Divestment referendum blocked at Northeastern

Students at Northeastern University say there is “no justice” for Palestinians on their campus. (Photo from group’s Facebook)

Activists at Northeastern University in Boston say they have been silenced by their student government after it blocked a divestment referendum from appearing on an upcoming election ballot.

The referendum would have asked students whether they would support divestment from four US companies that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ rights.

More than 900 undergraduate students signed a petition in support of putting a divestment referendum up for a vote. The signatures were presented to the student government during a three-hour hearing on 16 March.

However, the Northeastern Student Government Association voted to prevent the referendum from appearing on the ballot in a move students say is a direct affront to campus democracy, free speech and open debate.

Sean Hansen, president of Northeastern’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, told The Electronic Intifada that there is a lot of support for divestment on campus. The student government’s decision to block the referendum “was not representative of the student body in any way, shape or form.”

Community support

In February, Northeastern’s student government announced it would reject the referendum, citing “adherence to university policy” on “bullying,” “harassment” and creating a “a hostile, threatening, intimidating, humiliating, or abusive environment,” ostensibly toward Jewish students.

These claims echo talking points given to anti-divestment campaigners by off-campus Israel-aligned political groups.

Northeastern SJP say that 32 Boston-area community organizations and more than 5,000 supporters across the country signed various petitions urging the student government to allow the divestment referendum to appear on the election ballot.

The student government then decided to allow Northeastern SJP to go forward with their petitioning. But, according to Hansen, the student senators “stacked” votes against the referendum and repeated pro-Israel assumptions that the initiative would cause Jewish students emotional distress and could “bring anti-Semitism to the campus.”

Northeastern SJP activist Sofia Perez, who also attended the hearing, said that student government senators “were inherently against” putting a divestment referendum up for a campus-wide vote. “They said, ‘our donors are not going to like this,’” according to Perez. “People were saying that [bringing up Palestine] hurt their feelings and that it was one-sided. But we said that human rights violations and apartheid are not our opinions. These are facts defined by the United Nations.”

“There’s no justice”

Hansen explained that a Palestinian student active with Northeastern SJP attended the hearing but was largely ignored by the student government.

“Not once did anyone other than us talk about what it felt to be Palestinian on the campus, and whether or not [Palestinians] should have a say in supporting their own oppression. It was all about other students’ comfort,” he said.

Hansen added that it is highly unlikely that the Northeastern administration will take issue with the way the referendum was suppressed.

“We have a Raytheon amphitheater,” he explained, referring to the public event space named after the US weapons company that supplies arms to the Israeli military.

The university has previously singled out Northeastern SJP. They were suspended last year after a direct action during Israeli Apartheid Week and there are current restrictions on the group’s event planning and access to resources.

“[Northeastern University] has proven over and over again that free speech is not something they’re interested in protecting on campus,” Hansen said. “What they’re interested in is protecting their interests, and making it seem like they’re protecting free speech.”

“Backroom procedural tactics”

Attorneys with Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts sent a letter to the Northeastern student government before the hearing, cautioning it against “calls to suppress student democracy on campus.”

They say that preventing the Northeastern student body from voting on the divestment resolution violates free speech rights.

“We urge you to stand firmly in support of student democracy, and to refuse to accede to demands to prevent students from voicing their opinion on this critical issue,” the groups state.

Radhika Sainath, staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, ”The referendum process is all about students voicing their opinion on matters important to them — here, whether their tuition should go to companies profiting from Israel’s human rights abuses.”

“The use of backroom procedural tactics to stop divestment initiatives reveals a fundamental fear on the part of pro-Israel groups that if given the choice, college students will vote for Palestinian rights,” she added.

“Too long suppressed”

The Husky Environmental Action Team (HEAT), an on-campus student environmental justice group, made a statement in support of Northeastern SJP.

“Besides the violations of free speech that are blatant in this process, the issue of the Israel/Palestine conflict is one that our campus has too long suppressed,” the group stated.

HEAT said that it views Israel’s occupation of Palestine as an environmental issue, as Israel controls Palestinians’ access to clean water. The group also denounced Israel’s “greenwashing” campaigns — public relations efforts to hype the state’s environmental initiatives and “green tech” industries while it destroys Palestinian natural resources.

