Inside the Princeton BDS Referendum Controversy

After the Chief Elections Manager of Student Government informed Tigers for Israel that abstentions counted as votes cast, he reversed the decision. Opposition thought the referendum failed. Now it’s up in the air.
April 15, 2022
Lecture hall in Princeton University (AugustineChang/Getty Images)

In the 2020-2021 academic year, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions were proposed to student governments at 17 college campuses across the U.S. Eleven of them passed. On March 27, 2022, Princeton University hopped on the bandwagon, when Princeton’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) voted to approve a BDS-aligned referendum brought forth by Eric Periman, a current sophomore and president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP).

After gaining USG approval, Periman collected the 500 signatures necessary for his referendum to appear on the campus-wide ballot. Voting began on Monday, April 11, and closed on Wednesday, April 13.

PCP has been mired in numerous antisemitic controversies in recent years, most notably for hosting one of the most notorious anti-Jewish, anti-Israel academics, Norman Finkelstein in 2019. Just two weeks ago, PCP members–Periman included–protested outside of the Center for Jewish Life during its “Israel Summer Program Fair,” holding up signs with slogans like “From the River to the Sea,” recalling a refrain commonly used by designated terrorist organizations like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas to call for the violent erasure of the Jewish State.

The referendum calls on Princeton to immediately halt the use of Caterpillar equipment in all ongoing campus construction projects,” claiming that Caterpillar has played a “violent role” in “atrocities” against Palestinians.

Periman disclaims any connection to BDS though the organization is clearly referenced in the explanation section of the referendum, which states that “Caterpillar is listed as one of the only targeted construction companies in the national Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

“There is something nefarious about the fact that they don’t say that it is BDS outright,” expressed Rabbi Julie Roth, Princeton University’s Jewish Chaplain.

This is not the first BDS referendum to come across the desk of Princeton USG. In 2015, the Princeton Divests Coalition called for the university “to divest from all multinational corporations that contribute to or profit” from what they deemed “the illegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories,” citing Caterpillar as one of them. The 2015 referendum led to a rise in antisemitism on campus, with antisemitic messages proliferating on social media and swastikas appearing on campus. The 2015 vote failed, but only by a narrow margin of 5 percentage points.

In the week leading up to last week’s campus-wide vote, student activists on both sides mobilized to try and swing the student body vote. PCP hosted and co-sponsored a slew of events, one of which was a “Caterpillar Referendum Teach-In” with the parents of Rachel Corrie, an activist whose 2003 death in a restricted Gaza border zone–ruled accidental by the Israeli courts–occurred when she physically blocked a Caterpillar bulldozer out of sight of the operator. Rutgers Theatre Professor David Letwin, a faculty participant at the event, called Israel an “apartheid” regime, accused it of “ethnically cleansing hundreds of thousands,” and deemed it an irredeemable “colonial state.” In addition, the progressive lobby group J Street hosted “Occupied Palestinian Territories 101,” and PCP, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), and the Pride Alliance hosted a discussion about Masafer Yatta, a contentious region in the West Bank adjoining Hebron used by the Israeli military for exercises.

In the week leading up to last week’s campus-wide vote, student activists on both sides mobilized to try and swing the student body vote.

Meanwhile, Tigers For Israel hosted a panel discussion titled “The Case Against BDS” with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer, public intellectual and activist, Michael Walzer, Palestinian peace activist Bassam Eid, and Ashager Araro, an Ethiopian-Israeli Jewish activist. At the event, Eid highlighted the fact that the Palestinian Authority itself uses Caterpillar earthmoving equipment, meaning that the referendum passing will harm the very people it claims to help.

Students on both sides also sent out mass emails to the residential college listservs, trying to persuade their fellow students to “VOTE YES” or “VOTE NO” on the referendum. In addition, campus publications like The Daily Princetonian and The Princeton Tory have published news and opinion pieces on the referendum and the events surrounding it.

There is currently a petition on Change.org titled “Princeton President Eisgruber: Remove Racist Referendum Targeting Jewish Students” that has garnered over 2,000 signatures. It calls on readers “to contact President Eisgruber to demand he protect Jewish students by removing the referendum question from the ballot and publicly condemning the referendum as antisemitic” and urges “[Eisgruber] to adopt the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism – the only internationally-accepted definition of Jew-hatred.” As of this writing, there is no internal petition put forth by members of the student body nor has there been a public statement by the University administration.

The election numbers were leaked on Wednesday, April 13, and USG officially released the results on Friday, April 15. Although BDS received a plurality of the votes, it did not receive a majority. 44% of students voted yes, 40% voted no, and 16% of students abstained. The referendum opposition initially believed that the vote had failed, because at the start of the campaign period, Brian Li ’24, the Chief Elections Manager of Student Government informed Tigers for Israel president Jared Stone ‘24 that the “abstain” votes would be counted as among the total number of votes cast. By this metric, the referendum fails.

Despite his clear written correspondence with Stone, Li asserted hours after the voting closed that “abstain” votes do not count as votes cast. Opposition campaigners responded with outrage, believing that the outcome of the referendum could very well have been different had they not constructed their campaign strategy based on the information provided to us by the USG Chief Elections Manager.

Per an email from Myles McKnight ’23:

Brian [Li] claims that “it was and remains [the case] that abstentions are not to be construed as votes.” But given his clearly-communicated prior decision that the abstentions would be counted, the claim that the decision not to count them has always stood is at best an absurdity, at worst a face-saving lie.

Here’s what’s happened: the ultimate and authoritative decider on the relevant constitutional questions informed campaigners of his interpretation of the Constitution. The campaigners built an entire campaign on that interpretation. As though it were a magic trick, he’s concocted the exact opposite interpretation after the results have come in, thereby reversing the result.

Is this the precedent you want to set?

This election was close. It came down to only about 100 votes. This whole thing could have come out differently with just the slightest alteration of campaign strategy. There are two ways USG can save face now: count the abstain votes, or void the referendum and hold a revote. I hope you realize how much damage you are doing to the trust you once held with the Jewish community––students, alumni, and family.

In addition to complaints submitted by McKnight and others, USG treasurer Adam Hoffman ‘23 filed a formal appeal of the election co-signed by USG Sustainability Chair, Audrey Zhang ‘25 and USG Senate Members Carlisle Imperial ‘25 and Ned Dockery ‘25. “It is our judgment that the conduct and decision of the CEM are unfair and incorrect,” they wrote. The four senate members recommended one of three solutions: “either a) abide by the representations made by the CEM during the course of the campaign and on the basis of which the campaign was conducted, b) void the referendum, or c) hold a revote with clearly communicated rules and guidelines.”

On April 15, USG released election results for the other two submitted referendums, but wrote that “results for Referendum Question 3 have not been certified at this time due to appeals pending before the Senate.”

Alexandra Orbuch is a Freshman at Princeton University from Los Angeles, California hoping to study Politics. On campus, she writes for The Princeton Tory, the university’s journal for conservative thought, and the Princeton Legal Journal, the university’s undergraduate Law review. 

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