After two hours of heated debate, the University of Toledo student government threw out a controversial resolution urging the university to divest from companies linked to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories Tuesday night. The resolution, backed by UT Students for Justice in Palestine, called on the university to divest from funds that invest in companies that “provide direct support for and directly profit from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories,” including General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and Procter and Gamble. The resolution cited as precedent UT’s divestment from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
Toledo Hillel and the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo condemned the resolution. A statement released by Hillel raised concerns that the measure would create “hostility against the small Jewish community at UT.” SJP members said their campaign did not target Jewish students or Israel as a whole, stressing that the companies they identified for divestment are not Israeli.
Each side was allowed five representatives to present arguments for and against divestment before the student senate Tuesday. More than 200 supporters of Toledo Hillel and SJP gathered to watch the debate from separate overflow rooms. Divestment advocates sported matching “#UTDivest” t-shirts. Members of Hillel countered with Israeli flags and matching t-shirt slogans of their own: “Say Yes to Peace; Say No to Divestment.”
Student senators debated the merits of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions for two hours, but ultimately determined that the resolution was unconstitutional, effectively ending debate on the issue.
Students opposing divestment welcomed the outcome. The decision “will allow students to educate themselves about the Middle East in a peaceful way…without privileging one narrative,” said Sara Federman, who argued against divestment before the student government.
Divestment advocates criticized the student government’s decision to close the debate room to the public, which they say created an unfair and nontransparent atmosphere for debate.
“This is the first time at a university in the United States that a divestment meeting has been closed. There is no precedent for this,” said SJP member Derek Ide. The policy was intended to maintain order at the contentious event, not to silence debate, said student government President Clayton Notestine.
Divestment resolutions have been defeated at most campuses where they’ve been introduced. Students at the University of Michigan, less than an hour outside Toledo in Ann Arbor, organized a similar campaign last year which was ultimately voted down by the student government. Some University of California campuses and small colleges have approved resolutions urging divestment—Stanford University’s undergraduate senate did so yesterday—but only Hampshire College in Massachusetts has moved to divest its endowment from Israel.
Pro-Palestinian activism has drawn support from Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan’s vibrant Arab American communities, some of the largest in the country. Estimates vary, but Greater Toledo’s Arab American population likely hovers around 10,000, about 1.5 percent of city’s total population.
Despite the setback, the UT SJP chapter has promised to keep trying. The group has a “very strong campus presence,” Ide said, and had gathered 300 student signatures in favor of divestment since launching its campaign in October. Members plan to pursue a student referendum later this semester. University officials have not taken a position on divestment, but activists are optimistic that they can drum up enough support among UT’s 20,000 students to persuade the school to divest. If it does, UT would become the second and largest American college ever to join the BDS movement.