By Clare Maxwell and Neva Newcombe
On April 27th the constituency of the Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA) voted to endorse the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and Apartheid Free Zones (AFZ) movements, both of which are rooted in solidarity with Palestinian civil society, and propose nonviolent, grassroots action against businesses, organizations and individuals involved in human rights abuses against Palestinians. Despite the heated debate that preceded it, the process of the vote seemed clear cut, but instead it led to unprecedented interventions into GISA processes from both the administration and a diplomatic mission. For some, these actions feel like a threat to both GISA’s sovereignty, and its mandate to collectively endorse social movements in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The vote was one of eight during the 2020-2021 academic year that offered students the chance to voice their opinions on social movements and human rights concerns. However, the BDS vote had the highest turnout out of any GISA vote in the 2020-2021 academic year, with 43.6% of the student body voting; 73% endorsed the BDS movement, while 77.1% endorsed the AFZ movement. This was a significantly higher turnout than GISA has seen on other such votes, such as the so-called “Burka ban”, the anti-immigration initiative, or even the Fall 2020 GISA general elections.
Coincidentally, also on April 27th, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” which laid out detailed accusations against the Israeli Government of crimes against humanity. The GISA vote and the Human Rights Watch report were not connected, except for the fact that they both represent a slow but persistent change in how international institutions understand and categorize the situation in Palestine and Israel. The pressure wrought by this changing understanding of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land may offer one explanation as to why, on May 7th, a representative of the Israeli Embassy in Bern contacted Alexa Burk, who was at that point the President of GISA. In an email which was copied to IHEID director Marie Laure Salles, an embassy spokesman accused Burk, a third-year history PhD student, of misunderstanding Israel-Palestine relations, and denying Israel’s right to exist. In the email an embassy representative said the embassy was “displeased” to find out that the student body endorsed BDS and the AFZ movement, and suggested that “your decision be reverted.” In a move that may violate Swiss anti-defamation laws, the spokesman also accused Burk, who is Jewish, of anti-Semitism.
The increasing pressure on the Israeli government over human rights and international law violations may offer a partial explanation as to why a diplomatic mission took exceptional steps to condemn GISA, but it doesn’t explain the reasons why the vote encountered friction closer to home. In the days leading up to the vote, Director Marie Laure Salles contacted Burk personally, and later other members of the 2020-2021 GISA board, urging them to reconsider the vote, citing anonymous reports that the vote caused “fragmentation and polarization of the student body”. In an interview with Burk, she remarked that these communications were very discouraging, saying “it was like [the Directrice] was trying to get us to not do the vote.” TGP’s reporting shows that this is the first time a director at the Institute has made such a direct intervention in GISA’s democratic processes, departing from a precedent of referring student complaints about GISA back to the Board. The vote went ahead as scheduled, and while the Directrice later acknowledged both the validity of the vote and the voting process, it is clear from TGP reporting that she made an unprecedented attempt to alter the democratic processes of GISA.
Burk, along with the new GISA board, found this targeting to be unwarranted, and have reiterated that they held the BDS and AFZ votes because of their mandate to regularize student body endorsements for human rights movements, not because of their personal political stances. According to the 2020-2021 GISA board, they were approached by students asking to address the issue of BDS who felt that there was a culture of silence around Palestinian solidarity and academic research. No individual student or group of students was willing to collect signatures for a vote, as they feared professional or academic backlash over their support for Palestine. Previous GISA boards do not have a record of debating a possible BDS vote, but meeting notes show that BDS was a topic on the agenda of GISA 2020-2021 meetings since at least July 2020, when it was placed on the agenda by the Board who had heard from the aforementioned students, and students who have been at the institute for 3 or more years have confirmed that while the issue was brought up in the past, they did not feel safe to launch such an endorsement vote on their own. By April 2021, the Board decided to take the vote to the student body, after multiple anonymous requests for action were brought forward by concerned students.
The vote appeared to be a success, both in high levels of engagement before and during the vote, and in demonstrating the efficacy of GISA voting procedures on social movements, which were put in place in response to student demand during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. As an additional precaution to avoid any controversy, the board used both means available to call a student vote, as the BDS and AFZ votes were brought forward by both the Board, and by a signature drive of over 50 students. As for the content of the vote, GISA has noted that the Swiss government does not consider either BDS of AFZ movements to be anti-Semitic; the movements are nonviolent, and they explicitly state that their goals is to defend human rights and pressure the Israeli government to comply with international law.
