By a nearly 2-1 margin, students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign voted “no” to a proposed anti-Israel referendum calling for divestment from companies doing business with the Jewish state.
Described as “a discriminatory referendum” by the Israel education group StandWithUs, the 3,133 votes against and 1,700 votes for divesting from the Jewish state represent one of the most lopsided defeats of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in recent years.
StandWithUs congratulated more than half-a-dozen student groups and organizations, including Illini Hillel, Students Supporting Israel, AEPi and Illini Chabad, for working together to bring down the BDS campaign on campus.
In an exclusive interview with the Haym Salomon Center, Illini Chabad Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel stated:
“We are here for the students and work very closely with the administration to make the University of Illinois a place where every student can feel comfortable and at home. The Jewish students should feel comfortable, the pro-Israel students should feel comfortable—all students should feel comfortable. No student should ever fall victim to divisiveness or feel unwelcome, and that is why it is important to us to be involved in any of these matters, be they Jewish-related, Israel-related or campus-related. And when it came to BDS, we are very happy that these student groups all worked together. The idea was that we are all united to defeat this. And by working united, we have defeated it—and not only defeated it; we defeated it 2 to 1!”
According to the rabbi, who with his wife, Goldie, has run the campus Chabad center there for 15 years, the anti-Israel BDS measure made Jewish and pro-Israel students uncomfortable and nervous, which according to him is “the goal of these BDS campaigns.” Tiechtel fears that Jewish students become intimidated and won’t speak up for Israel because of the climate created by anti-Israel groups. He applauds Jewish fraternities for getting involved and giving a unified voice to Jewish students on campus.
With anti-Israel activism often rooted in misinformation, the priority for the pro-Israel groups was to educate by presenting the facts.
“The big BDS fail at the University of Illinois is an example of what happens when facts enter the conversation about the Middle East,” explained StandWithUs Midwest director Peggy Shapiro. “The hostile, anti-Israel referendum was couched in humanitarian language, but was in reality part of a larger campaign to deny Jews their indigenous historical claims, to deprive Jews of self-determination and to ultimately destroy the Jewish state.”
She added that “with solid information in hand, students realized that the anti-Israel referendum was not pro-peace, not pro-coexistence and not even pro-Palestinian; that it was, in fact, thinly veiled anti-Semitism. They voted ‘NO!’ The defeat is an example of education being the road to peace.”
Erez Cohen, executive director of Illini Hillel, told the Haym Salomon Center:
“I was blown away by the dedication and passion of our Jewish and pro-Israel students who would not stand by and allow the divisive and anti-Semitic [BDS] movement to harm the UIUC campus. Hillel students led a campaign, ‘United Illini for a United Campus,’ focused on a positive message of campus values, unity and close collaboration with diverse campus organizations, university leadership and faculty, and community partners. They were so successful in showing our community the value in maintaining and creating new relationships with Israeli institutions that the referendum failed by more than 1,400 votes.”
David Brog, executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, an organization that provides strategic help and resources to pro-Israel campus groups, summed up the victory and how it can be moved forward:
“Whenever we partner with a campus, we encourage the creation of a broad coalition of pro-Israel students and professionals dedicated to promoting Israel. Our partners at the University of Illinois provided a model for how to implement these activities with unity, passion and excellence. We will be holding them up as an example to our other campuses across the country.”
The overwhelming defeat comes days after the student senate at Texas A&M University approved a resolution supporting Israeli and Jewish students, and opposing anti-Israel boycotts and other forms of anti-Semitism. Similar resolutions have passed at the University of California at Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara, Indiana University and other schools in recent years. The BDS movement also got quashed this week by students at the University of Ottawa in Canada.
Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on twitter @pauliespoint.