Loyola University Chicago student president vetoes measure encouraging divestment from Israel

Loyola University Chicago's student government president vetoed a resolution that would have endorsed divestment from companies that do business in Israel.

On March 18, Loyola University Chicago's Unified Student Government Association (USGA) voted 26 to 0, with two abstentions, in favor of the measure "Divestment from Companies Profiting from the Occupation of the Palestinian Territory To ensure adherence to Loyola University Chicago's socially responsible investment policy."

A second vote, taken March 25, passed 12 to 10 with nine abstentions.

Then-USGA President Pedro Guerrero vetoed the resolution the following day. Guerroro's term ended shortly after the veto per standard procedures.

The divestment resolution put before Loyola's USGA was sponsored by student senators affiliated with the Loyola chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which, according to its website, "aims to struggle against human rights violations, aggression, war crimes, and genocide inflicted on the Palestinian people."  

SJP is affiliated with the larger Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, which calls for economic actions against Israel "until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights."

A growing number of institutions in the United States, including some mainline Protestant churches, have been debating the merits of divestment from Israel, which involves selling off investments in companies that profit from Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The World Council of Churches made divestment from Israel an official position.

Had the divestment resolution passed, it would have made Loyola's student body the first at a Catholic university to adopt the position.

But when Loyola's USGA passes a resolution, it does not mean the university will necessarily take action, let alone see the resolution.

"The USGA passes and sometimes does not pass a lot of resolutions. In fact, most go nowhere. They are deliberations of that body," university president Jesuit Fr. Michael J. Garanzini said. "Truth be told, I don't see them most of the time. This year -- since September -- I have seen a total of zero resolutions."

Garanzini said little would have resulted from the resolution.

"The USGA has no funds to invest. The university does, of course, and we would have completely ignored this resolution," Garanzini said. "For one thing, it is impossible for us to implement. Most of our endowment funds are in funds of funds, and finding out where they are is nearly impossible. However, we would not be interested in taking up this issue. It is one-sided, it is focused on one party in a complex international situation. It is felt as extremely unfair by our Jewish faculty, staff and students."

According to several statements from individuals on campus, SJP introduced the divestment measure quickly and without warning, not allowing much time for discussion.

"In this case, a small group of students with little notice or effort to educate others used the student government senate to advance an anti-Israel policy position," Loyola Provost John Pelissero said. "The action was harmful and divisive, creating a tense relationship between our Jewish and pro-Palestinian students."

The tension prompted the USGA to invite students to debate the merits of the resolution before the vote March 25.

Among the students invited to address the senate was Talia Sobol, who wrote in a column in the Loyola Phoenix, the student newspaper, that "pro-Israel students were neither afforded the opportunity to debate the resolution, or be informed of the [initial] vote."

"I'm happy that we changed hearts and minds. I believe the veto demonstrates the complexity of this issue," Sobol said.

In a statement announcing his veto of the resolution, Guerrero cited his concern that the "diversity of thought on campus was not taken into consideration."

"I urge that students utilize this as an opportunity to unite; if the mission of this piece is to hold our university accountable to socially responsible investing, we must include a variety of situations in which this has not occurred," Guerrero said.

Regarding Guerrero's decision to veto the measure, Garanzini said he did not see a difficult choice, citing the lack of an "absolute majority" in the second vote, saying, "I think that is why it was easy for the president to veto it."

Following the veto, SJP wrote on its blog that its group was "put through obstacles that no other group or organization would be forced to go through" and criticized Guerrero for taking closed meetings with the Jewish United Fund, a group SJP said is "notorious for harassing and spying on students who advocate for Palestinian human rights."

In recent years, divestment has been a contentious issue on campuses across the country. In 2012, students at University of California, Irvine passed a measure recommending that the university divest from companies making profits in Israel, with the University of California, Berkeley student senate doing the same in 2013. Late last month, student leaders at the University of Michigan rejected a divestment resolution with a 25-9 vote following a weeklong sit-in and hours of debate.

Garanzini said his institution is in favor of such debate, but said Loyola University Chicago will not choose a side in "a complex international situation."

"The university distanced itself from this, saying the USGA can take all the stands it wants on Palestine and Israel," Garanzini said. "But the university is neutral and in favor of dialogue, which is what we urged the students to do and apparently they did over the last two weeks."

While Garanzini is pleased to see his campus engaging in social and political issues, he echoed both Sobol and Guerrero's views that the divestment matter was not presented in a manner that allowed the entire university community the necessary time to reflect.

"We want students engaged in world affairs, and I am happy they are," Garanzini said. "Unlike the U.N. and other bodies that do, however, there was not much going on behind the scenes and [in] the corridors until they blindsided the Jewish students with this resolution. A great lesson learned."

"I continue to know and believe that we must facilitate a dialogue among students of differing points of view and that the harmful effects of the student resolution remain in our campus community," Pelissero said. "Our campus ministry and dean of students are taking the lead in promoting dialogue, understanding and healing. That is what should occur on a college campus."

[Paul DeCamp is a freelance writer based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter: @decamp_paul.]

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