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Divestment referendum ignites debate

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 didnt 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 Israels 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 Nations 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.

Its something we contribute to with our tuition funding, and its something we dont 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 doesnt 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.

Its not something individualized to the Palestinian struggle, she said. Its 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 didnt 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 didnt like the language on the ballot, including the use of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s name.

Its 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 didnt 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.

By not taking action, they are taking a political stance, Fakhoury said.

SJP was given three days to collect a minimum of 1,540 signatures 20 percent of last years student body election voter turnout, according to Elections Rules Committee supervisor Karim Hussein.

Hussein said all individuals seeking to place an item on the ballot for referendum are required to follow the same procedures and the language used on the ballot will come directly from what the signed petitions say.

The group received more than 2,500 signatures, which Hussein said were verified by Student Government Advising, Training and Operations staff members.

Fakhoury said she is hopeful the referendum passes.

After this referendum hopefully passes, then we will get the divestment to hopefully go through and get the companies that support war crimes exchanged with ones do not, she said. That will send a message to the companies that its nothing personal against you, but its that we dont support you because of our morals and our consciousness supporting human rights. Then hopefully the companies will alter their positions on it, because most people dont even know, and it will result in the betterment of humanity … Were hoping the result will be the university listening to the voices of the students, as it should, taking their concerns into account, withdrawing their money and investing in alternatives that weve offered.

But SG ballot referendums are non-binding, and Freeman said there is no direct mandatory action required of the University.

The university will continue to follow state statutes and guidelines for contracts and purchasing, he said in an email statement to The Oracle.

Fakhoury said she hopes the referendum will be inspire people to take action.

People are trying to ask the government of the United States of America to make big changes, but to be more realistic, you have to start off on a small scale, she said. If you can get the campus together, then you can move to Florida. If you get Florida, then you can move to our representatives in Washington and theyre under pressure to enact international change.