Meanwhile, students say that though this was a troubling setback for this current referendum campaign, Northeastern SJP is not backing down. Perez told The Electronic Intifada that the group will campaign for allies to join the student government in order “to change this process.”

The group is also marking its victories.

“This whole process was a success because we told over 900 people about what these companies [targeted for divestment] were doing,” Hansen said, ”and I have no doubt we would have won divestment if we had gone to a vote. No doubt.”




Although I have no "standing" (not a Northeastern student, graduated from another
colleage over 50 years ago!), I want to express my full support for SJP. Due to
age and physical condition I cannot march etc. I have gone to functions of SJP
such as a presentation by Dr. Illan Pappe whose "free speech" required guards
according to the University.

I am will you 1,000 per cent.

----Peter Loeb, Boston, MA (Massachusetts Avenue)


"In February, Northeastern’s student government announced it would reject the referendum, citing “adherence to university policy” on “bullying,” “harassment” and creating a “a hostile, threatening, intimidating, humiliating, or abusive environment,” ostensibly toward Jewish students...

The student government then decided to allow Northeastern SJP to go forward with their petitioning. But, according to Hansen, the student senators “stacked” votes against the referendum and repeated pro-Israel assumptions that the initiative would cause Jewish students emotional distress and could 'bring anti-Semitism to the campus.' "

The above reasons for denying a vote on a referendum demonstrates just how bankrupt the position of BDS opponents really is. They aren't really afraid of anti-Semitism, or if they are afraid, their fears are greatly exaggerated. And the only emotional distress they are probably feeling is the distress that comes with being on the losing end of a vote they care deeply about.

The reason I am saying this is that IF they were genuinely fearful about anti-Semitism, this is the exact OPPOSITE approach from what they should be doing to quell it. If they REALLY were afraid of anti-Semitism, then stomping on the free-speech rights of BDS proponents is the LAST thing that they should be doing. Free speech and the right to vote act as safety valves that minimize the chance of violence. (End pt.1)


Supreme Court Justice Brandeis wrote the following in Whitney v. California:

"Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. [n2] They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence [p376] coerced by law -- the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed."


Supreme Court Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. Califonia, (cont)

"Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears. To justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent. There must be reasonable ground to believe that the evil to be prevented is a serious one. Every denunciation of existing law tends in some measure to increase the probability that there will be violation of it. [n3] Condonation of a breach enhances the probability. Expressions of approval add to the probability. Propagation of the criminal state of mind by teaching syndicalism increases it. Advocacy of law-breaking heightens it still further. But even advocacy of violation, however reprehensible morally, is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on. The wide difference between advocacy and incitement, between preparation and attempt, between assembling and conspiracy, must be borne in mind. In order to support a finding of clear and present danger, it must be shown either that immediate serious violence was to be expected or was advocated, or that the past conduct furnished reason to believe that such advocacy was then contemplated."

See https://www.law.cornell.edu/su... for Whitney v. California


Many thanks to Robin Messing for his citations from Whitney v California.

Was Justice Brandeis writing with the (US Supreme Court) Majority or "in dissent"?

What was the year and very briefly what were the issues of this case?

I seem to remember from my very murkey depths that Brandeis was pro-Zionist
in his era but perhaps I have mixed him up with Justice Felix Frankfurter. At any
rate, Brandeis was addressing issues in the United States not Israel/Palestine..

I rather suspect that Brandeis would have opposed Zionism in concept and in its
policies and military actions in particular as concerns Palestinians (the
indigenous residents of Palestine). He would indeed have agreed with you that
their zionist actions have , if not encouraged anti-Semitism ,at least created bitter

Having been a participant in the black civil rights movement in the US, I wonder if Northeastern University would have dared to admit to similar policies against
black and other minority students. Instead, they would probably boast about their
self-claimed "tolerance".

Once more my thanks, Robin Messing.

-----Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA


Thanks, Peter. I see you found your answers without me. I hope you get a chance to read parts 4 and 5 of my essay. I tried to post them last night when I posted the first three parts, but I triggered the site's spambot alert system and wouldn't let me post.




