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ASU students, administration differ on Israel divestment bill

By Josh Sayles
June 15, 2012

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a pro-Palestinian student group at more than 75 colleges across the country, announced that the Arizona State University student senate had unanimously passed a bill encouraging the university to "divest from and blacklist companies that continue to provide the Israeli Defense Forces with weapons and militarized equipment, or are complicit with the genocidal regime in Darfur," according to a June 5 press release.

Israel and Sudan are the only two countries mentioned in the bill.

"We are specifically choosing to divest not from Israel in general, but ... from companies that provide material or financial support to Israel's military," wrote Shifa Alkhatib, head of SJP public relations at ASU, in an email. "In fact, the military constantly commits human rights abuses against Palestinians, so ASU should not support such companies."

However, university administrators tell a different story.

The bill passed the student senate on April 24, but Virgil Renzulli, ASU vice president of public affairs, explained in an email that it was not signed by then-student senate president Kumuda Pradham. The lack of a signature had essentially the same effect as a pocket veto, and therefore the bill was never sent to the university administration, he said.

"Regardless of this or any other student senate bill, ASU President Michael M. Crow has been and remains on record opposing any boycott or (divestment from) Israel," Renzulli wrote.

In May 2008, Crow signed a petition in support of Israel that was distributed by a nonprofit called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Despite Crow's backing, pro-Israel students on campus remain up in arms about the situation.

"(SJP) has kind of infiltrated the student government, and they're using it to their advantage," said Sara Macias, vice president of Sun Devils for Israel (SDI), a pro-Israel student group at ASU.

"They grouped the IDF with the (genocide) in Sudan. ... Those are two separate issues. We're really upset, not just that they're trying to divest from Israel, but that the way (the bill) was worded made it seem that the IDF was similar to a group of people creating genocide."

Charlotte Korchak, west coast campus coordinator at StandWithUs, a nonprofit that provides education about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said that this bill and others like it - over the last several years, divestment from Israel has been proposed by student governments at University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Diego - can gain momentum when they incorporate other issues such as Darfur.

"It makes it very difficult for the senators," said Korchak. "They're obviously against what's going on in Darfur. And then when you clump Israel in (with it), they might not have any in-depth knowledge of what's going on in Israel, but they know that what's going on in Darfur is bad and they're against it."

Alkhatib said that the bill was brought to the senate by a student club named the Human Rights Coalition (HRC). She called the club "an umbrella organization for many human rights groups on campus," including the women's rights group Women Beyond Borders, STAND (Student Anti-Genocide Coalition) and SJP. She said that at present, SJP and HRC do not share leadership.

But Hayley Magerman, former president of SDI, painted a different picture. The coalition was created about two years ago by members of SJP, she said. And when Sun Devils for Israel applied for membership to HRC, they were denied admission.

"We were told we were a club that supports a country, therefore we support a government," and therefore SDI is a political organization, said Magerman. She said that SDI is registered with ASU as a multicultural, not a political group.

"If we're not allowed in (HRC), then Students for Justice in Palestine shouldn't be in it. It's a completely absurd argument," she said, adding that if SDI is a political group for supporting Israel, then logically SJP must also be a political group for opposing the Israeli government.

Rabbi Barton Lee, executive director of Hillel at ASU, said that many pro-Israel students have complained to him over the last several years about SJP's tactics.

One tactic employed with this bill was not making the pro-Israel groups aware of it until after the fact, according to Korchak and Magerman.

Mark Naufel, newly elected undergraduate student government president of the ASU Tempe campus, addressed this in a June 12 statement.

"The bill was, I believe, misleading in its language and has been used for purposes neither discussed in the senate nor among its members during consideration," he said.

"My administration will not pursue action on this bill. It was passed during last year's legislative cycle and lacked the necessary transparency regarding the passage of any bill. Lack of proper documentation is another reason why I will not acknowledge the recommendations of this bill.

"The senate will not have my support on bills that seek to divide or segment the student body on the basis of their race, national origin, gender or religion. Nor do I believe that the senate should instruct the university on matters that are inherently divisive."

Alkhatib said that none of this affected the bill.

"The bill, according to senate bylaws and rules, is still valid," she wrote in an email. "The administration, under pressure of the Israeli lobby, is trying to quiet down the student body voice by claiming it is invalid."

Lee said that from the moment SJP began crafting the legislation, it was likely they knew it would not cause any actual divestment.

"In terms of university policies, this doesn't make one bit of difference," he said. "In terms of propaganda, it was a surreptitious maneuver to get anti-Israel press. ... For flavoring, they added Sudan."

The priority now, said Lee, is for SDI to use the summer to strategize how to combat that propaganda when students return in the fall.

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