Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign voted down a divestment referendum targeting companies that do business with Israel, the Campus Student Election Commission announced earlier this week.
A total of 3,133 students voted against and 1,700 others in favor of the measure, which called on the university to divest from companies “that actively normalize, engage in, or fund human rights violations as defined by the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
While the referendum question did not explicitly mention Israel, an explanatory note submitted alongside it and made available to students included references to “Israeli wars of aggression” and alleged violations against Palestinians.
The anti-Zionist campus group Students for Justice in Palestine — which petitioned to place the question on the ballot — promoted its initiative under the campaign UIUC Divest, with a logo that seemed to elucidate its goal: the word “divest” overlaying an outline of Israel and the Palestinian territories, depicted as a single entity.
Under the banner of the United Illini for a United Campus campaign, over 100 student volunteers joined forces “and helped in all the ways they could, whether it was making phone calls, going out and talking to students, or helping us organize,” Elan Karoll, co-president of the pro-Israel campus group IlliniPAC, told The Algemeiner.
“We had African-American leaders, we had Latino leaders, a lot of non-Jewish students came out and supported us,” he said. “It was really a broad coalition.”
“Some of them care about it because of the Israel angle, antisemitism angle,” he explained, “but a lot of students got involved because they care a lot about the jobs and internships that were at risk because of divestment, and a lot of students got involved because they really felt like BDS campaigns are very divisive on campus and they want to support unity and inclusion among students.”
United Illini also benefited from the experience of activists who faced a UIUC Divest referendum in 2017, which failed by a slimmer margin than this year.
The group worked to spread awareness of what they saw as the real impetus behind SJP’s referendum — the BDS movement, which was repeatedly endorsed on UIUC Divest’s social media pages and by speakers at its events, even though it failed to appear on the referendum.
“Part of BDS and SJP’s tactics are to sort of hide their true intentions,” Karoll said. “They didn’t mention any specific countries in the actual question. So one thing we did is we told people, don’t just read the first sentence, read the whole explanatory statement, and look what they’re really about.”
“This was defeated twice, the student body has clearly spoken on this,” he emphasized.
Sam Sitzmann, a freshman who was involved with the campaign against UIUC Divest, said he now felt like “I can again safely walk around campus, proudly displaying a Jewish star around my neck, which I haven’t felt in weeks.”
“The BDS movement has meant divisiveness, antisemitism and intolerance for our campus,” added Josh Mellody-Pizzato, a UIUC senior who also volunteered with United Illini.
“I am proud to say that our student body has overwhelming said no,” he continued. “And I am hoping that we can cast aside what divides us and work together on what unites us as students.”
UIUC Divest and SJP did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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Photo Credi: IlliniPAC