Other votes and solidarity statements passed by GISA, such as the #StopAsianHate campaign, or a declaration of solidarity with Indian Farmer Protests, have been largely accepted by the student body and the university without controversy, but the effects of the BDS and AFZ votes have swirled in the air for weeks. On May 21st, a representative of the Israeli Embassy met with Marie-Laure Salles to discuss the vote and the email sent to Alexa Burk. No student representatives were present at the meeting, but the director commented that the meeting “was productive and allowed to close the case,” and that the embassy was “reassured” by the Directrice’s confirmation that the vote was democratic but represented only the student body, rather than the institution of IHEID. The Israeli Embassy has not responded to multiple requests from The Graduate Press for comment.
The Graduate Press has also been unable to find evidence of previous cases where Israeli diplomats directly contacted a Swiss university, student body, or other organization not affiliated with a diplomatic mission to address a BDS or AFZ endorsement. While there has been occasional pressure on the Institute from other embassies, such as the case in 2015 when the Chinese ambassador raised a public objection to a panel event featuring the Dalai Lama, such incidents have been few and far between. Thus, many questions remain, including how the vote came across the embassy’s radar, and why the embassy chose to level accusations against one particular student, rather than the Student Association as a whole.
This is not the first time that the consequences of the Israeli occupation of Palestine have reached the Institute. Tarek abu Matar, a Palestinian student from the West Bank who was enrolled to start a Masters of Anthropology and Sociology, was detained, tortured, and imprisoned in 2019. Between the time of the vote and the Directrice’s meeting with the Israeli embassy, Khaled Anabtawi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a third year PhD student in Anthropology and Sociology, was arrested on May 11th during a nonviolent demonstration against the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an incident to which the administration has been devoting some attention and resources. Additionally, Professor Ricardo Bocco, a long term scholar of humanitarian intervention and peacebuilding in Palestine and Israel, has reportedly been defamed in the Israeli media for his research, and has faced calls to step down from his position. The previous administration, Professor Bocco reported, approached these issues through cooperation with the Swiss foreign ministry, and did not directly engage with the embassy in Bern.
The result of these unanswered questions has led to another extraordinary move from the administration: in a meeting with the Board, Marie Laure Salles suggested that the GISA board should consider amending its “social movement strategy”, suggesting that the Student Association should not be able to propose votes or endorse social movements. She expressed “serious disagreement with Article F of GISA’s mission statement,” and suggested removing it.
Article F refers to Article I of the GISA Statutes, Section 2.1.f, which states that one of the missions of the Association is to “Publicly endorse Civil Society Movements and Campaigns, if requested and approved by the Members, in accordance with Article VI of the By-laws.” This point, along with Article VI of the By-laws, is what empowers to Student Association (which refers to both the GISA board and the student body that it represents) to endorse political movements and campaigns.
Articles of the GISA statutes can only be changed via Board or student requests, and such changes must be voted on democratically at the General Assemblies. Administrative authorities at the Graduate Institute do not have a say in statute changes, as that would constitute democratic interference. In another meeting with the newly elected GISA board and other community members close to the situation, the Directrice reminded those present at the meeting that GISA is a “funded” body, according to a source close to the situation. Multiple sources consulted for this article considered this statement to be a threat to defund the Association. According to Board members, the administration has not been clear to the GISA board about how exactly GISA tuition waivers are paid, however, the administration has been clear that GISA’s budget (to fund student initiatives and events) comes directly from student tuition.
Both past and present Boards have affirmed that their mission is not to drive a political agenda, but to allow a path for students to bring forth issues for public consideration. In a diverse student body where students are affected by political issues and human rights abuses in their home countries and communities, the ability to stand together and support social movements has been at the heart of GISA’s mission since 2014. This sentiment was expressed in a GISA communication with the student body on May 22nd, which read:
“What makes a student association strong is that among our differences, we are able to support one another. The expectation of GISA to remain apolitical leads to the continued disenfranchisement of already oppressed communities that our student body represents. Our world is one of the unequal power structures and intersecting systems of domination. However, as students of the Graduate Institute, we should strive for equity, inclusion, and social justice in our community.”
Students who wish to partake in further discussion of how social issues are approached by the student association can attend the extraordinary General Assembly on June 24th. The newly elected GISA board has expressed commitment to further discussion between students on the social movement endorsement process.