The latest salvo from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement was soundly defeated at the University of Washington last Tuesday night by a vote of 59-8 (with 11 abstentions), after a broad coalition of ideologically diverse students united to fight a divestment resolution.
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In marked contrast to the seemingly intractable Israeli policy-related divisions that have plagued internal debates at Hillel and Jewish organizations throughout the United States and Canada in recent years, the University of Washington’s pro-Israel community was able to overcome disagreements among its students due to a combination of preplanning, student-driven activism and open dialogue.
“The campaign to defeat divestment had to be student-driven. I was not going to take part in a response that positioned students as puppets of outside Jewish organizations,” said University of Washington Hillel rabbi and executive director Oren J. Hayon.
“We had to assemble the broadest possible coalition that we could, from all along the political and ideological spectrum,” he said. “I wanted to find out what the breaking point of a coalition could be, and then take half a step back from that. To include as many different viewpoints as we could, while still maintaining the structural integrity of our group.
“My role was to be a thought partner and catalyst for the conversations,” he added.
Aside from Hillel, students aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, StandWithUs, J Street U and the Jewish Agency to oppose BDS at the Seattle university.
By all accounts, Hayon’s approach created a coalition of students who felt as if their views had been respected and incorporated into the language of the statement they submitted to the University of Washington student government on behalf of their group, Huskies Against Divestment.
“We didn’t take any cookie-cutter approaches,” said Shahar Golan, a junior working to bring a J Street chapter to the UW campus. We made sure students always had the final say and we didn’t have outside influences. It was student to student. I didn’t agree with a lot of students, but I didn’t feel ostracized. It was important for me to be there.”
David Weingarten – a senior and past president of Washington Students for Israel – agreed with Golan’s assessment.
“This brought together people with different nuanced views of Israel, to find common ground,” he said, adding that the divestment vote led to more vibrant and broad discussions within the pro-Israel community on campus.
“With BDS, many of us have different perspectives. But, at the end of the day, we can all come together in the understanding that BDS is not something we can support as a means of supporting a two-state solution – and everyone is clearly for a two-state solution,” Weingarten said.
According to multiple accounts of the discussions – given by students on the ground – the most contentious issues were whether or not to use the word “occupation” in reference to Israel’s involvement in the West Bank, and “Nakba” (“the Catastrophe” in Arabic), the Palestinians’ term for the formation of the State of Israel.
Ultimately, the group sidestepped usage of the terms in their official statement to the student government, but some members representing the coalition did give speeches including the terms.
The divestment vote on the University of Washington campus was also notable for the civility with which the debates took place. Unlike the recent divestment vote at UCLA, a general consensus existed among students that the proceedings were civil and did not cross into any kind of personal or ad-hominem attacks.
“In typical Seattle fashion, we were very laid-back and passive, perfectly amicable. I think people saw that this [divestment] was negative and did not recognize the Israeli perspective and narrative at all,” said sophomore and Washington Students for Israel President Robbie Ellenhorn.
“At the University of Washington we are fairly unique, in that I didn’t think it was particularly contentious. It was heated, but people still yielded their time to others. I was proud of my campus; they wanted to hear open debate and discussion,” said sophomore Ruth Ferguson.
Still, despite the overall laid-back, northwestern vibe, proponents on both sides of the issue made strong arguments. In a testament to the strength of the Huskies Against Divestment coalition, Ferguson – while opposing divestment – criticized Israeli policy while addressing the student government prior to the vote.
“A lot of speeches from our side were fairly left-wing. I think a lot of claims about Israel that the people who proposed this resolution made – like about human-rights violations, lack of freedom of movement and water rights – are true. A lot of people in the Jewish community said they were illegitimate, but I don’t think they were illegitimate,” she said.
The experience has left many students in the pro-Israel camp feeling enthusiastic about the political process, and their ability to bridge gaps with those with whom they disagree.
“I remember being at Hillel on some Monday night at 3 A.M., thinking, ‘Wow, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, people with such varying views all here talking,” said Jamie Schwartz, a sophomore and StandWithUs Emerson Fellow.
“It’s so cool and I’m so happy to be a part of it,” she said. “We did this together. With all the differences we have, we can all agree that there is something not right with the greater movement that is bringing BDS votes to all these campuses. The BDS Movement is hiding behind the guise of social justice,” she added.
Asked about the applicability of his model to other campuses and institutions, Hayon outlined the most important aspects that allowed students to successfully build a diverse coalition of thought and opinion.
“You have to assume good faith on the part of other people at the table with you, that no one is there to hurt you, and that everyone is doing the best they can to live out values that are vital and sacred to them,” he explained.
“You have to cultivate the ability to sit in inquisitive, patient, supportive silence sometimes. And lastly,” he added, “heart. Yes, it’s politics and ideology and statecraft, but it is also ‘heart work.’ The people I want to partner with on this – regardless of where they are on the spectrum – are people whose love and passion and innermost identity is connected with the way they do activist work involving Israel, Zionism and our Jewish struggles with it.”