September 20, 2017
The new Chair of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), the student government body at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UW), formally apologized to the UW Jewish community for her actions last April. These actions included holding an ASM meeting on the Jewish holiday of Passover and pushing a BDS vote during that meeting, disregarding a request to not raise BDS at that meeting due to the fact that many Jewish students would not be on campus and a previous decision to table the issue of BDS indefinitely. This apology comes on the heels of a unanimously passed ASM resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred.
Earlier this spring, the same student who issued this apology, Katrina Morrison, was part of group of students who decided to hold a vote regarding issues of BDS on Passover. This vote came in the wake of a highly contentious 14-page resolution entitled, “Social Responsibility and University Divestment from Corporate Human Rights.” More than half of this resolution sought to condemn Israel. The ASM voted to table this resolution indefinitely on March 29th, after a contentious six-hour debate. More than 50 students appeared before the open forum to discuss the controversial proposal. The next ASM meeting after that debate was, however, scheduled for April 12th, the second night of Passover. This was a night when many Jewish students who cared deeply about this issue would not be on campus due to the holiday. Then-ASM-Budget-Chair, Jewish student Ariela Rivkin, emailed then-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, Rivkin stated, the vote precluded observant Jewish students from attending and providing input on an issue of importance to the Jewish community. Despite 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 that was supposed to be indefinitely tabled. Furthermore, then-ASM-Vice-Chair Morrison 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). Concerns were raised that voting would exclude Jewish students. Morrison said it would be a “hassle” to schedule another meeting for the vote. The legislation passed.
The passing of this legislation led Rivkin to file a Student Judiciary suit against Morrison, alleging that many Jewish students would not have been able to attend due to their religious observances. On May 10, 2017, the Student Judiciary overturned the BDS bylaw change, ruling that, “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.” While this was a huge victory, prior to this decision, the ASM passed yet another BDS resolution at their April 26, 2017 meeting that also seemed to have violated ASM bylaws. This violation stemmed from the introduction of a bill that sought to divest from “private prisons, fossil fuel corporations, border walls, and arms manufacturers.” While the text did not initially include any mention of Israel, ASM members – in an orchestrated fashion – introduced several BDS amendments to this bill. In introducing these amendments, the ASM members, once again, failed to give the Jewish community any sort of notice. At the April 26 meeting, Jewish students reported feeling harassed and intimidated.
Following the April 26 vote, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank condemned the ASM for allowing this controversial divestment measure to take place. The Louis D. Brandeis Center wrote a letter urging further action be taken on this issue, specifically that UW’s nondiscrimination policies be upheld for all students.
The steps now being taken by the new ASM leadership, including Morrison’s apology and the new resolution condemning anti-Semitism, demonstrate the beginning of real efforts to fix the issues which plagued the ASM last academic year. The new resolution specifically points to the fact that, “anti-Semitic incidents tend to occur when anti-Israel legislation is introduced in student government or in a student body.” This recognition of the insidious means by which anti-Semitism can find its way into student governments is a valid lens through which to examine ASMs past mistakes. Morrison, as one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, has stated that it is “important for ASM to reaffirm their beliefs on such incidents.”
Rivkin, though no longer an ASM representative, attended this particular ASM meeting to see the proceedings that she helped put in motion. Rivkin stated that she believed “that Morrison spoke in a serious and heartfelt manner.” Morrison has promised to work “every day” to regain the trust of Jewish students at UW. With Morrison’s new commitment to the Jewish community, the disavowing of the previous BDS motions, and new resolutions in place to prevent this issue in the future, the ASM appears to be on the right path to ensuring UW students their liberties and rights.