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USG declines to sponsor referendum on antisemitism

<h5>USG members discuss details of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.</h5>
<h6>Annie Rupertus / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
USG members discuss details of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
Annie Rupertus / The Daily Princetonian

The Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Senate debated putting forth a referendum to define and condemn antisemitism in its meeting on Sunday, Nov. 13. The referendum failed to gain sufficient support in the Senate and will not, at least in its current form, appear on the undergraduate student winter election ballot.

The proposal comes following a period of extended campus discussion — and sometimes controversy — around antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last spring, the undergraduate student body voted on a referendum introduced by then-president of Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) Eric Periman ’23, which some USG members argued might lead to a rise in antisemitic attacks. More recently, students have grappled with a FBI warning of a threat to synagogues in New Jersey, and the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) condemned PCP’s call for a boycott of the University-sponsored Israel Tiger Trek program.

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The proposed referendum this week employed a specific definition of antisemitism advanced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Many Senate members raised concerns about the way the definition addresses the state of Israel and Zionism, saying that it could potentially inhibit free speech. Ultimately, USG voted not to put forth the referendum as Senate-initiated.

Unlike most Senate meetings, this week’s session had dozens of community members present to observe proceedings and ask questions.

The referendum, brought forward by USG Treasurer Adam Hoffman ’23, was entitled “Resolution of the USG to Define and Condemn Antisemitism.” It aimed to pose the following question to the student body on the winter election ballot: “Shall the undergraduates call on the University, in a timely manner, to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism?”

The IHRA definition also lists 11 examples of antisemitism. The proposed language of the referendum referenced these examples without explicitly including them in the referendum text, saying “the purpose of this referendum is to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism and its examples.” This would have meant that if the referendum had appeared on an election ballot in its proposed form, it would have called for the adoption of the IHRA examples without directly providing them for voters.

Some USG members expressed concerns with regard to a particular example of antisemitism given under the IHRA definition, which describes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” as an expression of antisemitism.

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At the start of the USG meeting, Hoffman presented the referendum, citing rising anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence in the U.S. “Nationally, we’re seeing record levels of antisemitic incidents,” he stated.

“Jews don’t neatly fall into any protected class,” Hoffman said. “So this is the definition the Jewish community itself has rallied around to identify and combat antisemitism. It’s a consensus definition in the Jewish community.”

Hoffman shared that while the University itself does not currently employ an overarching definition of antisemitism, the CJL and Princeton’s Chabad both support the IHRA definition, and reported that based on meetings with administrators, he understands the definition to be “something that the University would believe in and is not opposed to.”

Following Hoffman’s remarks, the Senate spent the majority of the meeting discussing whether to sponsor the referendum as Senate-initiated. The USG Constitution allows for two types of referenda: Senate-initiated referenda, which must be approved by one-third of the Senate membership, or referenda initiated by a student petition.

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When asked if he would still pursue the referendum as a student petition, Hoffman said no, later expanding, “I don’t think it would be healthy for the Jewish community” to bring the referendum forward “as something the Senate decided not to initiate.”

Controversy over IHRA definition

According to the IHRA website, its definition has been adopted or endorsed by 38 United Nations member states, including the United States.

However, the definition has faced criticism, including from within the Jewish community. 

The self-identified “lead drafter” of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, published a December 2019 opinion article in The Guardian entitled, “I drafted the definition of antisemitism. Rightwing Jews are weaponizing it.”

The article responded to an “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism” issued by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019, which instructed executive agencies to consider the IHRA definition and its examples when enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the op-ed, Stern writes, “[The IHRA definition] was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished this week. This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”

Some critics of the IHRA definition alternately drafted the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), which positions itself as a response to the IHRA definition that “protect[s] a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine.” Current and former Princeton faculty members Natalie Zemon Davis, Richard Falk, Lital Levy, Peter Schäfer, and Michael Walzer endorsed the JDA. 