BRANDEIS, J., Concurring Opinion


Miss Whitney was convicted of the felony of assisting in organizing, in the year 1919, the Communist Labor Party of California, of being a member of it, and of assembling with it. These acts are held to constitute a crime because the party was formed to teach criminal syndicalism. The statute which made these acts a crime restricted the right of free speech and of assembly theretofore existing. The claim is that the statute, as applied, denied to Miss Whitney the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

October, 1925

-----Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA


One of the main justifications for the right to free speech is that it acts as a safety valve. When people feel like they are truly being represented--when they feel like their voices are being heard--when those who have legitimate grievances feel like they have an opportunity to have those grievances redressed, then they are less likely to feel like they HAVE to act violently to be heard. People tend to act more violently when they are repressed and when they feel their is no chance to have their grievances redressed.

So if Jews truly worry that allowing a referendum on BDS will encourage anti-Semitism they need to ask themselves one thing--will their suppression of a vote mollify those who are appalled by what is happening in Israel? Or will it just make them angrier at those who are preventing them from having a chance of really being heard? Will this make those who oppose Israel give up? Or will it cause them to redouble their efforts? If there are extremists amongst the BDS crowd, then how can the moderates possibly convince them that there is a better way than violence to enact change? Might not the Zionist trampling of free speech rights not create anti-Semitism where none had been there before? Or if there was a low flame of anti-Semitsim, won't their suppression be like pouring gasoline on the fire?

Make no mistake about it. The referendum is an anti-Zionist one and not an anti-Semitic one. There is a big difference between them, and I discuss them here.



And here I explain why the best thing Diaspora Jews can do to fight anti-Semitsm is to speak out against Israel's illegal occupation in the West Bank and its excesses in Gaza.


Finally, there are some further issues that are relevant to this story that I discuss here.



Thanks to Robert Messing again (re "anti-Semitism").

As a passionate anti-Zionist I affirm the sentiments of Messing. I would admonish,
however, that those of us whatever our backgrounds will be called "anti-Semites"
in the present context of discourse. One need not argue the point but should expect
it. Personally, I believe that Michael Prior CM's work THE BIBLE...AND COLONIALISM addresses these and many other points in an inspiring and honest
way encompassing "settler colonialism" of many varieties through the centuries.
(Not all "Jewish"!)

Prior's definition of "anti-Semitism" is complete. I believe it is an extended footnote
on p. 114.

Had my parents been Roman Catholics and I ceased attending Christian holidays
and masses and even if I opposed certain teachings of today's Catholic Church,
I would not therefore be "anti-Catholic". If my hatred included all Catholics and rested
on them as a group, there could be some discussion. Prior (op cit) defines anti-
Semitism as a pejorative term not to be confused with hatred of a group per se.

In my own case, my parents were non-practicing Jews and my grandparents were
reform Jews in an earlier era. Because of Israeli behavior toward Palestinians
and other "arabs", I do not "celebrate" any "Jewish holidays" but then I never did.

----Peter Loeb, Bloston, MA USA


I really recommend that in future BDS debates, someone should cut the "We-can't-have-a-vote-on-this-topic-because-it-fosters-anti-Semitism" argument off at its knees. Someone needs to point out what I have written here--that a free debate and vote is more likely to prevent the spread of anti-Semitsm than cause it. But sadly, that person should probably not be a Muslim or someone within SJP. It would be better if you can find an ally--preferably a Jewish ally--outside the group. Because I can guarantee you that if an SJP member, particularly a member who is Muslim and/or Palestinian, makes this argument then the Zionists will twist it and make it look like a threat. They will say something like this:

"See, these anti-Semites are saying that attacks against Jews will increase if we don't allow a vote. They are trying to blackmail us and we can't have that. They should be disciplined and kicked out of our school to ensure the safety of Jewish students."

It is unfortunate that anyone would take this twisting of the truth seriously, but if school administrators really don't want to divest then they will have an excuse to take action. A Jewish student (or maybe a representative of the ACLU) making the same argument won't be so vulnerable.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).