Rose Asaf’s journey to becoming a BDS activist started with a “racist” teacher in high school, who she said had disagreements with her on everything except Israel.
She described the interactions as having prompted a long process of “unlearning Zionism” and everything she had been taught about the state.
“I understood my high school teacher’s ideology to be right-wing, racist, and all-around bigoted,” the American-Israeli student told Al Jazeera, adding: “Our politics are a reflection of our morals, so I realised that if I am in full agreement with a racist on something political, there must be something wrong with either him or me.”
After a period of research, Asaf came to the conclusion she had been “lied to” regarding Israel and that she had been a “progressive except [on] Palestine”.
“I felt that my Jewish community was doing a disservice by not telling the truth about what Israel is and what Israel is doing.
“It’s my responsibility to put myself on that front line.”
On Thursday, 21-year-old Asaf joined a group of students in presenting a resolution to New York University (NYU) Student Government Assembly, calling on the institution to sever ties with three companies they say are linked to abuses against Palestinians.
The motion accuses Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, and General Electric, of complicity in human rights abuses against Palestinians, and call on NYU to implement a socially responsible investment model.
Industrial machinery firm, Caterpillar, produces bulldozers used by the Israeli army, while Lockheed Martin and General Electric produce military hardware.
“As an NYU student, it hurts and shocks me that the university would continue to invest in companies that directly contribute to the human rights violations of my family and my people,” Palestinian student, Leen Dweik, wrote in a statement released by the activists.
The resolution has the support of 53 student groups, and 34 faculty endorsements.
Asaf said she spoke to more than 100 people in order to rally support for the motion and the majority were supportive.
But the move has also drawn criticism from pro-Israel and conservative groups.
Asaf said she had no knowledge of legal action against pro-Palestinian students this year but previous activism had led to calls by pro-Israel groups to have activist groups expelled from campus.
Asaf said the groups called on NYU to ban Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), accusing them of violating university statutes by creating a discriminatory atmosphere.
One complaint by the Zionist Organisation of America said students led by JVP and SJP had “committed themselves to shunning other NYU students simply because they support Israel”.
The resolution at NYU comes against a backdrop of state-level laws targeting the BDS campaign.
New York is one of 25 states to enact legislation against BDS and the state’s senate passed further measures in June, which would allow the state to deny public funds to any entity, including campus groups that support the movement.
The legislation targets publicly funded entities and although NYU is a private institution, it receives hundreds of millions of dollars in public grants.
Such punitive measures, if implemented, would be categorically unconstitutional according to Palestine Legal attorney, Radhika Sainath.
“The right to boycott is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and that means that no state can take away your right to engage in a political boycott,” she said.
“The Constitution is the highest law of the land here, which means it’s the final word on the matter so what you’re really seeing here is an attempt to take away the fundamental right of Americans to protest a policy that they feel violates human rights abuses by engaging in their right to boycott,” she added.
Sainath explained that boycotts were a commonly used method of protest in the US but a “double standard” arose when it came to those protesting violations of Palestinian rights.
“A state couldn’t say, I’m going to take away a contract with you because you’re a Democrat, that would be punishing you because of your political speech … that’s unconstitutional because it’s a punishment,” she said. “A boycott is political speech, it is expressive conduct.”
Sainath further argued that proponents of anti-BDS legislation in government were aware of the difficulty they would face in trying to implement any of the measures they have introduced, and no punitive action had been taken so far in New York, that she’s aware of.
We want this resolution to be an oppurtunity for NYU to not be on the wrong side of history with this issue
She pointed to two successful cases filed by the ACLU in Arizona and Kansas against anti-BDS legislation there. In Arizona, a federal court blocked the implementation of a law that required state contractors to certify that they would not participate in boycotts of Israel, and in Kansas the civil liberties group dropped its case when the state legislature amended a similar law.
Jack Saltzberg, of The Israel Group, which opposes the BDS movement, described the idea that anti-BDS laws infringed on freedom of speech at colleges and universities as “deceitful”.
“State anti-BDS laws deal with commerce and businesses, not individual rights or free speech,” he told Al Jazeera by email.
He argued further that anti-BDS laws in California, for example, had not stopped activists at insitutions there from voting to divest from companies doing business with Israel.
“The fact that none of those universities divested from Israel had nothing to do with the state laws or free speech, it was simply because their university governing boards did not agree to divest from Israel,” Saltzberg said.
‘Setting the groundwork’
At NYU, any decision to divest will also ultimately rest with the school’s governing board.
Thursday’s resolution is just the first step in a lengthy process that may not force any practical change in the university’s policies.
The resolution will first be put to the Student Government Assembly on December 6. If its members vote to pass the motion, it will then move to the university’s senate where the institution’s administrators, members of faculty, and deans, will vote on the resolution. If it passes there, the university’s Board of Trustees will decide on its implementation.
“We don’t know if NYU is going to divest this time,” Asaf said.
“But we need to set the groundwork because a vote like this has never happened at NYU. There’s never been a divestment vote of this nature that relates to Palestine.
“We want this resolution to be an oppurtunity for NYU to not be on the wrong side of history with this issue.”