Pro-Israel lobbyists continue to pressure student leaders
Last month, I received an email soliciting a free trip to Israel by Jewish National Fund (JNF) via their flagship “Caravan for Democracy” program. I was contacted alongside a handful of other senators in DePaul University’s Student Government Association (SGA) to attend a 10-day all-expenses paid trip to immerse ourselves in Israel’s “diverse democracy.”
Despite the 4.5 million Palestinians currently living without the right to vote under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip –and the thousands of ballots cast in illegal Israeli settlements (UN Security Council Resolution 446) during parliamentary elections–pro-Israel lobbyists continue to mischaracterize Israel as the “only democracy” in the Middle-east in order to detract from the ongoing human rights abuses occurring by the Israeli government. Lobbyists organizations characterize trips to Israel as “cultural” and “civic” in nature as a means to disguise from their inherent political intent.
Offering free trips to Israel by pro-Israel lobbyist organizations should be recognized for their clear, political purposes. If Exxon or British Petroleum (BP) began offering free trips to oil-rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to student governments which have passed successful fossil fuel divestment measures, this kind of bribery would be considered unacceptable. However, attempts by pro-Israel lobbyists to “buy” support of student governments are not currently met with any concern from (and sometimes encouraged by) university administration.
The “Caravan for Democracy” program specifically calls on students who serve in significant leadership positions of political, religious, cultural and/or educational groups on campus to apply. In many instances, these free trips to Israel encourage student leaders to “apply what they learned” upon returning to campus. This is reflective of the pro-Israel lobby’s continued attempts to sweep away student governments and deter grass-root Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) organizing on college campuses.
As students operating in solidarity with Palestine continue to gain major BDS victories on a growing number of college campuses (three major Chicago universities passing divestment measures in the past year, DePaul being one of them), off-campus pro-Israel lobbyists have placed mounting pressure on student representatives of these campuses to attend free, all-expenses paid trips to Israel, or attend 1-on-1 meetings with field representatives.
I witnessed an instance of the later case during my time in DePaul’s Student Government Association. I, alongside a handful of other senators, advocated for further recognition from university administration following the passage of the DePaul Divest referendum. However, we were met with serious opposition from other members of student government, including the President and Vice-President of student government. Instead of the student representatives voicing student interests and upholding the democratic process, senior members of student government were devoted to impede any efforts to investigate our university investments from corporations cited in the DePaul Divest referendum.
It was not until after I resigned from student government was I made aware the President and Vice-President previously met with local representatives of American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during the summer following the passage of DePaul Divest.
Instances such as this reflect ongoing efforts by pro-Israel lobbyists to pressure student leaders to side against growing BDS efforts on campus. However, this is problematic. If college campuses are supposedly “beacons of light,” as many university educators argue, what implications are there if these spaces are no longer safe from manipulation by outside political agendas? The lobbying tactics by well-funded, pro-Israel lobbyists of student leaders on campus should demand greater concern and condemnation from university administrators.