The Georgetown Israel Alliance presented endorsement criteria to the Georgetown University Student Association executive candidates over the past few weeks, including language that advocated for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state and the opposition of any Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution at Georgetown.
Although all candidates eventually refused to sign an agreement, Tim Rosenberger (COL ’16) and Reno Varghese (SFS ’16) agreed to revised criteria supporting free and open discussion, a decision which received GIA’s endorsement yesterday.
At midnight today, Rosenberger and Varghese, Chris Wadibia (COL ’16) and Meredith Cheney (COL ’16), and Joe Luther (COL ’16) and Connor Rohan (COL ’16) signed a different petition written by Elijah Jatovsky (SFS ’16), co-founder and former co-president of J Street U Georgetown, which encourages campus-wide debate and discussion.
The BDS movement, which advocates for the boycott of and divestment from Israeli businesses internationally, as well as the sanctioning of the Israeli government for alleged human rights violations against Palestinians, serves as a major point of contention between Israeli and Palestinian advocacy groups on college campuses nationwide, including at Georgetown.
GIA’s initial endorsement criteria, reformulated in January, asked candidates to agree to oppose any BDS resolution.
“We affirm our support for students and student groups that advocate for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state,” the endorsement criteria read. “We will firmly oppose any Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution at Georgetown University, standing instead for positive campus dialogue that brings different Georgetown communities together around a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
GIA Marketing and External Secretary Ari Goldstein (COL ’18) and GIA President Harper Weissburg emphasized the need to make certain student groups on campus feel intellectually and emotionally safe and secure as justification for including BDS language in the original criteria.
“We need to keep in mind those students whose intellectual and emotional security are jeopardized every time an inflammatory, degrading and anti-Israel symbol, comment or activity comes to campus,” Weissburg said.
Weissburg also emphasized when speaking to GUSA candidates that it is every student’s right to talk about BDS on campus and that it is the obligation of GUSA to always allow the conversation to occur.
“We prefaced [talks with GUSA candidates] by saying it is every students right, if they so wish, to bring BDS to campus; obviously, we are a pro-Israel organization so we don’t want it to pass, but it is every student’s right to bring it if they so wish,” Weissburg said.
Weissburg said that the GIA reached out to GUSA candidates because they want to support an open dialogue on campus. Weissburg cited Students for Justice in Palestine’s policy of anti-normalization, which prevents the group from collaborating or co-sponsoring with any campus group that support Israel.
“Thus, moving forward the possibility of co-sponsorships on an organizational level is no longer a possibility, and as a consequence of that fact, Georgetown Israel Alliance felt the only way to continue fostering a safe space for open dialogue on campus, in light of anti-normalization, was to ask for help,” Weissburg wrote in an email. “We, as GIA, can no longer ask SJP to work with us in any official capacity, therefore, we needed GUSA’s help to broker dialogue moving forward because we are no longer in a position to do so.”
The revised statement, agreed to by Rosenberger and Varghese, encourages campus dialogue and a push toward ending conflict but does not include mention of BDS.
“We affirm our support for students and student groups that advocate for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. We will always stand for positive campus dialogue that brings different Georgetown communities together around a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the GIA statement signed by the Rosenberger-Varghese campaign reads.
Students for Justice in Palestine President Leila Shebaro (SFS ’15) said that BDS serves to support the rights of those in Palestine.
“The BDS call is fundamentally about supporting human rights,” Shebaro wrote in an email. “Specifically, it delineates the non-violent tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions designed to hold governments and corporations accountable for their roles in human rights violations against Palestinians.”
However, according to the GIA, BDS movements across the country serve as hate speech, stifling the conversation of Israeli-Palestinian peace on college campuses nationwide.
“We originally chose to include language opposing a BDS resolution in the firm belief that, as hate speech, BDS has no place at Georgetown,” GIA wrote in a statement endorsing Rosenberger and Varghese. “On every campus at which a BDS resolution has been presented to student government, it has ultimately served to shut down dialogue and divide the very communities that need to come together.”
GIA presented their initial endorsement criteria to four campaigns: Sara Margolis (COL ’16) and Ryan Shymansky (COL ’16), Abbey McNaughton (COL ’16) and Will Simons (COL ’16), Wadibia and Cheney, and Rosenberger and Varghese. Margolis and Shymansky, Wadibia and Cheney, and Rosenberger and Varghese agreed to the initial wording of the group’s endorsement request, citing the inclusion of preemptively opposing a BDS resolution as stifling free expression on campus, as well as overstepping GUSA’s jurisdictional boundaries. Both tickets later retracted their support, citing initial confusion and later realization of possible repercussions of signing the statement.
“We firmly believe in the rights of all students and student groups to advocate for their beliefs in a respectful manner; however, we do not believe it is appropriate for GUSA to take a stance on international issues,” Margolis and Shymansky wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The Wadibia-Cheney ticket agreed and said that GUSA was not a platform for such political agreements.
“GUSA isn’t the platform to express political views and we condemn behavior of student groups on campus attempting to corner and politicize GUSA campaigns,” Wadibia and Cheney wrote in a public statement.
The McNaughton-Simons campaign, which initially discussed supporting the leadership resolution with GIA, came to an eventual decision to not support the endorsement criteria. According to Weissburg, GIA leadership approached McNaughton and Simons three weeks ago, and their campaign manager affirmed their agreement to GIA’s original petition Jan. 22. Weissburg said that last week, McNaughton and Simons spoke with her and denied ever agreeing to the statement.
