Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is hoping for a student vote on a thorny question: Should the College participate in an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions? SJP began collecting signatures on a digital petition this week, and if it can garner the support of one fifth of the student body (about 360 signatures), then the Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) will organize a referendum that would require a two-thirds majority to pass. At press time, the petition had 156 signatures. 

An academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions would mean that the College would not take part in events funded by Israeli institutions or invite scholars to speak on campus as representatives of Israeli institutions. Israeli scholars would be welcome to speak on campus as individuals not affiliated with any organization.

This sort of referendum, if it passed, would be symbolic, according to Vice President for BSG Affairs Charlotte McLaughry ’15.

“They don’t necessarily tangibly mean anything,” she said.

“The goal of the academic and cultural boycott is to isolate parts of the Israeli state apparatus that are normalizing the maltreatment of Palestinians and abuses of their human rights,” said Sinead Lamel ’15, one of the leaders of SJP. “This includes many Israeli universities which haven’t spoken out against the occupation but in fact have endorsed what’s happening and presenting a narrative that erases the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”

J Street U, a student organization that describes itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” issued a statement in opposition to SJP’s petition.

“J Street U is a secular student group that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Palestinian right to statehood. However, our student group does not feel that a Bowdoin boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions is a helpful step toward peace,” the statement read.

Bowdoin’s chapter of Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, declined to take a stance.

“Hillel doesn’t typically speak out on political issues. We tend to be a more apolitical organization,” said Leah Kahn ’15, president of the College’s chapter.

According to its website, Hillel International will not partner with any host organizations that “Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

SJP has reached out to students by tabling in David Saul Smith Union and distributing relevant literature to students.

“I can’t say if I exactly see it making [it to the ballot],” said Lilian Gharios ’18, a member of the SJP. “We [have] a lot of different kinds of students, students who are interested and not interested. Personally, I’m not too concerned about getting it on the ballot as long as the students are having an incentive to learn about Israel and Palestine and at the same time learn about SJP.”

Many students said they were undecided or felt uninformed about the issue. 

“I don’t think I’m educated enough on that particular issue to speak which side I take,” said Ned Wang ’18.

Others had strong opinions on the boycott.

“The United States is the biggest sponsor of Israel, and Israel is a huge recipient of U.S. military aid,” said Christine Rheem ’15. “Our tax money is literally supporting what Israel is doing and the occupation of Palestine. I think we are all implicated.”

In December 2013, SJP sponsored a similar petition asking the College to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions sponsored by the American Studies Association (ASA). At the time, President Barry Mills condemned the boycott for stifling the free exchange of ideas.

The current petition proposes that the boycott remain in place until Israel “ends its occupation and colonization of all Palestinian lands,” among other demands.

SJP is also trying to persuade BSG to issue a statement on the boycott. BSG would have to first vote on whether to make a statement and then vote on what stance to take, and it is unlikely that it will be able to hold a vote before the end of the semester, according to McLaughry.