“First, I want to say that I condemn antisemitism; I think it’s USG’s role to firmly condemn antisemitism,” USG President Mayu Takeuchi ’23 said later in the meeting. “That said, I currently plan to abstain from this vote because I don’t feel like I have enough information to know whether or not putting this referendum forward would effectively push the University to adopt this definition.”

Takeuchi added that while Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun “has demonstrated an eagerness to collaborate with the CJL and other partners to run [antisemitism awareness] trainings [as proposed by the referendum],” she is not in charge of policy decisions regarding definitions like the IHRA definition, and that USG members “have not been able to have a full conversation about why the university has not adopted this definition yet” with Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter.

The text of the proposed Referendum Resolution called on the University to do the following: 

(1) “adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism in its training and relation to discrimination.” 
(2) “include updated statistics and discussion on antisemitism in the Annual Report on Bias at Princeton University and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Annual Report.”
(3) “incorporate the IHRA definition of antisemitism in the D&I [Diversity & Inclusion] Framework and online human resources.” 
(4) “add IHRA definition of antisemitism to the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity community education programming, including but not limited to the annual session on bias awareness, support resources, and reporting options to student leaders and the annual orientation programming.”

Hoffman expressed and reaffirmed throughout the meeting that the referendum is “not intended to stifle free speech” and would not prevent anyone from “protesting in any way.”

He added that the text intentionally does not include language referencing harassment in order to avoid interpretations of the referendum as prohibiting certain types of speech.

Still, many Senate members expressed concerns about potential, unintended consequences of the referendum on freedom of speech on campus. 

Hesitation around that example was initially raised by U-Councilor Judah Guggenheim ’25, who said the example about “self-determination” seemed to suggest “that any expression of anti-Zionism is inherently antisemitic, regardless of whether or not it involves other antisemitic tropes.”

“If our campus leaders, both student and professional, are being taught to treat any sort of expression of anti-Zionism as antisemitism, are you not concerned about the ability that that has to impact political discourse on campus, regardless of whether or not we may disagree and maybe strongly are upset by some of that anti-Zionist rhetoric?” Guggenheim asked Hoffman.

Senator Walker Penfield ’25 also expressed concerns, suggesting that “there are active groups on campus that could be or could feel targeted” by the example referencing self-determination.

Hoffman responded to Guggenheim’s question by stating that the denial of Jewish self-determination “is a call to deform part of what the Jewish religion is.”

Undergraduate Student Life Committee (USLC) Chair Avi Attar ’25 also spoke on the referendum, drawing a division between ideas of Zionism and Jewish self-determination as two separate concepts.

“You can say, ‘the Jewish people have a right to self determination’ just as any other ethnic group does, without making any claim about Israel,” he said.

Attar characterized the presentation of the referendum as an “incredible opportunity” for USG to reckon with Princeton’s fraught history of antisemitism, referencing the exclusion of Jewish people from admission into the University, the disproportionate rejection of Jewish students from eating clubs, and stories about eating clubs that used to serve oysters and shellfish at events in an apparent attempt to prevent Jewish people from joining. 

Though he expressed support for training around antisemitism, Guggenheim pushed back against the notion that references to Israel in the IHRA definition could be completely separated from Zionism, purporting that the “right to self determination of the Jewish people” is “intrinsically linked to the land of Israel.”

Senate members suggest clarifying referendum text

Multiple Senate members expressed that they would support the referendum if it included further clarification about Israel and Zionism in its text. 

“If you were to say that [the referendum] would have nothing to do with Israel, I would entirely back you on that,” Guggenheim said. He noted, however, that as the referendum stood, “it seems like it would stifle political speech on campus.”

Similarly, U-Councilor Stephen Daniels ’24 asked Hoffman of his willingness to adjust and add to the referendum text. 

“Would you be willing to add the language that this referendum in no way precludes voicing discussion or opinions regarding anti-Zionism, provided that the expression is itself not antisemitic — in other words, that anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic?” he asked.

