By Angela Roberts
After three hours of deliberation, over 1,000 students and faculty members watched as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) bill failed in committee at the Student Government Association meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 16.
The bill, sponsored by freshman representative Tobi Olagunju and neighboring representative Ashli Taylor, called for UMD to divest from companies with connections to Israel.
Because the bill had received two unfavorable committee reports, two-thirds of the legislative body would have had to vote yea for it to proceed to the floor. This majority was not reached, and after almost three hours of deliberation, the bill failed before it ever saw legislative debate.
The meeting saw record attendance. An hour before it began, students lined up outside of the Colony Ballroom at the Stamp Student Union to gain entrance. After the room reached capacity at 400 bodies, students crowded around laptops and phones outside to watch the Facebook live stream, which peaked at over 900 viewers.
Dozens of students gave speeches both for and against the bill, which was especially controversial in light of the campus’s current emphasis on inclusion – the previous night, the new Chief Diversity Officer at the university had engaged with students over issues related to diversity.
Students on both sides of the debate were certain that a victory for the other side would discourage discourse and instill division.
Jewish students turned out en masse to stand against the bill’s passage, afraid that it would force them out of the conversation surrounding the conflict and embolden anti-Semites on campus. This past year, there have been numerous reports of swastikas drawn at this university.
“I often wonder if the rise in anti-Semitism on college campuses is tied to BDS,” said junior government and politics major Alex Tobin to the SGA. “Some say it’s a coincidence. I know it’s not, and I think you know it’s not either.”
This concern prompted two former SGA presidents to reach out to the legislative body through a letter read by junior Daniel Grosse.
“We have never to date weighed in on SGA matters since we left campus, but the harm that could be caused by SGA resolution F 17-11-08 B compelled us to speak out in strong opposition,” the letter read.
Some Palestinian students insisted that they are already excluded from the discourse surrounding this issue and face a hostile environment on campus. One student described an experience in which someone took a photo of her protesting with Students for Justice in Palestine and uploaded it to Canary Mission, a website dedicated to the slander of individuals who participate in pro-Palestinian movements.
Another student argued that the BDS bill encouraged dialogue rather than stifled it, holding up the ongoing debate as evidence.
Representatives from a variety of student organizations turned out to share their thoughts on the bill. The president of the UMD Republicans joined Israeli associations in opposing the BDS movement while PLUMAS sent a member to voice their solidarity with Palestinians.
Throughout the night, pro-BDS students took shifts holding up a large banner that read “#UMD Divest” in view of the camera broadcasting the meeting for the Facebook live stream. In response, students sitting in the audience held up impromptu signs drawn on notebook paper against the bill.
Midway through the proceedings, SGA speaker Jonathan Allen paused student debate to respond to complaints he had received about the signs. He acknowledged that they would continue to be permissible as long as they did not distract viewers. He also took this time to praise the discussion that had developed over the course of the meeting.
“This is what civil discourse looks like,” he said. “This is what dialogue looks like.”
After more than two hours of student debate, Allen gaveled the meeting into session – the latest he had ever done so.
“I really just commend all of the students who came out tonight,” he announced to the crowd. “I’m impressed that we were able to make it through dozens of student speakers in two hours alone.”
The fact that the bill died before receiving any debate from SGA legislators disappointed some representatives.
“I think that we did a disservice to the student body after so many of them came out and argued passionately for this bill. I think that frankly it deserved more debate, and I’m saddened by the fact we weren’t able to debate it,” said North Hill representative Chris Niccolini. “But I’m also proud to be a Terp, I’m proud of the student body, I’m proud of everyone who came out, and I’m proud that we care about issues that matter.”