Divestment referendum ignites debate
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 28, 2013 01:02
With one day of voting in the student body elections remaining, two referendum questions on the ballot have garnered the attention of students and have called into question the human rights conscientiousness of the hummus on campus, among other things.
The two questions, which were added to the general election ballots after Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) petitioned to place them on the ballot, ask students if they “support the USF Student Government (SG) in adhering to the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and if they support “boycotting, divesting and sanctioning corporations affiliated with human rights violations by replacing them with ethical alternatives.”
But after three days of voting, some on campus are still confused about what they voted for.
Some thought the ballots referred to removing Chick-fil-A. Others ignored it because they said they didn’t know what to make of it.
But in the details panel of the ballot, students can learn the goals of the referendum: for USF to withdraw all funds and investments from three corporations that the ballot information states are “affiliated with the oppression, occupation and apartheid of the Palestinian people.”
Sabra hummus — which is contracted via Aramark dining services and is sold in some locations on campus but not in dining halls, according to an email from USF Media and Public Affairs Coordinator Adam Freeman — is co-owned by Strauss Group Ltd. The ballot information states that Strauss provides financial support and supplies to the Golani Brigades, an infantry brigade in the Israel Defense Forces that has participated in most of Israel’s wars and operations since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.
Strauss group, and Sabra hummus by extension, has been boycotted by activist groups from Princeton, the University of California-Berkley and DePaul University, according to a 2010 article from the New York Times. The Strauss website has since taken down its involvement with the Brigade from all English portions of its website.
Hewlett Packard — which produces many of the computers used and sold on campus — is a primary contractor for security services used at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Ariel, according to the ballot information, and Wellington Small Cap Value, which as of September 2012 had $9 million in investments from USF, is owned by Wellington Management which also owns Rapiscan Systems and Terex, companies which manufacture products used for security scanning and to build a wall separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank.
The corporations, according to the ballot information, support actions that fit with the United Nation’s definition of apartheid — “Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Malak Fakhoury, a freshman majoring in psychology and an SJP member, said the group decided to raise the issue after seeing similar movements started by a Jewish organization, whose advisory board members include Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, called Jewish Voice for Peace, which offers toolkits for campus activists that outline corporations involved with Israeli occupation.
“It’s something we contribute to with our tuition funding, and it’s something we don’t want to have a part in for humanitarian reasons,” Fakhoury said.
But some on campus were not pleased to see the referendum on the ballot.
“It doesn’t belong at school,” Dusty Nicolay, a first-year medical student said in an interview with The Oracle. “It should be left to foreign politics. It seems like its attacking Jewish students and Israel.”
But Fakhoury said the issue spans a broader range than Israel and Palestine and was not intended to target any group of students.
“It’s not something individualized to the Palestinian struggle,” she said. “It’s a human rights struggle in general.”
Staci Lolan, a junior majoring in geology, said she was caught off-guard by the referendum.
“It was pretty clear, but I didn’t know anything about it until I saw it on the ballot,” she said. “It was a little alarming. I think they could have done a little more to let people know.”
Nicolay said he didn’t like the language on the ballot, including the use of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name.
“It’s so misleading,” he said. “...Having it there implies that Student Government thinks its a legitimate thing.”
But Fakhoury said Student Government has been far from receptive to the idea.
SG, Fakhoury said, initially tried to shoot down the proposal by saying they didn’t want to take a political stance. Student Government Senate President Jeff Gao said to The Oracle earlier this month that he would not allow the Senate Chambers to be used for making political statements, and student body president Brian Goff told The Oracle that though he thought international politics would dilute the voice of SG, but that if he saw “overwhelming support” for the topic, the issue could be put on the ballot.