Letter to the Editor: Democracy on and off campus

Elliot Reichert

As a Northwestern alumnus and a current employee of the University, I have watched the debate surrounding a proposed divestment from the Israeli occupation closely but silently. I have opinions on the issue, but because I am no longer a student, I understand that it is not my place to become directly involved in a debate taking place among the undergraduate population. The Associated Student Government represents the student body, and I am no longer a part of that community.

Nonetheless, I have been impressed by the level of commitment on both sides, as well as the intensity of the discussion on this complex and emotionally charged issue. Since long before my time as a student, Northwestern has not had a reputation as a site of political discourse or action. For this recent and noticeable elevation in campus conversation, credit is largely due to the student organizers of NUDivest, whose bravery in challenging the political status quo on campus sparked the heated debates that we have witnessed this year. It is fair to say that we would not be discussing this issue at all had NUDivest not taken action by calling for divestment. There is a great irony in the dismissive rhetoric of the anti-divestment NU Coalition for Peace, which purported to champion dialogue but did not appreciate that the tangible actions embedded in NUDivest’s call achieved exactly the dialogue that NU Coalition for Peace claims to value.

Considering this contradiction, it was with great chagrin that I read “Divestment without democracy,” a letter to the editor written by two alumni who aimed to undermine the recent ASG vote in favor of divestment. Their argument was simple: The vote does not reflect the opinion of the student body because the voting was conducted in secret. Never mind that the resolution passed because the secret ballot means constituents cannot hold their representatives accountable for their votes, the letter argued. Calling the ASG “fundamentally undemocratic,” the alumni cited the United States Congress and the Israeli Knesset as sites of true democracy. Perhaps the authors have not heard the recent news that the Knesset voted overwhelmingly in favor of banning the re-election candidacy of Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian woman and a member of the governing body, in response to her criticism of the Israeli occupation. Locally, Mondoweiss has reported on leaked emails that demonstrate influential involvement in opposing NUDivest by pro-Israel lobbies and the Israeli consulate. How does the influence of these powerful organizations of non-students affect the student-centered democratic process on campus?

Despite these efforts by non-student organizations to influence student opinion and policy at NU, the resolution passed. If it had to pass in secret, this is because the representatives felt threatened for expressing their opinions. Clearly, NU is not yet a safe space for political discourse. Acknowledging this, we should reflect thoughtfully on the reasons why even student government representatives feel unsafe in representing their constituents’ calls to challenge the status quo.

Elliot Reichert (Weinberg ’10)