When the University of Michigan (UM) student government passed an anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution in November, students hoped that the hard-fought resolution would encourage UM to divest from Israeli companies.
Members of the group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality had lobbied for the resolution every year since 2014, making this recent victory particularly sweet. “We feel like we finally were given a voice on this campus,” said one student tearily after it passed.
But just a few hours later, the UM administration responded, effectively shrugging their shoulders at the three-year long activism effort. The response dashed all hopes of divestment, affirming that UM will “shield the endowment from political pressures.”
The way that UM responded to the BDS resolution isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s the typical response. Faced with a successful BDS resolution, the vast majority of top officials at American colleges — if not all of them — have either ignored the resolution outright or issued statements on the importance of protecting the school’s endowment.
Since the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, American student activists have attempted to pass at least 36 BDS resolutions. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, which has been tracking BDS resolutions for a decade, only 13 of those resolutions passed.
Many of those successful resolutions clustered within the University of California system and other West Coast public schools, with a few found at Midwestern schools like the University of Wisconsin—Madison and the University of Indianapolis. PJ Media reached out to the administrations of all 13 of these schools, and found that none were receptive to the BDS protesters.
For example, in April, students at the University of Wisconsin—Madison unanimously passed a BDS resolution 24-0, with only two voters abstaining. The administration’s communications officer John Lucas told PJ Media that the school has “taken no action based on the resolution,” and even forwarded us a statement condemning student activists for making the Jewish community on campus feel “targeted.”
Wim Wiewel, the president of Portland State University (PSU), had a similar response.
“The tone and tenor of the BDS movement has made members of our community feel unsafe and unwelcome at PSU, and it is not acceptable to marginalize or scapegoat them,” he told the PSU community, adding that “anti-Semitism cannot and will not be tolerated on our campus.”
In a statement to PJ Media, PSU spokesman Christopher Broderick reaffirmed the administration’s stance against the BDS resolution, noting that it “did not persuade the president or board of trustees to take actions for the reasons stated by former PSU President Wiewel.”
Head officials at other colleges, including Vassar College, the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, De Anza College, California State Long Beach, and others weren’t persuaded either. The last and only time a BDS resolution was successful was in 2009, after Hampshire College divested from the financial services firm State Street.
But even Hampshire College official contested this “win,” clarifying in a statement that divestment from State Street “expressly did not pertain to a political movement or single out businesses active in a specific region or country.”
Nonetheless, college activists continue to lobby for BDS resolutions, leading one to wonder about what exactly they hope to accomplish. What’s the point? Activism for many students can be nearly a part-time job, crowding out time that could be spent on school or paid work.
With all that time invested, shouldn’t student activists focus on strategies that are actually effective? This isn’t just for BDS activists, but activists in general. If you’re going to be an activist, you should be strategic about what you want to get done. In the case of BDS activists, their only accomplishment appears to be gaining allies.
But even that doesn’t appear to be working. As PJ Media reported last week, a new study discovered that student support for BDS is “virtually nonexistent.” Assessing nearly 12,000 students among four colleges with active BDS movements, the report found single-digit support for BDS among Jewish and non-Jewish students alike.
The aim of the campus BDS movement, then, appears to simply be to make a statement. After student government at UM passed the BDS resolution, the author of the resolution praised student officials for helping to give her a “voice.”
“While a lot of people are celebrating here tonight, because we feel like we’ve finally been given a voice on this campus… we’re not here to say others’ voices don’t matter,” she said. “We’ll be celebrating when Palestinians are given real human rights. And this is the first step we can take.” That first step appears to be the only step, since UM officials expressly have no plans to divest any time in the future.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen.