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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


January 29, 2016  RSS feed
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USF student Senate divestment vote rocks Jewish community, spurs funding pledges

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

Shock waves reverberated through the local Jewish community and beyond after the University of South Florida student Senate approved a resolution backed by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) that called for the USF Foundation to divest from companies the SJP asserts are complicit with Israel in violating the human rights of Palestinians.

SJP had failed three times in 2014 and 2015 in its push for the Foundation to divest, and though the Jan. 19 vote appeared to be a victory, the USF Foundation Investment Committee quickly issued a statement saying it “will not divest investments or alter the investment policy or process based on requests from individuals or groups,” according to the USF student newspaper, The Oracle.

A week later, on Jan. 26, the Student Body president and vice-president vetoed the Student Senate measure, which had passed 32- 12 with four abstentions, saying interjecting the topic into student government “serves only to divide the Student Body.”

Indeed, the issue raised anxiety within the campus Jewish community and local Jewish community – which pledged financial support – plus drew the attention of national pro-Israel groups with one email subject line: “Florida University becomes ‘ground zero’ for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Battle.”

Soon after the student government vote, Hillels of the Suncoast Rabbi Ed Rosenthal roundly criticized the action in an email blast, saying it was an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic resolution by the student Senate, which was “hi-jacked by a group of SJP students.”

While for many in the Jewish community the BDS movement against Israel is abstract, “for those of us on campus, it is a daily battle,” he wrote.

The BDS movement calls for boycotting Israeli products, academics and cultural leaders, divesting from investments in companies that support Israel’s military and sanctions for what movement leaders say are human rights violations by Israel against Palestinians.

Rabbi Rosenthal called the vote in the student Senate a public relations victory for SJP but of little consequence, since the USF Foundation, which controls $418 million in endowment investments, had rejected SJP supported petitions in the past and was unlikely to consider it again.

Soon after that, the USF Foundation Investment Committee confirmed the resolution would not change its policy.

“They (SJP) won a battle, but not the war,” Rabbi Rosenthal said.

Following the veto, he declined to comment.

But the issue played out in dramatic fashion over the past couple of weeks, beginning with what Rabbi Rosenthal termed a “stealth move of submitting the resolution over the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.”

Nevertheless, he said more than 50 students who support Israel attended the Jan. 19 student government meeting.

The pro-Israel students wore T-shirts that read:

• “BDS = Anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is not a USF Value”

• “B.igotry D.ouble S.tandards”

• “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, You’re talking Anti-Semitism” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The rabbi told the Jewish Press that due to a bad decision by a student government chair, the pro-Israel students were not allowed to speak in opposition to the resolution.

Some students wore tape over their mouths and the Hillel email quoted one USF senior as saying, “I would have never thought I would feel as exhausted, betrayed and silenced as I did during last night’s USF Student Senate meeting. My eyes were opened to the terrifying reality that anti-Semitism exists …”

Later, Rabbi Rosenthal sent out another email to make clear he does not believe the Senate’s actions reflected the atmosphere on campus. “This resolution does not reflect in any way the values of the University Administration, the vast majority of USF faculty and staff, nor the vast majority of USF students. This resolution does not reflect the values of USF of mutual respect, inclusivity and pluralism.”

The student government action, however, spurred immediate reaction by the organized Jewish community in the Tampa Bay area.

The Tampa JCC & Federation board voted two days later to allocate $25,000 to help Rabbi Rosenthal address challenges presented by the BDS movement aimed at Israel.

In announcing the $25,000 allocation to USF Hillel, Jack Ross, speaking on behalf of the Tampa JCC & Federation, said that a subcommittee of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which includes several USF faculty members and one USF student, will be working with Rabbi Rosenthal to meet the challenges of the BDS movement on campus.

The Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties also reacted, planning to have USF students solicit donations earmarked for Suncoast Hillels when they make calls as part of the Federation’s Super Sunday, which raises funds for its Annual Campaign. The Pinellas/Pasco Federation will also offer an undetermined amount of funding for Rabbi Rosenthal to train students in how to respond to those arguing in favor of BDS, Federation Executive Director Emilie Socash said.

After the student Senate approved the resolution, Rabbi Rosenthal also appealed in an email for donations to Hillel to help fight the BDS efforts on campus and the well-funded Students for Justice in Palestine group.

But asked if parents of Jewish students should be concerned there is an atmosphere of anti-Semitism on campus, he told the Jewish Press “no,” reiterating that the vote, “does not reflect values of the school or administration. Students need to recognize that some students used a non-democratic means to achieve a democratic objective. It means students need to get involved.”

The rabbi pointed out “the wonderfully robust relationship between USF and Israel” including academic partnerships, study abroad programs, and USF Medical School’s Center for Advanced Medical Learning & Simulation that uses cutting-edge Israeli technology.

Two national organizations that took note of the student Senate vote were Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN), a Nashville-based organization with a mission to educate Christians on their responsibility to stand with Israel and against anti- Semitism, and StandWithUs, a 14-year-old international nonprofit that supports people who want to educate their campuses and communities about Israel.

StandWithUs congratulated the Student Body president for vetoing the resolution and said, “This bigoted resolution is part of the larger global boycott campaign against Israel, which seeks to eliminate the Jewish state and violate the rights of the Jewish people to self-determination.”

PJTN chairman Stanley Tate of Miami, called the resolution a “blatant act of anti-Semitism and a disgrace to the prestigious reputation of the Florida university system.” He added, “This BDS effort seeks to do one thing, intimidate Jewish and Christian Zionist students across the state. That is morally reprehensible and completely unacceptable.”

Tate was instrumental in the early development of the Florida Prepaid College Program, where he served as chairman from 1987 to 2005.

“It’s time to remove anti-Semitic groups like SJP from college campuses,” said PJTN’s President Laurie Cardoza-Moore.

The PJTN’s response to the resolution vote called SJP “an anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian college student activism organization with ties to Muslim Brotherhood terrorist groups.”

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