campus beat

Princeton students to vote on anti-Israel referendum

The vote comes amid a wave of measures targeting Israel at universities around the country following last spring’s war between Israel and Hamas

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Princeton University

Amid an uptick in antisemitism nationwide, Princeton University students are set to vote next week on an undergraduate-wide referendum aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

The proposed referendum, which will appear on the student ballot alongside elections for student government officers, calls on university administrators to stop using Caterpillar Inc. construction equipment on campus “given the violent role that Caterpillar machinery has played in the mass demolition of Palestinian homes, the murder of Palestinians and other innocent people, and the promotion of the prison-industrial complex.”

“With Hashem’s help, this referendum will be defeated,” said Rabbi Eitan Webb, the Chabad rabbi on campus. “The referendum lobbying creates an atmosphere on campus where it is acceptable to demonize an integral component of the identity of most Jewish students on campus.”

If the referendum passes, Princeton would become the third Ivy League university student body to approve an anti-Israel referendum. Brown University students approved a broad divestment referendum in 2019, and Columbia University students approved one in 2020. Princeton’s referendum does not include a divestment component, although the resolution mention the BDS movement in its rationale for targeting Caterpillar: “Caterpillar is listed as one of the only construction companies in the national Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement,” says an official explanation listed with the referendum.

The presidents of both Brown and Columbia released statements saying the schools would not divest from any companies related to the measure given the lack of student consensus on the issue. 

Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber made a similar argument in 2015 when students defeated an anti-Israel referendum that called on the university to divest from companies that are “complicit in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.”

“I think there are much better ways of having conversations about the issues in the Middle East that are obviously of critical importance,” Eisgruber said at the time. In 2014, in response to the American Studies Association’s call for an academic boycott of Israel, he called his personal support for academic engagement with Israel “enthusiastic and unequivocal” and argued that “scholarly engagement sustains learning and helps to build liberal democratic values.” 

Some Jewish students at Princeton are concerned that campaigning related to the referendum could lead to an increase in antisemitism on campus, according to an Instagram account run by opponents of the referendum. Last month, the Princeton Committee on Palestine — the group that wrote the text of the referendum — protested outside the campus Hillel, the Center for Jewish Life. 

Eisgruber released a statement in May 2021 condemning an increase in antisemitic incidents amid last spring’s war between Israel and Hamas. That trend was mirrored nationwide, and particularly on college campuses, according to the Anti-Defamation League

A petition signed by 250 Princeton alumni called on Eisgruber to remove the referendum from the ballot, citing a similar recent decision by the administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, although such a move would be highly unusual. 

Princeton’s referendum comes amid a busy spring of anti-Israel activity on American college campuses.

“The BDS onslaught on campus has continued unabated this academic year with no signs of letting up anytime soon,” said Jacob Baime, CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition.

The Ohio State University undergraduate student government is considering a similar measure urging the university’s administration to boycott Caterpillar and Hewlett Packard; critics claim that HP provides technology to Israel’s military. At Loyola University Chicago, pro-Palestinian activists celebrated the adoption of a divestment resolution targeting America’s “military-industrial complex” that Students for Justice in Palestine said “specifically includes companies that arm Isr*el’s occupation in Palestine.” 
In March, the Middle East Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to endorse the BDS movement.