Divestment passes in Senate

Kate Gill

Student Senate passed a resolution on Sunday, May 6, urging the College to divest from companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestine, financially and otherwise. This resolution, penned by Students for a Free Palestine and amended by the Senate, underwent five rounds of voting, which spanned three hours.

The resolution instructs the College to divest from six companies –– Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, Group 4 Securicor, SodaStream, Elbit Systems and Veolia — all of whom, according to the resolution, profit directly from Israel’s “ongoing violations of international law and human rights and have an economic stake in the continuation of these violations.”

Since its emergence, the resolution — and divestment, as a political tactic — has collected support from the Multicultural Resource Center, the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People, the South Asian Student Association, the Student Labor Action Coalition and the Oberlin Queer Wellness Coalition.

SFP’s petition for divestment, which accompanied the resolution, is comprised of 666 signatures from students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff and Oberlin community members. Over 400 of the people who signed the petition are current students.

Although the Board of Trustees is not obligated to respond, the resolution largely concerns principle, not just policy.

“Our biggest thing is definitely education, [but] ideally, we would love to see the financial policy changed,” said Lucia Anne Kalinosky, College senior and treasurer of SFP.

“It’s not just about educating Oberlin College students,” fellow SFP member Melanie Malinas, College senior, added. “It’s nice for other campuses across the country who are working on these types of campaigns to see them succeeding.”

According to Kalinosky, “A couple of people have made statements that the Board will respond, which is really exciting.”

In an interview on Tuesday, President Marvin Krislov said that he felt it was premature to address the divestment, but did refer to more socially conscious, ongoing ideas “kicking around that the investment committee will consider.” Such ideas include a “social choice fund,” wherein “for whatever criteria are established, the College would invest in companies that have certain objectives.” President Krislov anticipates that alternative energy sources will most likely be among these objectives.

According to Kalinosky, the resolution has been in progress since 2005, when the fledgling Boycott Divestment and Sanction movement surfaced.

“Since then, there has been an idea [as to] how Oberlin can participate; we thought divestment made the most sense,” she said.

SFP devised the resolution this past fall, writing several drafts before they presented the Senate with their final iteration.

“It was very civilized, actually,” said Nick Olson, College sophomore and student senator, in reference to the proceedings. Olson, who voted in favor of the resolution, said that, “given the issue, it was calm and very tame.”

Senator Hannah Elhard, College senior and member of SFP, agreed.

“I was very impressed with how calm and respectful everyone in the Senate remained. …  No one raised their voice or interrupted anyone else.”

According to Elhard, for the first two hours of the meeting, SFP presented their campaign and then took questions. The third hour was devoted to amendments and voting. The amendments, all of which endured a round of voting, were incorporated for the sake of clarity.

“The primary resolution was the same,” Elhard said, noting that the Senate proposed, and ultimately passed, four separate amendments. The first modification added the word “directly” to a clause involving military aid, since, as Elhard explained, “you could be supplying [the military] indirectly so easily, and that’s hard to trace.”

Secondly, whenever the phrase “occupy Palestinian territories” was used, senators added in parentheses, “The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.” In the resolution, Elhard said, there were two “whereases” that referred to the BDS movement, which were omitted by the Senate, the third modification to the text. Lastly, the final “let it be resolved,” was “admittedly vague,” Elhard said, and rewritten to be more specific.

Much of the controversy relates to BDS, and many students expressed an inability to separate divestment from the larger BDS initiative, which some Obies consider anti-Israel. “I don’t think you can separate divestment from the BDS movement,” said Zach Pekarsky, College junior and the treasurer of the Oberlin chapter of the J Street U, a national pro-Israel organization that supports a two-state solution.

In a separate interview, Ari Feinberg, College junior and co-chair of J Street U, spoke to a similar angle.

“Though the Senate removed the clauses that specifically mention the BDS movement, the Senate’s action has been interpreted and spun by SFP as being part of this larger movement,” he said.

Although the resolution speaks to larger, international issues, it also raises uncertainties about representation on campus; Since the Student Senate is a representative body, it acts on behalf of the student body, which may render some students uneasy.

“It is a problem,” said Zack Evans, a College junior who attended the plenary meeting. “It represents however many signatures [SFP] got.” The Senate’s final vote was anonymous, also provoking questions of accountability. “I can’t hold senators accountable for their votes,” Pekarsky said. “If the Senate doesn’t feel safe stating their vote, they shouldn’t be voting on that issue. … I’m not so much uncomfortable as I am frustrated.”

Not all of the reactions have been negative. In fact, according to Kalinosky, SFP has been overwhelmed by “a lot of congratulations … and received a huge positive response.” “The things that the Oberlin divest group promotes are very much in line with the ideals of this school,” Olson said.

Beyond the student responses, several media outlets — Times of Israel, The Electronic Intifada, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Cleveland Jewish News –– have covered the story, relaying their support.

In general, students on both sides of the issue hesitated to act as spokesperson for their peers. Many students expressed a belief that the issue is more complicated than a simple pro-con distinction.

“I don’t feel comfortable answering [this question of our position] as a representative of J Street U because I think each individual within our chapter has a different relationship with SFP,” co-chair of J Street U and College sophomore Noa Fleischacker said.

Elhard similarly emphasized that her comments were her own and not on behalf of her constituency. “There seemed to be many individuals in the room with individual concerns,” she said of the plenary meeting.

“I’m a Jewish student, so I definitely understand,” Brittany Dawson, SFP member and College senior, said. “It’s some of my friends and acquaintances who feel this way. … We [SFP] don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable or alienated, but having discussions about the conflict and just sitting around talking about it isn’t accomplishing anything to change the situation.”