Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s (“UW”) Student Judiciary stood up for the rights of Jewish students on campus. The Student Judiciary ruled in favor of five students (the “Petitioners”) who filed a complaint against the Chair and Vice Chair of the Associated Students of Madison (“ASM”) Student Council, for violating the Constitutional rights of Jewish students and the ASM’s bylaws.
Jewish students at Madison were on edge this semester in the wake of proposed BDS resolutions on campus. On March 29, four ASM members introduced a highly contentious 14-page resolution, “Social Responsibility and University Divestment from Corporate Human Rights.” More than half of this resolution sought to condemn Israel. As reported by the Badger Herald, after six hours of debate, the ASM voted to table this resolution indefinitely.
The next ASM meeting was scheduled for the evening of April 12, the second night of Passover. A Jewish student, and chair of the ASM’s Budget Committee, Ariela Rivkin, emailed the ASM Chair on April 7, requesting that the ASM not take up any legislation concerning “human rights mechanisms or transparency on investment policy” at the April 12 meeting. Because it fell on Passover, it precluded observant Jewish students from attending and providing input on an issue of importance to the Jewish community.
Despite Chair Rivkin’s email, the ASM introduced a different piece of legislation on April 12– a “Bylaw Change for the Creation of Financial Transparency and Ethics Subcommittee” – that addressed similar issues to the March 29 BDS legislation. The ASM Vice Chair motioned to suspend the rules to allow for an initial vote on this bylaw change to occur at the introductory meeting (even though legislation requires two votes). An ASM member raised the concern that voting would exclude Jewish students. The Vice Chair said it would be a “hassle” to schedule another meeting for the vote. The legislation passed.
Following the April 12 meeting, Petitioners filed a Student Judiciary complaint against the ASM Chair and Vice Chair, alleging that the vote violated Jewish student’s constitutional rights and ASM Bylaws.
On May 10th, the Student Judiciary ruled in favor of the Petitioners, stating,
Holding the April 12th meeting on Passover did not automatically violate the ASM Constitution. Introducing legislation that members of the Jewish community had expressed interest in, when it was known that these members would not be able to attend due to religious observance, does violate the Constitution.
. . . .
There can be no doubt that this vote was the product of a blatant disregard for the Constitution and Bylaws that Student Council representatives are sworn to uphold. The panel notes that the actions taken by the 23rd session may not have been malicious in intent. Nevertheless, multiple constitutional violations occurred at the April 12th meeting and Jewish students were the subject of discrimination by their elected representatives. This is unacceptable, and future sessions are warned that the Judiciary will not tolerate the hypocrisy of a student government that claims to be a voice for students, while simultaneously discriminating against and silencing their constituents.
The Student Judiciary’s ruling voided the bylaw change; suggested that the former ASM Chair attend a training on religious tolerance and understanding apologize to the Jewish community for her discriminatory acts as Chair; mandated the Vice Chair (who will be next year’s Chair) to send a letter to the Student Council, explaining why her motion to waive the rules was wrong, why the nondiscrimination clause of the ASM constitution is essential, why Passover is important to the Jewish community, and apologizing to all Jewish council members for excluding them from the initial vote on the Bylaw Change, among other things. The full ruling can be found here.
While this is a huge victory, the ASM passed another BDS resolution at their April 26th meeting that also seems to have violated ASM bylaws. At the April 26 meeting, Jewish students reported feeling harassed and intimidated. The ASM initially listed the resolution as, “Divestment from Private Prisons, Fossil Fuel Corporations, Border Walls, and Arms Manufacturers.” The text as introduced did not mention Israel. At the meeting itself, ASM members introduced, in an orchestrated fashion, BDS amendments. By doing so, they failed to give the Jewish community proper notice. Another Student Judiciary complaint was filed against the ASM for their actions; however, because the academic year has ended, we will have to wait until the Fall to see if this resolution, too, will be voided.
The University of Wisconsin – Madison administration should be keeping a watchful eye on the discriminatory actions of its Student Council, disciplining in line with its policies, and offering education and training on bias and discrimination.
Kudos to the brave students for filing these necessary complaints against hatred and bigotry, and to Madison’s Student Judiciary for ruling fairly and against discrimination.