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A Divestment Referendum Is the Bare Minimum

By Elyse C. Goncalves
By Shraddha Joshi and Asmer A. Safi, Contributing Opinion Writers
Shraddha Joshi ’24 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Asmer A. Safi ’24 is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House. They are organizers with the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

On April 9, we — as members of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee — launched a petition for a student opinion referendum on divestment from “Israel’s Occupation of Palestine.”

The petition and language of the question were both initiated with the approval from the Harvard Undergraduate Association’s Election Commission and the Dean of Students Office.

In just three hours, we reached 195 signatures — the minimum number needed to trigger a referendum. According to the HUA Constitution, a referendum, once triggered, must be held within three weeks.

Yet, a day later, the HUA blocked this referendum.

Instead of commencing the signature verification process, as constitutionally mandated, the PSC was notified of an internal move within the HUA to form a problem solving team to solve a constitutional dispute on referendum policies.

Conveniently, all referenda have since been indefinitely postponed.

The decision to form the team came after an unrecognized organization — claiming to be called “Are Harvard Students, Students Against Hate?” — raised a racist, antisemitic petition parodying the PSC referendum. Instead of responding to the vitriol raised in the parody petition, the HUA moved to stall all referenda, leaving the student body — including peer HUA officers — blindsided.

The content of this petition, some of which directly seeks to disparage the PSC’s activism, is undoubtedly racist. The DSO and the HUA might claim we are the unfortunate victims of this “counter-petition” that mocks our plea for divestment. But, this implies that the inciteful stunt is comparable to a legitimate, administratively approved, and procedurally permitted call for a vote on divestment.

Permitting the petitioners of such problematic content to disrupt HUA procedure further erodes the little faith we had in the institution.

Referenda and their purview in the HUA Constitution are poorly defined. However, this is certainly not the first time students have voted in a referendum on a highly political topic, unrelated to student government policy.

Just last week, over 77 percent of undergraduate voters supported the creation of an “Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights” concentration at Harvard, putting their backing behind a highly political field grounded in a critical study of empire and diaspora. Additionally, over 92 percent of voters affirmed that Harvard should designate U.S. Federal Election Day a College-wide holiday.

Why now does the HUA suddenly reckon with its unclear referendum process — one that has previously always allowed for poll after poll?

It is no coincidence that the word “Palestine” reaching the ballot triggered the HUA’s sudden constitutional crisis. We are now waiting for a decision from a “Problem Solving Team” for a problem not big enough to address until “Palestine” came into the picture.

The denial of this vote is yet another example of the Palestine exception to free speech.

This repression is not new to us. However, the extent to which institutions are willing to establish bad precedent and twist democratic procedure to maintain such an exception is baffling.

The HUA cannot arbitrarily refuse its constituency the right to have its political voice heard — especially not when Harvard’s vulnerability to donor pressure and right-wing politicians has become clearly established.

On a campus where Palestinian and pro-Palestine students are left unprotected from harassment and cyber violence, their activism repressed, and grievances dismissed, a secure avenue for polling students on this issue is the bare minimum we demand.

In suddenly choosing to clamp down on political speech, the HUA is mirroring the same flimsy notions of “neutrality” that have been raised by Harvard’s administration. There is no “neutrality” when Harvard University has invested hundreds of millions in the violation of Palestinian rights.

Harvard and the HUA may have repressed the referendum on divestment for this semester, but the fight has only just begun.

As colleges across the country — and schools across Harvard’s own campus — embrace resolutions and referenda on divestment, the University is forced to reckon with the will of its own student body. Like it did with the apartheid regime in South Africa, Harvard will once more realize that doing business with a settler colonial apartheid state is not sustainable.

Harvard can continue to release more task forces, claiming to listen to student opinion through highly decentralized and lethargic conversations with administrative officials. Yet, it cannot expect us to tacitly accept these gestures as promises of safety — not when the University continues to invest in a perpetrator of genocide against Palestinians and fails to protect our communities from violence.

Shraddha Joshi ’24 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Asmer A. Safi ’24 is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House. They are organizers with the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee.

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