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DePaul Students Vote on Israel Divestment Amid Tension

By Paul Biasco | May 21, 2014 5:13am
 DePaul University senior William Barab, left, speaks with another student during a sit-in Tuesday in support of the DePaul Divest campaign.
DePaul University senior William Barab, left, speaks with another student during a sit-in Tuesday in support of the DePaul Divest campaign.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LINCOLN PARK — A DePaul University student referendum to divest in corporations that activists say profit from human rights abuses against Palestinians has raised tensions on campus.

The student coalition behind the referendum, DePaul Divest, is attempting to pressure the university into divesting from 12 multinational companies.

The referendum is being voted on this week and is included on the spring student government elections ballot.

Paul Biasco explains why a group of students staged a protest on campus:

Some Jewish students on campus have come out in opposition to the vote, claiming the ballot measure is more of a religious and political campaign, rather than one focusing on human rights.

The divestment campaign at DePaul follows a number of schools nationwide, including Loyola University Chicago, that have urged their administrations either through a ballot measure or student government vote to divest.

Loyola's student government twice passed a resolution to divest in March, but the student government president vetoed the resolution after the administration rejected the vote.

"We are really building off local momentum and using this as an opportunity to get the word out," said Leila Abdul Razzaq, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at DePaul.

The movement is urging DePaul to divest in companies including Caterpillar, HP, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin who have supplied Israel with goods ranging from bulldozers to weapons.

While the university does not directly invest in these companies, their mutual funds do, according to the divestment campaign.

Tuesday, members of the DePaul Divest movement set up a sit-in in the Pit of the Schmitt Academic Center on campus to raise awareness of the vote and issue.

At the same time of the sit-in, students opposing the vote set up two booths on the quad explaining their opposition with posters.

The ballot measure being voted on through Friday morning asks students: "Do you think that DePaul should follow socially responsible investment practices and divest its funds from companies that profit from Israel's discrimination and human rights violations?"

Students gathered more than 1,000 signatures over the past seven weeks to get the referendum on the ballot.

"If we get a majority vote, we can use that to approach the fair businesses practices committee or [DePaul President Dennis] Holtschneider and just say, 'Look, this is an important issue to students and we want DePaul to engage in ethical business practices,'" Abdul Razzaq said.

Opposition groups such as Blue Demons Against BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) argued the ballot measure didn't fully address the issue and is misleading.

"It's difficult when it's a one-sided argument," said Rachel Ginsberg, vice president of DePaul Hillel Campus Leadership. "They are using weighted words that really get to people like 'human rights' and 'human rights violations.'"

Students from both sides of the argument said the issue has resulted in hostility on campus as both groups have set up flags and held events on the quad.

"It's become a really aggressive campaign," Ginsberg said. "It's creating a lot of unhappiness on this campus."

Holtschneider penned a opinion piece for the school's DePaulia student newspaper addressing the topic last week addressing the issue.

Holtschneider wrote that the school's Fair Business Practices Committee consisting of faculty, staff and students was established in 2000 to study these kinds of matters and make recommendations to the university.

He said the committee is already looking into a United Students Against Sweatshops request to terminate a contract.

"Should that committee be called upon to look at the Israel divestment issue, I know they will carefully consider these issues from all sides, just as they have done with every other matter that has landed on their desk for deliberation and recommendation," Holtschneider wrote.