Letter: Why I voted no on Unshackle NU but support prison divestment

    The following is a Letter to the Editor submitted to North by Northwestern and does not reflect the views of its editorial board.

    I believe that people of color who are incarcerated and made subject to a system that benefits from their oppressions should be liberated. But when Unshackle NU presented legislation to Northwestern’s Associated Student Government, I voted no.

    Unshackle NU has aligned itself with anti-Zionist groups, namely NU Divest. They have publicly argued that voting for one movement is fundamentally the same as voting for the other. I am an Israeli citizen, a native speaker of Hebrew, and my entire family lives in Israel; my pride in my heritage does not hinder me from seeing problems with my home country, and there are plenty of problems.

    I voted no because I found the legislation, and its entanglement with NU Divest, to be unquestionably anti-Zionist. Singling out Israeli prisons in the resolution, among over 100 countries G4S operates in, demonstrated that there is a clear anti-Zionist agenda behind the legislation.

    A specific reason for Israel being included in the resolution, while other countries are not, was absent from the text of the legislation. The link used to cite the information in the resolution does not contain empirical facts, let alone evidence suggesting Israel has the largest G4S facility, which is the reason Unshackle members gave for including Palestine in the legislation.

    Even if the manner in which Israel was portrayed was unintentional – and it was intentional – it still spreads a single-faceted and thus misleading image of the state. The sole compromise that some Jewish students were advocating for was that Israel not be singled out arbitrarily and without context.

    To avoid unnecessary opposition to an otherwise widely supported and uncontested bill, an amendment was proposed to include other countries that have G4S prisons and are involved with human rights violations, such as Australia, the UK, India, etc. Unshackle members contested this amendment, stating that their cause is highly focused on the plight of Black bodies in the US. Why the mention of Palestine, then?

    Later, Unshackle supporters argued that there was no way of knowing if the countries we specified had instances of Black bodies in particular being oppressed. I responded by saying that indigenous peoples are categorically oppressed in Australia, especially in prison systems, but this fell on deaf ears. Ironically, not half an hour before my comment, Unshackle amended their own legislation to include indigenous peoples in the US as oppressed bodies.

    The amendment specifying other countries originally passed; however, due to widespread confusion, it was contorted to once again single out “systematic oppression of people of color in the US and Palestine.”

    Consequently, as a Zionist, I was not comfortable voting for the legislation. Unshackle NU has every right to align itself with NU Divest, but that relationship has made divesting from privately-owned prisons into something fundamentally divisive and uncomfortable for supporters of Israel to vote on.

    Before the vote, members of the audience screamed at dissenting voices that us “white men” should check our privilege. Similarly, there were a plethora of other outbursts, claiming that those who wanted a secret ballot so as to not be antagonized by Unshackle members “just want to hide their racism.” There was no decorum in the Senate.

    After the Senate was adjourned, I approached Unshackle leaders who were outraged by the secret ballot, and stated that “I voted no, and I am not ashamed.” Immediately, before I had the opportunity to get another word in, a mob donning Unshackle t-shirts started screaming at me, telling me that I am a racist, that I “hate Black people.” I felt threatened, attacked and humiliated.

    If a tacit respect for dissent does not exist, the hateful cries of those in the majority will always drown out opposition. A democratic student Senate cannot exist if it is coercive and threatening to dissenting voices. In fact, there is something more than slightly oxymoronic about a movement for the right of the voices of racial minorities to be liberated, refusing to hear the voice of a minority opinion before demonizing it.

    I left the building feeling helpless. It is not the first time I have received hatred for being a Zionist, for being Jewish. I have been beaten up, verbally bullied and made to feel that my identity was something to be embarrassed of. As a student desperate to support Unshackle NU but unable to come to terms with its anti-Zionist facet, my voice was dismissed. As it was so aptly put during the debate over the legislation, I am a “white man,” teeming with privilege, so I suppose it does not matter.


    Tomer Cherki, Weinberg freshman


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