Guest: BDS resolution debate proved that students can have difficult conversations

(Ben Green / Ben Green Photography)

This piece reflects the views of Elysa Gurman, and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to [email protected].

Last Wednesday night, I was shaking. I was nervous to speak in front of the 200 students that showed up to express their support for either side of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) resolution which the ASUO senate voted on. I had everything I was going to say to oppose the resolution meticulously scripted out, and I was terrified that if I was interrupted or heckled I would panic and throw up in the middle of the room.

If you look at student government meetings discussing BDS from other schools, you might find a common theme. In so many of these meetings, speakers are interrupted, heckled, bullied and verbally assaulted. Recently, a video from UCLA went viral in which a group of Pro-Palestine students disrupted the meeting, chanted hateful words and intimidated other students. Going into our own discussion, I prepared for the worst.

In some ways, the worst did happen. We lost, and the BDS resolution went through with exactly a two-thirds majority. At the beginning of the debate, a member of ASUO who is affiliated with SUPER (Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights), who wrote and sponsored the resolution, had an altercation with another member of the ASUO who was supporting the pro-Israel students. That really sucked. There’s no other way to say it. Before and after the hearing, rumors were spread on social media that pro-Israel students were a “Super PAC,” that we were getting paid to speak, that specific pro-Israel senators should “shut the fuck up,” and other nonsensical accusations and assaults. Several times throughout the night, that same student spoke out of turn and targeted students on the other side of the argument. Several times, pro-Israel students were interrupted by pro-Palestine students while speaking.

However, I would like to be optimistic. Those interruptions represented only a small minority of  students at the meeting, and most of them seemed to be well intentioned. More often than not, the interruptions were seeking some form of clarification, and more often than not, those interrupting attempted to use Parliamentary Procedure to make their interruptions.

In a conflict as controversial and deeply emotional as this, it is impossible to expect anyone to be perfect. On my side of the room, I know we were doing our best to hold back our emotions, to control our facial expressions and to respect all the speakers that stepped up that night. We called each other out on making faces, we sent messages to each other to stay strong and we actively did the best we could. And I am proud of that. But everyone fails sometimes and I’m sure our emotions and reactions on our faces exposed us from time to time. On the other side of the room, it appears that they were doing the best they could as well. For the most part, everyone in that room was doing all they could to show mutual respect for every student who spoke.

It’s really frustrating that a few students interrupted speakers repeatedly. However, in comparison with other schools — in comparison to what I was prepared for — I was extremely impressed. There was no intimidation. There was no attacking people purely for existing. And there was no long-standing disruption to the meeting procedure. Given the circumstances, I think that the vast majority of those 200 students in the room last night did everything they could to show mutual respect for one another.

Judaism teaches that debate and discussion are important, especially concerning a difficult topic. It teaches that we should listen with open minds and hearts, that we should show respect and that we should be kind to one another. It teaches that a debate can be successful even if no party changes their minds. Simply understanding the point of view on the other side of the table is a success.

I felt that a majority of the students in that room upheld those Jewish values the best that they could. We proved that we, as a campus community, are capable of having this difficult discussion. And, I’m excited to see where this discussion goes in the following weeks and months. I feel lucky to be on a campus where these discussions are possible.

For me, it’s really important that I do not blame the general student population for the frustrating vote last night. I singularly blame the senators who sat in that room, listened to our speeches and still voted for the resolution to go through. They do not represent the students that elected them, as evident by our petition, which gained over 850 signatures in under four days. I hope that next year’s senate listens to their constituents and exhibits the same kind of mutual respect that we all showed last night. And I hope that the small minority of students, especially the most outspoken ones, take a moment to reflect on last night and see how much more successful the others were with having such a difficult conversation.