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Ahead of referendum voting deadline, students and administration debate SJP’s requests

May 3, 2024

On Monday, Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) announced Bowdoin Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP’s) petition to hold a referendum, titled the “Bowdoin Solidarity Referendum,” received the number of signatures—representing 20 percent of the student body—needed for a vote to take place. Students were given five days, which began Monday afternoon and will end tomorrow at 2:30 p.m., to cast their vote.

Shortly after the referendum opened for voting, President Safa Zaki sent an email to students outlining her reservations and perspective with and on the referendum. Zaki invited students to join her in several 45-minute, off-the-record conversations throughout the week to discuss the referendum. On Tuesday, SJP leader Ahmad Abdulwadood ’24 sent a response email on behalf of SJP to all students to express the group’s disappointment in Zaki’s email.

In her email, Zaki reiterated that she does not believe in making institutional statements, as the referendum asks, positing that they “divide communities … and interfere with the free exchange of ideas central to an academic community.”

Eri Bolton ’27, who voted yes on the referendum, echoed the position of Abdulwadood and SJP that not making a statement is itself a statement.

“I think silence is just as much of a political expression,” Bolton said. “I don’t think there’s a war or conflict in the Middle East—I think there’s a genocide. I think to be silent in the face of a genocide is to side with the oppressor.”

Zaki has not publicly responded to Abdulwadood’s email and declined the Orient’s request for an interview, given constraints on her schedule.

Atticus Orbach ’27 believes the College should only comment on Israel’s killing of students and teachers and its destruction of schools, if it makes a statement at all, which he is not sure it should.

“I think if the institution made a statement, I would be opposed to it in general, no matter what they said. If they decided that they were gonna support the Palestine or Israeli government, I think no matter what, I would say, ‘Hey, why are we doing this?’” Orbach said. “Speaking out against the scholasticide is the thing that, if Bowdoin were to make a statement about it, that would be the right thing to say.”

In response to SJP’s request for Bowdoin to disclose its investment exposure to arms manufacturing and to not invest in certain defense-focused funds, Zaki wrote “… imposing investment disclosures and restrictions on our endowment would have significant adverse effects on endowment returns and would therefore have a significant impact on the College’s operations and mission.” Zaki continued, writing that the College could lose exclusive connections with its fund managing firms.

“We risk losing these valuable relationships by imposing restrictions on these firms—not because they focus on weapons-related investments—but because they require flexibility, nimbleness, and confidentiality to best execute their strategies,” Zaki wrote.

In an interview with the Orient, Abdulwadood said he thought that Zaki’s email misconstrued the nature of SJP’s requests.

“The email makes it sound as if we are dictating the terms of the funds themselves, when it’s more that we’re not going to give money to funds that meet our criteria,” Abdulwadood said.

Senior Vice President and Chief Investment Officer Niles Bryant did not respond to the Orient’s request for an interview.

Annie Allen ’27 thought Zaki’s email unfairly suggested that enacting SJP’s requests would threaten Bowdoin’s need-blind status. In her view, the email overlooked how SJP only asks the College not to invest in defense-focused funds in the future, a request she believes would pose less financial risk to Bowdoin than immediate divestment.

“I’m on full financial aid, so [Zaki’s] response was definitely anxiety-inducing for me,” Allen said. “It was presented as either you lose your financial aid, your ability to go to college, or you have to support this mass genocide … and the fact that all these students and teachers are being murdered.”

Abdulwadood said that Bowdoin’s disclosure of its investment exposure to fossil fuel companies last year proves Bowdoin can disclose its exposure to arms manufacturing without losing its relationships with fund managers.

“We continue to have relationships with these funds and fund managers that we are invested in, despite the fact that we asked and found out where the money is,” Abdulwadood said.

Orbach said deciding on how to vote would be easier if he could vote on each of the four demands individually, rather than all of them as a whole. He shares SJP’s concerns about the placement of Bowdoin’s investments, but also acknowledges Zaki’s concerns about what disclosure would do to the endowment.

“I think if I could vote individually on each point I would feel a lot less conflicted about it,” Orbach said. “The financial aspect [of the referendum] feels really complicated to me…. Not that I don’t support divestment and disclosure, I just think that … I don’t know enough personally to be making that decision as a voter.”

Abdulwadood said SJP considered giving students an option to vote “yes” or “no” on each of the referendum’s four requests, rather than on the referendum as a whole, but ultimately decided to group all four of the requests into one vote.

Yesterday afternoon, three students who oppose the referendum—Tal Brill ’24, Annabelle Gersch ’25 and Josh Goldstein ’25—advocated for students to vote no at a table in Smith Union. In a written statement to the Orient, they explained their objective.

“Our main goal by tabling in Smith Union today was both to invite discussion and to show everyone that there is an opposition to this referendum. Until now, the rhetoric surrounding this referendum has been one-sided, and all that we wish to do is widen the range of opinions for those who are currently undecided in their position,” they wrote.

Soon after they set up their table, a large crowd of students formed around them to discuss their perspectives with both the anti-referendum students and SJP organizers, who were tabling beside them.

“What happened today in Smith Union is a perfect representation of what makes this college great: conversation. We hope that we can continue this conversation despite any future decision over this referendum, and while we are not an official group, we invite anyone to reach out and discuss these topics with those of us who have openly opposed this referendum,” the opposing students wrote.

Asked for its position on the referendum, the Bowdoin Hillel Board emphasized its nonpolitical function in a statement to the Orient.

“As a religious and cultural organization, Bowdoin Hillel represents a diverse community of Jewish students who hold a broad spectrum of perspectives about Israel-Palestine. No one perspective can represent our members or the entire Bowdoin Jewish community. Instead, we support Hillel’s primary mission as a non-political organization that works to create a space on campus for Jewish students to practice their religion and embrace their culture in a way that feels safe and comfortable,” the board wrote.


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One comment:

  1. Brian Purnell says:

    I am glad students initiated this referendum. They are using the procedures at their disposal to try and advance an important issue. I am also glad students organized to encourage people to vote against the referendum. This invited dialogue and alternative opinions. I am glad faculty circulated a letter of support for the referendum. I signed it because 1) My friend and colleague, whom I trust, asked me to; 2) I trust our students when they use means like this to advance an important issue. 3) The referendum did not capture everything I would have wanted to say about the war and the hostages, but it was measured and moderate. I wanted to support a measured, moderate approach rather than see aggressive, antagonistic tactics arise. Every day I fear campus uprisings will result in someone getting killed. I want suffering to stop, not escalate. I am glad my friend and colleague wrote a criticism of the letter I signed. It was smart and principled. I support her criticism. We must disagree and debate and not cannibalize each other. I think Bowdoin has managed, for the most part, to do that. Let’s keep at it in imperfectly prudent, principled ways.

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