Every year, the University of Minnesota and the All-Campus Elections Commission has a referendum mechanism where the student body may vote on a statement sponsored by student groups. If the majority of the student body approves the statement, the passage will petition the administration to act in favor of it. The ACEC recently placed a controversial referendum on the ballot that demanded the Board of Regents divest from companies “complicit in Israeli violation of Palestinian rights … maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers … or violating indigenous sovereignty.”
We understand the concerns the authors of the referendum have against the various human rights violations by many actors, including the state of Israel. However, the philosophy of divestment oversteps support against human rights violations into a far more nuanced and multifaceted discussion that necessitates further debate and discussion. For this reason, we do not support the passing of the UMN Divest referendum.
First, this referendum was approved for the ACEC shortly before the ballot went live. The full text was not publicly available until closer to March 5. The election ends on Wednesday, with some students being able to vote on the referendum until Thursday morning. This presents an issue that all referendums or student body policies should avoid, regardless of the content. This referendum lacks discussion and debate. Whether one supports or opposes a policy, it is always better for discourse to occur in order to achieve a more well-rounded outcome. Discourse allows individuals affected by the policy to become more well informed and knowledgeable on the subject of the policy. This should be the case for all elections. The primary and general election process is extensive and exhaustive in state and federal elections for this very reason. The time granted for the student body to debate and review the referendum was not long enough. Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a vastly polarizing issue with no platform or venue to productively reconcile or address the differences in opinion. That should not be the case.
Another challenge with the passage of the referendum is that the decision still relies on the Board of Regents. The passage of the referendum in no way ensures the advocacy will be implemented into policy. The efforts of various groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine, no matter how well-intentioned, may very well bear no fruit. We believe the better approach is to target education and knowledge about the issues facing Palestinian human rights, proposing tangible actions that have a far greater likelihood of success. Human rights isn’t a zero-sum game. It isn’t necessary to administer a policy that makes a group on campus feel marginalized for the slight possibility of holding a moral high-ground that will, in reality, not affect change in a highly complex issue.
Divesting from Israel is a difficult process. The interconnectedness of our world makes it nearly impossible for us to stop investing in the state completely. Companies like Coca-Cola are known for supporting Israel. Boycotting such a substantial corporation, especially considering the vast funding they provide to the University of Minnesota, should warrant a greater debate than this referendum has received. If the goal is to support the rights of the various groups mentioned in the referendum, there are far more impactful things that students can and should do to help them, rather than simply drawing a line in the sand.