Montclair State University (MSU) defeated a Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution on April 26. The Student Government Association rejected the resolution 11 to 1 with six abstentions, according to StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization. Hillel students dispute that number, saying it could be as high as 18 to 1, though the Student Government Association did not respond to NJJN before press time. By all accounts the only person who voted in favor of the legislation was its author, senior Matthew Kelly.
Dr. Jaime Grinberg, chair of the Department of Educational Foundations at MSU and the school’s Hillel adviser, told NJJN, “We are thrilled. It took much effort but the defeat was gigantic.” He added, “It was a huge, huge very important win.”
A survey aimed at gauging student support for the measure found that 64 percent of students at the New Jersey school were opposed, although only 250 out of about 20,000 students participated in the survey.
The proposal asked not only for a boycott of goods from Israel, but also threatened study abroad programs and academic exchanges between Montclair and any Israel-affiliated entity, including the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Rothberg School at Hebrew University, and Kibbutzim College — institutions with ties to MSU.
“We have constant exchanges with visiting professors from Israel coming here, and professors here teaching there,” said Grinberg, who himself has had affiliations with both Kibbutzim College in Tel Aviv and the University of Haifa.
Hillel students started strategizing on how best to defeat the bill as soon as it was put forward by a member of the student government who had been active with Students for Justice in Palestine. They heeded the advice of MetroWest shlicha Moran Shevach, who has been working with Hillel at Montclair State (and three other campuses) for the last two years, and provided them with insight from Hillel International, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC). She suggested that campuses fight BDS by focusing on personal stories. Revealing the impact of BDS on people and on campus has been more successful than campaigns focusing on making their case, such as why they believe Israel is not an apartheid state.
“We decided the best approach would be to take a personal, emotional approach to get our stories known as Jewish students, and what the bill would do to us, how it would make us feel,” said Marissa London of North Caldwell, student president of Hillel at MSU. “Some of us have encountered anti-Semitism in the past, and for this bill to pass, it would make our lives so much worse.”
Students nearly lost the opportunity to be present at the Student Government discussions before the vote, as the meeting was originally scheduled to take place during the week of Passover. Grinberg needed to intervene to have the vote postponed.
Hillel students reached out to other student groups on campus, including Catholic students and Christians United for Israel, to explain the legislation and its impact. Several members came to the student government session to show their support for the Hillel students. Jewish students not affiliated with Hillel also turned out to show their support, including Grinberg’s daughter Mihal, a Montclair State undergraduate. Former MSU Hillel president Avidan Rothman of West Orange, now a senior, leveraged the relationships he has with student government representatives, spending hours educating them about the bill and its potential effects.
A fact sheet, with information provided by ICC, with additions from Hillel International and Prof. Ginberg, that highlighted the negative effects of BDS on campus life, noting among other findings that some campuses that adopt BDS legislation experience a spike in anti-Semitism, was circulated; students also argued that the legislation is out of step with the campus value of welcoming all students.
Regardless of how the student government voted, Grinberg ultimately knew that MSU president Susan Cole would not allow academic freedom to be threatened. In 2014, she issued a statement against the BDS movement, writing that “Montclair State University has had and will continue to seek successful collaborations with Israeli institutions of higher learning that contribute to the education of students and the scholarly work of faculty. While members of an academic community in the United States have the right to hold and to express political views, the boycott of academic institutions generates only darkness precisely from the very source that should be generating light.”
Still, Grinberg worried about the impact on students.
On the day of the discussion and vote, 12 Hillel members each stood up to share their personal connection to Israel and their own concerns about the impact BDS might have on campus. But they also had to hear from BDS advocates. For Shevach, it was a “tough” day, listening to the presentation from the other side of “hurtful” ideas about Israel. She was particularly pained by a Holocaust survivor who spoke on behalf of the legislation.
While waiting for the vote, London said, “Part of me was anxious; part of me knew it would be OK. When I saw all the support we had, all those hands go up voting no, I felt relief wash over me.” She added, “There will be other battles. I know this won’t be the last, but now we know who to reach out to, and we’ll be ready.”
Just a few days later, on May 2, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, students celebrated Israel’s Independence Day in the center of campus, under a string of Israeli flags, the area decorated with blue and white balloons and posters promoting Israel; they gave away Israeli snacks like Bamba, Bissli, and Elite chocolates. They played Israeli music and provided information on spending time in Israel.
Despite their celebration over the outcome, Grinberg offered a sobering thought about the failed BDS resolution. “The ideal is that it would not even be discussed.”