Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Jewish Currents is constantly getting quotes and scooplets from our network of sources, and every Tuesday, we release small stories exclusive to our newsletter subscribers in emails like this one. In addition to original reporting, the Tuesday News Bulletin serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.
If you have more stories or tips, you can reach Isaac Scher at email@example.com.
A bulldozer operates at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, August 31st, 2010.
April 19th, 2022
(note: Senior Reporter Alex Kane is on parental leave; this is a guest post from Jewish Currents contributor Isaac Scher)
At Princeton University last week, undergraduates voted on a referendum to boycott Caterpillar, a manufacturer of machinery used by the Israeli government. A majority of votes were cast in favor of the referendum—52% to 47% against—but the results have not been certified.
Instead, an opposition bloc has stalled the process, claiming that the election was conducted improperly and calling for the vote to be tossed. National Israel-advocacy groups have aligned themselves with the opposition effort, first by making ad buys on Facebook in the lead-up to the vote, and afterward by claiming incorrectly that the referendum had failed. In the national and international media, coverage of the referendum has either pushed the falsehood that the referendum failed, or obscured the victorious vote by describing it as a “debate.” The vote has become a lightning rod for Israel-advocacy groups and ideologically aligned media outlets, who have used smear campaigns and misinformation to shape campus politics from without.
Referendum Question No. 3, sponsored by the president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP), seeks the expulsion of “all Caterpillar machinery” from the university’s many construction sites—including a quad, a campus extension, and a new art museum. Caterpillar’s equipment, the referendum says, has been used by the Israeli government for “the mass demolition of Palestinian homes, [and] the murder of Palestinians and other innocent people,” like the American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza in 2003. Among its stipulations are the renegotiation or cancellation of university business with contractors who use the machinery, and a prohibition on the school’s future use of it.
The school’s paper of record, The Daily Princetonian, reported that the advocacy groups Israel War Room (IWR) and Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) spent at least $1,100 on Facebook advertisements challenging the referendum in the weeks before voting began on April 11th. IWR, whose self-styled mission is to “fact check lies and give context to expose misleading narratives about Israel,” described the referendum as “racist” in an ad. ACF, an organization focused on Israel on campus, said in one of its ads, “Jewish Students are at risk at Princeton University. Stop ANTISEMITISM at Princeton.” ACF also circulated a petition on Facebook condemning “a nefarious resolution that would foment antisemitism and threaten Jewish students.” The petition called on Princeton to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which deems some criticism of Israel antisemitic. According to tax filings, ACF is a project of StandWithUs, a prominent right-wing advocacy group focused primarily on campus BDS efforts.
When voting ended on April 13th, students opposing the referendum mounted their challenge. Myles McKnight, president of the conservative Open Campus Coalition, told Jewish Currents that his objection, the first delivered to leaders of student government, turns on what he described as “misinformation” spread before the voting period began. “The chief elections manager, the highest ranking individual of the Undergraduate Student Government, misinformed the opposition before the campaign period as to how abstentions would be handled,” McKnight said. On March 28th, elections manager Brian Li told the president of Tigers for Israel, Jared Stone, that abstentions would count toward the voting total, raising the threshold for the referendum to succeed. On April 13th, hours after voting ended, Li rescinded his guidance and affirmed to Stone that abstentions are excluded from the final tally, citing the student government constitution. (Li did not respond to a press inquiry.)
McKnight and Stone claim that Li’s miscommunication had a material impact on the opposition’s strategy, and they want the vote thrown out. According to McKnight, the student government should “make explicitly clear that the referendum neither passes nor fails without declaring a victor or a failing party.” Any final decision on the vote, he said, “would be horribly unfair given that the campaign was conducted on the terms of misinformation.” Stone, a leader of the referendum’s opposition, told Jewish Currents that he and his allies had urged voters to abstain directly because of Li’s guidance. He said the opposition promoted abstentions “to be empathetic to students who did not want to take a firm stance,” while still earning “votes favorable for the opposition.” (On the Instagram of Stone’s organization, Tigers for Israel, there are no mentions of abstentions, but seven different posts urging students to “vote no” on the referendum. Similar posters appeared around the campus.)