Penfield and Senator Ned Dockery ’25 made similar suggestions about clarifying the referendum’s position towards anti-Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hoffman rejected suggestions to modify the referendum in these ways. “I think it’s an offensive notion to say whenever we condemn or call out antisemitism, what we need to do is qualify that,” he said. 

“I don’t want to start bringing this into the direction of, ‘let’s start talking about Israel,’” Hoffman added.

Hoffman previously served as vice president of Tigers for Israel.

IHRA beyond the bubble

Other questions and concerns about the referendum were brought up at various points in the meeting.

U-Councilor Daniel Shaw ’25 raised concerns that the IHRA definition “is overly broad for non-academic use,” referencing similar statements to those made by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He also noted that “the original author of the definition [has] also expressed concerns about its use in the context of college campuses.”

The ACLU published a letter in opposition to the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2018, a bill that references the IHRA definition adopted by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism of the Department of State.

The letter stated, “Unfortunately, the overbroad definition of anti-Semitism in this bill risks incorrectly equating constitutionally protected criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, making it likely that free speech will be chilled on campuses.”

Closer to Princeton, the IHRA definition has recently sparked controversy following its adoption by the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) on Thursday, Oct. 27. 

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Rutgers–New Brunswick released a statement opposing this adoption via a Nov. 14 Instagram post, writing that “[b]y directly associating criticisms of Israel with antisemitism, the IHRA definition seeks to silence advocates for Palestinian human rights and justice against Israeli apartheid.” 

Princeton Committee on Palestine recently encouraged students to attend a Nov. 18 Rutgers SJP panel on “divestment from Israeli apartheid at the university level.”

Senate declines to initiate Hoffman’s referendum

While Hoffman did not agree to make changes based on any of the aforementioned questions or concerns, he did remove a section of the referendum calling for the IHRA definition to be added to USG’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee Charter in response to a prior conversation with USG DEI Chair Braiden Aaronson ’25.

As discussion came to a close, Daniels asked about the feasibility of “put[ting] forth an alternative referendum.”

Kapoor responded that such a referendum “would have to be Senate-initiated” and Takeuchi added that any alternative would have to be submitted and voted on by Friday, Nov. 18, the referendum petition deadline. 

Following extended discussion, Senate members motioned for a voting period, though there was initial confusion around voting procedures for Senate-initiated referenda.

The USG Elections Handbook states that a referendum is considered to be Senate-initiated if the senate passes the resolution “by a 1/3 vote of the entire voting Senate membership.” 

USG Parliamentarian Kate Liu ’23 initially indicated that since abstentions do not count as “yes” or “no” votes, a singular senate member could decide the outcome of the vote should every other member choose to abstain.

However, after the Senate took a brief, unofficial recess to clarify voting procedures, Liu directed members to Appendix D of the USG Constitution, which states that a fractional vote “means at least that fraction of the total number of individuals who are voting members of the group.”

Therefore, the Senate ultimately concluded that one-third of the Senate’s voting membership — or nine people — would have to vote “yes” in order to pass the fractional vote required to sponsor a referendum, since votes about senate-initiated referenda consider the numerator of all members in favor, over a denominator that includes negations and abstentions.

After establishing these procedures, the Senate conducted a vote. Four members voted in favor of the Senate initiating the referendum, one opposed, and all others abstained. The votes are as follows:

In favor: Attar, Hoffman, U-Councilor Med Coulibaly ’25, and Sustainability Chair Audrey Zhang ’25

Opposed: Penfield

Abstaining: Aaronson, Senator Ellen Battaglia ’23, Senator Sean Bradley ’24, U-Councilor Amanda Branom ’25, Daniels, Academics Chair Austin Davis ’23, Dockery, U-Councilor Dillion Gallagher ’23, U-Councilor Uma Fox ’26, Guggenheim, U-Councilor Afzal Hussain ’25 (not present), Kapoor, U-Councilor Mariam Latif ’24 (not present), Social Chair Madison Linton ’24, U-Councilor Riley Martinez ’23, Shaw, Shutt, U-Councilor Aishwarya Swamidurai ’26, and Takeuchi.

