This spring, I proposed a student referendum in my university’s undergraduate student government elections. The referendum was very simple. He asked my school, Princeton University, to boycott the Caterpillar construction company, given the violent role Caterpillar machines have played in the mass demolition of Palestinian homes. I proposed the referendum on behalf of the group I lead on campus, known as the Princeton Committee on Palestine. After collecting the signatures needed to get the ballot referendum done (10% of the student body), we were incredibly excited to start campaigning on campus and explaining to students what we stood for and why we were advocating for a boycott of Caterpillar.
Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity.
After it became clear that our referendum was going to be voted on by the undergraduate student body, online ads on Facebook and Instagram began flooding students’ social media feeds. The ads urged readers to “stop anti-Semitism in Princeton” and “demand the removal of the racist referendum targeting Jewish students in Princeton.”
The ads were sponsored by national pro-Israel organizations, including the Israel War Room and Alumni for Campus Equity. It soon became clear that our referendum was receiving a lot of attention from domestic pro-Israel groups, who were prepared to do everything in their power to demonize our Caterpillar boycott movement. All of this despite the fact that our referendum was supported by a wide range of student groups, including Students for Abolition and Reform of Prison Education, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, the Muslim Students Association and many others. The narrative that somehow our pro-Palestine organization was inherently anti-Semitic was spreading everywhere.
Soon our school newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, reported that these outside groups had spent well over $1,000 to launch bad faith attacks on our referendum. It was clear that they wouldn’t stop until they convinced every student at Princeton that anyone supporting our referendum was somehow endangering Jewish students. Unfortunately for them, Princeton students are not lacking in critical thinking. Through a massive grassroots campaign focused on face-to-face conversations and intense campus organizing, our past referendum successfully with the majority of student votes. The forces that opposed us had failed, and they were incredibly unhappy about it.
Immediately after the successful adoption of the Caterpillar referendum, a call was filed against the election results by members of the student opposition group. This group cited a miscommunication that took place between the undergraduate elections chief and a member of the opposition party, which dealt with the process by which abstentions would be counted in the final vote tally. This appeal resulted in a special meeting of undergraduate student government to vote on the appeal. Although the appeal was approved, the student government nonetheless affirmed that our referendum had been successfully passed in accordance with the existing referendum electoral guidelines. Our victory was validated once again.
Yet what followed was even more shocking. Almost immediately after this certification, new online advertisements started popping up on social media claiming (incorrectly) that the Caterpillar referendum didn’t pass. More worryingly, the chief of undergraduate elections as well as members of the undergraduate student senate who had voted on the appeal began to receive death threats and online harassment. The chief election officer – himself a sophomore – even had his phone number leaked publicly. This led the university administration to intervene to protect student safety by temporarily disabling the website that displays the personal information of members of the undergraduate student government. Even on a personal level, I have received many hateful emails sent straight to my college inbox, due to my role in the Caterpillar Referendum Proposal.
These events paint a horrifying picture of the oppressive and often dangerous state of pro-Palestine organizing on university campuses. Discuss human rights violations committed against Every day, Palestinians should not be the subject of personal and well-funded attacks by domestic groups against students. That an undergraduate referendum at a university could trigger such an incredible reaction and national attention from pro-Israel forces reflects the deep-rooted pro-Israel sentiment lurking in our American institutions. In order to find peace and justice for the Palestinians, it is extremely important that we can openly discuss and debate the issue without fear of reprisals or reprisals.
Eric Periman is a junior at Princeton University, studying in the School of Public and International Affairs. He is chairman of the Princeton Committee on Palestine.