At its general body meeting Wednesday, the Undergraduate Council of Students voted to add a referendum proposed by the student coalition Brown Divest to the ballot for the upcoming UCS and Undergraduate Finance Board elections.
The referendum will ask students if the University should “divest all stocks, funds, endowment and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine and establish a means of implementing financial transparency and student oversight of the University’s investments,” according to the referendum’s official wording as presented at the meeting.
After an open discussion, in which members of Brown Students for Israel and Brown Divest debated the referendum, more than two-thirds of present UCS voting members approved adding the referendum to the ballot, as required by the Council’s constitution. UCS did not disclose the exact vote count to The Herald following a closed discussion of the referendum that included only voting members.
BSI began the open discussion with statements from several of its members. “UCS should vote no to presenting this as a referendum to the Brown student population based on the idea that divestment is divisive, misleading, counterproductive and there is a better way,” said BSI President Tess Geri ’20. The passing of the referendum would stifle debate and isolate different groups, she added.
“By putting this deeper, unbelievably complex, two-sided issue into a tiny little checkbox, we are creating a binary, forcing students to either check yes or no,” said a BSI member who requested anonymity out of fear of repercussions.
BSI member Andrew Steinberg ’22 followed by discussing the University’s culture of academic freedom, and called the referendum “anti-academic” and “a vaguely veiled attempt to force Brown students to take a binary political stance.”
Jessica Raviv ’21 added that the referendum would “deepen divisions among Brown students, legitimize a campaign which has fueled incidents of hate at many other universities and make pro-Israel students on this campus feel unwelcome, uncomfortable and unsafe.”
Raviv also said that an online petition and promotional video generated by Brown Divest did not abide by the UCS By-Laws and Code of Operations, which state that “the top of the initiative petition must state clearly that a signature does not indicate approval or disapproval of the meaning of the initiative.”
However, Elections Board Co-Chair Katherine Barry ’19 clarified afterward that the petition Brown Divest gave to UCS did meet the necessary requirements.
“It is very important to all of us that we do not alienate any individuals’ identities on this campus, but at the same time, we are making full political, contestable claims, which should in every way be debated,” said Brown Divest member Noah Mlyn ’20 in response to BSI’s comments. “All we want to do by (having a) UCS vote approving this referendum is (to) allow every student on this campus to engage in that debate.”
The University’s investments are “inherently political and cannot be depoliticized,” he added. Mlyn also apologized to anyone who experienced harassment on the basis of their ethnicity over the Israel-Palestine issue, and said that Brown Divest is entirely opposed to this.
“It’s really about international law, and remembering that … our goal at the end is protecting human rights,” which is another way of framing Brown Divest, said a coalition member who requested anonymity out of fear of personal repercussions.
In response, BSI member Jared Samilow ’19 referenced the historically low voter turnout for UCS and UFB elections and the alienation pro-Israel students may feel. “Referendums … are not really an effective way of assessing public opinion,” he said, especially for complicated issues where voter turnout is low. Last year, 35 percent of students voted in the UCS presidential election and 22 percent of students voted in UCS/UFB elections in Spring 2017, The Herald previously reported.
Brown Divest proposed the referendum to UCS “because of the realities that … both Palestinians and Israelis are forced to endure because of … these oppressive structures and the corporations that profit off of this oppression. And that’s a reality that isn’t just felt, it’s lived,” said a Brown Divest member who also requested anonymity out of fear of personal repercussions.
During the closed portion of the meeting, Steinberg told The Herald that BSI does not solely oppose the referendum based on its positions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead, they question whether posing such a referendum is “conducive to an academic and positive environment on Brown’s campus,” adding that BSI wanted to “show that there are two sides to the issue.”
UCS will vote on whether it will endorse, denounce or abstain from taking a stance on the referendum in the coming weeks, likely at its next Wednesday general body meeting, Barry said.
UCS’ decision to add the referendum to this year’s ballot “does not mean that UCS endorses the movement behind the referendum. It just means that a petition was proposed by students and we voted to approve that it go on the ballot to be presented to the wider Brown community,” she said. A note regarding UCS’ official position will be included on the ballot. Even if the student body passes the referendum, the University is not obligated to take any action.
Yema Yang ’19 also presented at the start of the meeting representing Disability Justice at Brown, a student group approved last semester that advocates for students with disabilities. Yang discussed DJ@B initiatives, which include coordinating with the University administration to develop disability study spaces and facilitating an “overarching community” for students who identify as neurodivergent, she said.
The ballot for UCS and UFB, including Brown Divest’s referendum, will be available to undergraduates from 12 p.m. Tuesday, March 19 until 12 p.m. Thursday, March 21.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Brown Students for Israel does not oppose the referendum based on positions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. It is more accurate to say that Steinberg told The Herald that "BSI does not solely oppose the referendum based on its positions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict." The Herald regrets the error.