This divestment resolution is not a means of terminating dialogue. It is not a means to dismantle unity on this campus,” the student said. “Voting no to this resolution means voting no to human rights.”
But most speakers, including Israeli citizens and children of refugees from Middle Eastern countries, condemned the bill, saying it is unnecessary, divisive and objectionable.
“My father grew up in South Africa during apartheid … I know what an apartheid is,” Zoe Kellner, a UW-Madison student, said in open forum. “ASM, vote against this legislation and do not delegitimize the South African people’s struggle.”
Yogev Ben-Yitschak, another student, said the bill invalidates his identity and those of many others on campus.
“As an Israeli student who has found a home here in Madison, I am hurt,” Ben-Yitschak said. “I will be the first one to say, I don’t agree with everything Israel does … But with this bill, you would just make Madison a non-inclusive community for me and for the 7,000 Jewish students who feel deeply connected to Israel.”
Similar debates have also occurred nationally on many college campuses, as students at other universities have urged their administrations to divest from companies with ties to Israel. Many of these pushes have been a part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement—which the Anti-Defamation League has said is “rampant with misinformation and distortion.”
However, ASM Rep. Glen Water made clear in the council meeting that the sponsors of the UW-Madison legislation are not part of the BDS movement.
Isaac Rudin, a member of Badgers United Against Hate and an organizer of a group that attended the open forum, said he was “disturbed and deeply frustrated” by the legislation, which he called “hateful.”
“Student government is taking radical positions and voting on these policies instead of working to better our campus,” Rudin told The Daily Cardinal.
Rudin said he has researched some of the companies that ASM is proposing divesting from, and found they play a direct role in helping students by providing scholarships and internships.
Some Jewish members of student government were also perturbed by the legislation.
Ariela Rivkin, a Jewish ASM representative and the incoming senior class president, said the legislation puts “division and hate at the forefront of student life.”
“I am deeply hurt, offended and disappointed by this resolution,” Rivkin told The Daily Cardinal. “It will not contribute to a solution, and will only seek to divide students on campus.”
A UW-Madison expert also spoke out against the legislation.
Chad Goldberg, a UW-Madison sociology professor who is associated with the Center for Jewish Studies, said the resolution would “alienate many constituencies,” “hurt thousands of American workers” affiliated with the companies named and would actually hurt Palestinians, because Palestine is economically dependent on Israel.
“Divestment is an extremely blunt instrument … You cannot [divest] without hurting the Palestinians you want to help,” Goldberg said.
After roughly 55 speakers took the microphone, student representatives were allowed to speak.
ASM Vice Chair Mariam Coker said she heard a lot of “empty solidarity” during the night’s discussion of the legislation, and questioned whether those speaking in opposition to the proposal really supported liberation for all groups.
She also asked that the dialogue not end in that moment.
“Talk, talk,” Coker said. “Try to understand why people are writing this legislation. Try to understand why people have issues with these things.”
Madeline Heim contributed to this report.