Tufts referendum targets campus police seminars in Israel

campus beat

The student body vote — the first of its kind on a college campus — is being held amid concerns the process was rushed and standard procedures were not followed

Pete Jelliffe

Tufts University

Anti-Israel activists at Tufts University are pushing for the school to hold a campus-wide referendum this week condemning the participation of university police in an exchange program with Israeli police forces.

Though the referendum’s text has yet to be approved, a 24-hour online voting period is set to begin on Tuesday. The referendum is the first of its kind on a college campus, even as efforts to terminate relationships and partnerships between American law enforcement officials and Israeli security forces — referred to by anti-Israel activists as “Deadly Exchange” — have been ongoing for several years, both on college campuses and in municipalities. 

Materials posted on social media by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine highlight the participation of the university’s former police chief in a 2017 program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), one of several organizations that have brought police chiefs and other senior officials to Israel for security training. A similar program, which saw a member of the campus police department travel to Canada, was not referenced in the materials.

Kevin Maguire, who led the Tufts University Police Department from 2011-2019, told JI that the seminar largely focused on best practices for handling emergency situations. “I was committed to learning how to prepare for, prevent and respond to all types of emergencies,” he said. “The trip to Israel offered a unique learning experience in preventing terror and other attacks in the U.S. Terror attacks in cities throughout the U.S., including Boston, and on college campuses, such as Ohio State University and some others, have demonstrated the need for local and university police departments to prepare for potential terror attacks and to know how to prevent and respond to them.” 

Maguire, who now runs a Boston-based security consulting form, said the seminar “was a valuable source of information that enhanced the university’s readiness profile to prevent and address such critical safety and security incidents.”

Patrick Collins, the executive director for public relations at the university, backed Maguire’s assessment of the program. “The Anti-Defamation League-sponsored trip to Israel — which over 200 different federal, state and local agencies from across the U.S. have participated in over the years — was not a military training program, nor was it intended to serve as an endorsement of any particular policy or policing strategy,” he told JI on Sunday. “TUPD has made community policing a priority for many years and has policies and training in place that emphasize that everyone — regardless of background — must be treated with dignity and respect.”

The ADL did not respond to a request for comment.

The referendum, according to several on-campus observers, is expected to proceed despite violations of the Tufts Community Union’s constitution, which lays out the procedures for putting a question to a student body vote. Among the violations, Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the organizations backing the effort, began collecting signatures before the final referendum text was approved. In another violation, the committee tasked with managing elections on campus failed to hold a mandated forum on the issue ahead of the vote.

Jewish students on campus have pushed back against the effort, organizing a campaign encouraging their peers to vote ‘no’ on the referendum.

Tufts SJP has a history of controversy. Earlier this year, the organization won the school’s “Collaboration Award” for its work in building a coalition to target the school’s exchanges with Israeli security groups. A day after the award was announced, university administrators issued a statement announcing a review of the awards process and its disapproval of the decision to give the award to SJP in light of the group’s “concerning policy positions, including its association with the BDS movement, elements of which we view as anti-Semitic.”

“We… recognize that the award has caused a great deal of pain and concern for Jewish members of our community and others who share concerns about SJP’s policy positions, particularly in light of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and around the world,” read the statement, which was signed by university President Anthony Monaco and several other administrators.

An online magazine published by the student group earlier this year focusing on police exchange programs between the U.S. and Israel alleged that “Jewish people [are] taught at a young age to unabashedly support Israel’s settler-colonial practices, or worse, join the IDF.” The magazine also includes a drawing with the caption “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The university’s spokesperson did not answer a question regarding whether the magazine violated the student code of conduct.

Miriam Elman, the executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, told JI that the language used by the activists is troubling. “The ‘Deadly Exchange’ campaign doesn’t only rest on outright lies and misinformation about U.S.-Israel police leadership programs — it also traffics in ugly canards and tropes about Jewish power, money, and undue influence,” she said. “Accusing American-Jewish organizations like the ADL, which funds some of the trainings, of deliberately conspiring with Israel to harm American minority communities is arguably the most obnoxious slander that the BDS movement has yet concocted.” 

If passed, the referendum will be the first show of student support for ending trainings between U.S. and Israeli officials. The Durham, N.C., city council voted in 2018 to ban its police department from participating in exchanges with Israeli forces, despite no such program existing. A similar effort at Georgia State University (GSU), which called on the university to terminate its relationship with the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE), failed in 2019.

GILEE was founded to ensure security ahead of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Its founding director, Dr. Robbie Friedmann, is a professor emeritus of criminal justice at GSU. Friedmann told JI that the accusations leveled against the organizers of the programs are another example of modern-day antisemitism.

“The outright claim of the ‘Deadly Exchange’ is that we in this case, the organizations that bring chiefs and sheriffs to Israel… that we do this in order to teach innocent police chiefs from the United States to kill minorities the same way that Israel kills Palestinians,” Friedmann said. “That is the outright claim of the BDS [movement] and it has been so for quite a number of years. And to me, that is really no more than a blood libel.” 

The Boston chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace is backing the referendum at Tufts. But in a June post on its website, JVP said that presenting the ‘Deadly Exchange’ program without context can be harmful, noting that such a move can promote the “racist and antisemitic tropes” that “frame Jews as secretly controlling and manipulating the world.”

“Suggesting that Israel is the start or source of American police violence or racism shifts the blame from the United States to Israel,” the JVP statement reads.

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