Middle East

Princeton University students vote for uni to divest from Caterpillar, face smear campaign

Students at Princeton University voted on a pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)  referendum last week against Caterpillar for its complicity in Israeli occupation and the mass demolition of Palestinian homes.

A majority of votes were cast in favour of the referendum—52 per cent for and 47 per cent against—but the results have not been certified due to protest, claims of improper conduct and allegations of anti-Semitism by pro-Israel groups.

The referendum sponsored by the president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) asked if the university should “immediately halt usage of all Caterpillar machinery in all ongoing construction projects given the violent role that Caterpillar machinery has play in the mass demolition of Palestinian homes, the murder of Palestinians and other innocent people.”

READ: US college faculty backs pro-BDS motions

Caterpillar, says the referendum, has sold bulldozers to the Israeli occupation forces knowing they would be used to “unlawfully demolish homes and put civilians in danger.” The referendum said that since 1967, the Israeli army has destroyed more than 18,000 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). The role of Caterpillar machinery in the brutal death of US activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, was highlighted.

Rachel Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003, while she was staging a peaceful protest to protect the house of a Palestinian family from demolition [Saide Nur Taştan / Anadolu Agency]

Eric Periman, the author of the referendum and president of the PCP, mentioned the “handsome profit” made by Caterpillar through the sale of its products to Israel over the years. “As recently as 2001, court documents revealed that Caterpillar sold 50 of its D9 bulldozers to the state of Israel for the not-so-insignificant sum of $32.7 million” said Periman in the Princetonian, the daily university newspaper.

Despite their victory Israeli advocacy groups have rejected the results claiming that there had been improper conduct. Prominent right-wing Zionist advocacy groups are accused of a smear campaign against sponsors of the referendum which they followed up with misinformation following their defeat.

Several pro-Israel newspapers have reported that the referendum had failed due to a dispute raised by anti-Palestinian groups over the conduct of the vote. Using a bizarre argument, they have claimed that abstained votes should be counted as a no which would give them victory.

An article in the Princetonian said that the referendum had “met the threshold to be passed” and that the student body “should be of an understanding that the [election] was procedurally fair and sound.”

READ: UK Lawyers for Israel threatens legal action against UoL for City University’s vote to adopt BDS policy

Princeton’s undergraduate student government announced on Wednesday that it voided the result of the referendum and upheld the objection of pro-Israel groups over guidance on the function of abstention votes.

Speaking about the smear campaign, pro-Palestinian activists said that 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, said one member of PCP, “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.”

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