Harshini Abbaraju, a member of the PCP, told Jewish Currents that the opposition’s challenge to the result was presented in “bad faith,” but it has become fodder for right-leaning media outlets and Israel-advocacy groups, which have used it for their own misinformation. StopAntisemitism.org, a right-wing monitoring group that routinely labels Palestine advocates antisemitic, claimed victory and explicitly accused the election manager of “trying to throw out all the absentee votes,” according to a screenshot of a deleted Instagram post reviewed by Jewish Currents. The Times of Israel reported that students “rejected an anti-Israel referendum,” as did Jewish Insider and B’nai B’rith. The fracas has gained enough momentum that the Academic Engagement Network, an Israel-advocacy group focused on Israel in academia, condemned the referendum for its “unbridled hatred of Israel.” Among its board members is Deborah Lipstadt, the newly confirmed US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism.
As is common in campus politics, a successful referendum will function only as a recommendation to the university’s administrators. “We hope to use it as a tool for starting a dialogue with them,” Eric Periman, the author of the referendum and president of the PCP, told Jewish Currents. “We need the cooperation of the administration in order to chart a plan to boycott Caterpillar.”
With enough advocacy against the plan, however, the referendum may not be brought to the administration. Since voting ended, IWR has purchased another $800 at minimum in Facebook ads, wrongly announcing the defeat of the referendum to more than 100,000 followers, the Princetonian reported. “The Princeton University referendum question targeting Israel and Caterpillar equipment has been defeated,” the ad said. “Thank you to all the students who rejected the hateful BDS-affiliated measure.”
Palestine activists at Princeton have frequently been subject to attacks from Israel advocacy groups. In the past, members of the PCP “have had to take out no-contact orders from the university because of the level of harassment” from students who support Israel, Abbaraju said. This time, the opposition, media outlets, and outside advocacy groups have “steered the narrative into this murky area where anti-Zionism is antisemitism, maligning people, including Jewish progressives, as hateful bigots.” Proponents of Israel, she said, “can’t believe that the tides have been turning.” Periman agreed. “The other side spent thousands of dollars on the campaign,” he said. “We didn’t spend a single dollar. We spoke with people one-on-one, and that’s how we won.”
On April 15th, Israeli security forces raided the Aqsa Mosque, a holy site in occupied East Jerusalem, injuring dozens of Palestinians and arresting several hundred others. In the last several weeks, Palestinians across the country have protested against Israeli colonization and occupation.
As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.
Earlier today, the United Nations Security Council convened to discuss Israeli and Palestinian violence in Jerusalem. Israel has reacted swiftly to a string of Palestinian attacks in late March and early April, carrying out West Bank raids, killing 17 Palestinian civilians, and detaining hundreds more. The violence has occurred during the month of Ramadan, which usually sees increased Palestinian travel to Al-Aqsa mosque, a holy site in occupied East Jerusalem. The Israeli government has restricted Palestinian traffic to the site, which Israeli security forces have raided over the past week, attacking worshipers. Jordan, the mosque’s administrator, reportedly requested the UN meeting. Turkish and Emirati diplomats have condemned the Israeli violence.
Also today, Axios reported that senior State Department officials are traveling to the Middle East for emergency meetings with Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Yael Lempert and Deputy Assistant Secretary Hady Amr are expected to arrive on Wednesday. Ahead of the State Department’s meetings, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urging de-escalation. In conversation with Blinken, Lapid described Israel’s violent response to Palestinian “riots” as “responsible and measured.”
Yesterday, in response to Israeli violence in Jerusalem, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket into Israel, which was intercepted by the Israeli military’s Iron Dome missile system. The Israeli military struck back, bombing several targets, including one of Hamas’s weapon depots. “The IDF considers Hamas responsible for what unfolds in the Gaza Strip,” said a military spokesman, seemingly referring to the Israeli bombings. “The Zionist bombing of some empty sites [is] a failed attempt to prevent our Palestinian people from defending the city of Jerusalem,” said a Hamas spokesperson.
Over the weekend, the Israeli government lifted its “curfew” in the West Bank and Gaza, imposed at the beginning of Passover, Haaretz reported. The government restricted Palestinian movement order from Friday at 4 pm to midnight Saturday. Such restrictions are typical during Jewish holidays and during periods of extended violence. After a Palestinian man from the West Bank city of Jenin killed two Israelis in Tel Aviv on April 7th, the Israeli government sanctioned the entire city, revoking many residents’ travel permits. Israel lifted the sanctions last week.
Last week, the White House Passover seder, hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris, served wine from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank—which, like all such settlements, is illegal under international law. Herbie Ziskend, a senior advisor to Harris, said, “The wine served at the Seder was in no way intended to be an expression of policy.” The wine was made by Psagot, a company in an eponymous settlement near Ramallah. In 2015, the European Union required that Israeli manufacturers in the West Bank label their products accordingly. Four years later, when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decried the EU ruling and declared that settlements “are not per se illegal,” Psagot named a wine after him.