Kapoor stated during the meeting that since the nine-vote threshold was not met, the vote did not pass.

Looking forward

In a post-meeting interview with the ‘Prince,’ Takeuchi affirmed that “the USG firmly condemns antisemitism.” Kapoor noted that while the Senate chose not to include the specific referendum as proposed by Hoffman on this winter election ballot, they are “working on other ideas and alternatives to address the same issues” around antisemitism.

Daniels told the ‘Prince’ he is “100 percent going to pursue” putting forth an alternative, related referendum proposal in the coming week. 

“I am fairly confident it will meet the burden necessary for the Senate to initiate it,” he said.

Daniels later conveyed in a message to the ‘Prince’ on Tuesday, Nov. 15 that, following further discussions about an alternative referendum, he thinks that “a resolution-based approach would be better.”

Other community members in attendance also shared their reactions to the discussion and the potential alternative referendum with the ‘Prince.’

Seth Kahn ’25, who attended the meeting as an observer, criticized the lack of transparency from USG about the referendum.

“I felt like USG did not share this information [about the referendum discussion] adequately with the student body,” he said in a message to the ‘Prince’ following the meeting. 

Max Hines ’25, another student observer of the meeting, told the ‘Prince’ he is “hoping the future referendum is clarifying,” as opposed to exclusionary, of the specific examples in the IHRA definition that relate to Israel.

Chabad Director Rabbi Eitan Webb, who was present at the meeting, wrote a message to the ‘Prince’ about his continued hope that the undergraduate student body addresses antisemitism on campus. 

Regarding potential alternative referenda, he wrote that he would be “happy to collaborate with anyone who wants to work on making intolerance intolerable,” Webb added, “I believe that [the IHRA definition] is a good definition.”

Following the meeting, Alexandra Orbuch ’25 published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles-based newspaper The Jewish Journal calling on “USG [to] reconsider its decision” and implement the IHRA definition.

“Judah Guggenheim’s remarks in no way represent the entirety of the Jewish voice on campus,” she wrote to the ‘Prince.’ The piece also appeared in The Princeton Tory on Monday, Nov. 14. Orbuch was not present at the meeting. 

Guggenheim wrote in a message to the ‘Prince,’ “I am a strong Zionist and a proud supporter of the State of Israel (and of a two-state solution).” He added that he is “currently working in collaboration with other USG and CJL [s]tudent [l]eaders on an alternative resolution” that “would not in any way limit political discourse.”

Hoffman did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the outcome of the meeting by the time of publication.

Other USG meeting agenda items

Though the Senate spent most of its meeting discussing the referendum, members also heard a President’s Report from Takeuchi in which she addressed progress around campus safety concerns. 

She reported that “administrators have recently decided to move forward with discussions” around where and how to expand security cameras on campus.

Writing to the ‘Prince,’ Kahn said he feared some of the proposed security measures. 

“I think increased lighting would be a welcome change for most students, but many campus members have faced securitization in their lives, and it’s important that the university engage people in conversations around increased surveillance,” he said.

Given that the meeting ran much longer than usual and some members had to leave due to other commitments, the rest of the agenda items for this week — which included a budget increase request for the upcoming Eco-Festival, a vote on a constitutional amendment to set expiration dates for ad hoc committees, and a presentation from the Ad Hoc Committee on Upperclassmen Dining Experience — were all moved to next week’s meeting.

USG Senate meetings are held in Betts Auditorium in the Architecture School at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons and are open to all.

According to an email from Takeuchi on Tuesday, Nov. 15, the Senate will hold a special meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 4:30 p.m., tentatively to be  held in Robertson 100. 

Annie Rupertus is a sophomore from Philadelphia, an assistant Data editor, and a staff News writer who covers USG for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections@dailyprincetonian.com.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article listed agenda items for the Nov. 16 special meeting. Post-publication, the ‘Prince’ became aware that the agenda had changed, and therefore removed the description of the agenda items.

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