“I began the conversation by thanking them for being the first to affirm our leadership statement,” Weissburg wrote in an email. “To the shock of both Ari and I, Abbey claimed she had never actually read the leadership statement, and Will in response looked incredulous because he as well though this had become a moot point weeks ago. The Abbey/Will campaign only came out saying they had never explicitly affirmed the statement after rumors were circulating about the possibility of other campaigns pulling out as well. Regardless of their motivation, GIA firmly believes the Abbey/Will campaign was the first to affirm our statement with its original wording. In short, this was a horrible miscommunication.”
McNaughton and Simons deny that they ever reached a full consensus on the issue, although they did participate in discussions with GIA.
“Our staff was engaged in supportive conversations with GIA leadership regarding the language for the past few weeks. In our continued conversations with GIA we did not explicitly sign on to the agreement,” McNaughton and Simons wrote in an email to The Hoya.
GUSA executive candidates Joe Luther (COL ’16) and Connor Rohan (COL ’16), who were not approached initially, as GIA assumed they were a joke ticket, affirmed in Wednesday’s vice presidential debate that they met with the GIA this week and decided against signing on to the leadership statement.
“As soon as we found out that the Joe and Connor ticket was a serious ticket, we went to them straight away,” Weissburg said.
“We received an email, we asked them to elaborate — we decided to go against it — then we met with them and we still decided to go against it,” Rohan said.
In a statement sent to candidates and campus media on Wednesday, Jatovsky called upon GUSA campaigns to sign a new leadership statement as a first step to reconciling differences and moving forward in confronting divisive issues. The Rosenberger-Varghese, Wadibia-Cheney and Luther-Rohan tickets signed this petition today at midnight. Margolis and Shymansky decided to remain in agreement with their original statement.
Jatovsky’s statement reads: “We affirm our support for students and student groups that advocate for what they believe is a constructive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will always stand for positive, safe and constructive campus conversations and activism that brings different Georgetown communities together around a peaceful and just resolution to this conflict.”
McNaughton and Simons did not sign Jatovsky’s petition, but instead released a statement stating their support of free discussion.
“In light of recent events, we would like to affirm our complete support for free expression and open dialogue regarding any issue on campus,” McNaughton and Simons wrote. “As individuals, we will always support positive, safe and constructive conversations and activism at Georgetown. Furthermore, we support constructive dialogue between all students and student groups that seek a peaceful and just solutions to current local, national and international issues.”
Jatovsky said he is pleased that all candidates, regardless of their decision to sign any petitions, have stated a desire to encourage free and open speech on campus.
“I believe all the candidates have addressed the issues I raised in my essay head on and have demonstrated leadership in building a campus environment that fosters constructive dialogue,” Jatovsky wrote in an email to The Hoya.
When the language of the GIA’s initial endorsement criteria was leaked to the Georgetown student body early this week, including their opposition of any BDS resolution, students turned to social media platforms and other facets of mass mobilization in opposition.
Nabeel Zewail (SFS ’15), Ziad Saqr (NHS ’15) and Aziz Saqr (NHS ’16) co-wrote an opinion piece on Facebook titled “GIA silences transparency on Israeli-Palestinian Issue in GUSA Campaign” and created a Facebook event encouraging students to attend Wednesday’s GUSA vice presidential debate to ask candidates about this particular issue.
According to Zewail, opposing the GIA endorsement criteria was fundamentally important as including a provision on preemptively opposing a BDS resolution suppressed free expression on campus.
“When I heard about this, we realized this is no way for Georgetown to operate in terms of restricting free speech on an important issue,” Zewail said.
Zewail also emphasized the need for GUSA executives to distance themselves from taking sides on international political issues. However, he advocated for GUSA executives to focus on how such issues are relevant to tangible Georgetown institutions.
“Our position is not that we want the GUSA executive to be involved in international political issues, but rather the very narrow issue of how Georgetown spends its endowment and whether it is consistent with our social justice mission,” Zewail said.
Goldstein and Weissburg said that including BDS dialogue in their endorsement statement did not serve the purpose they intended.
“We came to the realization in conversations with the campaigns and with community members, that despite our inclusion of BDS in the name of dialogue and free speech, it ended up alienating many students, alienating many students that we are hopeful to engage in dialogue with,” Goldstein said.
Jatovsky cited the BDS movement as extremely contentious, a movement that needs to be addressed cautiously because of its polarizing nature.
“What is viewed by many in the Jewish community as a movement that undermines dialogue and establishes insecurity is viewed by many in the Arab-American community as a legitimate — even necessary — political expression that addresses their frustration over the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and lack of diplomatic successes in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Jatovsky said.
Shebaro also emphasized the importance of GUSA serving as a venue where free speech can be expressed on campus without repercussion.
“We believe that it is GUSA’s responsibility to protect and encourage free speech, particularly about politically charged and sometimes confusing issues such as BDS, which often make for the most productive discussions,” Shebaro said. “Without creating a space to discuss BDS, we make it impossible for us as a community to educate ourselves and take an informed stance on the subject.”
While both students for and against the GIA’s endorsement criteria acknowledge that there is a ways to go in regards to fostering greater communication between groups on campus, Goldstein acknowledged that this conflict serves as a foundation to inspire future conversation and to improve Israeli-Palestinian dialogue at Georgetown in the future.
“I hope that the Palestinian and Arab community on campus can take our efforts over the past few days in good faith and the goals that we share of promoting dialogue and coming together on this issue,” Goldstein said. “I hope that the negative and positive experiences this week will build more of a ground for engagement and communication in the future.”
Correction: An original article stated that Margolis and Shymansky and Wadibia and Cheney agreed to the initial wording of the group’s endorsement request. In fact, Rosenberger and Varghese also agreed to the initial wording. All groups later retracted their support.