Fighting intersectionality, one meeting at a time

Fighting intersectionality, one meeting at a time

Local college student takes on BDS at Wisconsin, the fight gets ugly — and she wins

How do Jewish students take on a student government council that seems determined to sanction Israel, establishing it as the perfect example of evil in the world, making the effort to vote against that idea personally dangerous and morally corrupt?

How can they fight against what seems to be the general consensus? How can they maintain their sanity and feeling of being at home in the world as they do it?

University of Wisconsin student Ariela Rivkin of Teaneck, a rising senior and member of the student council, spearheaded a fight against a resolution condemning Israel, withstood a barrage of personal invective aimed at her, and won. The story of how she did what she did is heartening; a story of community support and personal courage.

Ms. Rivkin, who graduated from the Frisch School and grew up in the modern Orthodox community to which she still belongs, has been on the student council at the university’s huge main campus at Madison since her freshman year. To some extent, her story started then, when she began to build the relationships and reservoir of good will from which she drew later, but the main narrative arc began in March, during spring break.

Ariela Rifkin is among the speakers at the recent AIPAC confrence in Washington.
Ariela Rivkin is among the speakers at the recent AIPAC confrence in Washington.

Ms. Rivkin and about 24 other Jewish students went from home to the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C.; that huge gathering of advocates for Israel met from March 26 through March 28 this year. “We returned only to find a very long and extensive BDS resolution on the agenda for the next day,” she said. (BDS, short for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, is a tool that anti-Israel groups use to try to harm Israel economically as a way to affect it politically.)

The resolution not only was very long, it also was “particularly egregious in its attempt to link the rise of the alt-right movement in America right now to Israel.

“It was particularly offensive because, of course, the alt-right movement” — the radically right-wing movement that calls itself white nationalist or white separatist when it is trying to be respectable, and that traffics in anti-Semitism and racism, and that finds its home more online than in any more physical manifestation — “is so anti-Semitic,” she said.

And it was going to be discussed at the council meeting the very next day.

On March 26, an anti-Israel resolution was tabled indefinitely, after a painful struggle.
On March 26, an anti-Israel resolution was tabled indefinitely, after a painful struggle.

The resolution was particularly hard to fight because many of its targets were right, Ms. Rivkin said. “It didn’t only talk about Israel. It also was about some very just and important social justice causes in America right now — and then it said that if you care about all those things, then you must also oppose the Occupation.

“It said that we stand with the indigenous people of America, we stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, we stand against the border wall, we stand against police brutality, we stand against the police who are killing young black men, the same way that we stand with the indigenous people of Palestine.”

In other words, the resolution — written with input from local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, among other groups — was an example of intersectionality, the idea that all forms of discrimination and social powerlessness are connected.

Because Jews tend to be liberal, and because “the Jewish population in Madison is incredibly liberal and social-justice oriented,” and because they’re right when it comes to many of these instances, it’s particularly hard to fight that idea, Ms. Rivkin suggested. The resolution “took these students and told them that they can’t love Israel and believe that it has a right to exist and at the same time stand against police brutality and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“It told everyone that they have only a binary choice. Only black or white. There is no gray area. There is no room to understand anything further. No room to do research. If you stand with human rights, then you stand against a whole list of things — and Israel is on that list.

“It was really offensive,” she said.

“We gathered as best we could, in the short time we had,” she continued. “We came to the open forum, some 200 students strong, and we had about 40 students speak.” There were students representing a wide range of backgrounds — “students whose parents had fled Iran,” students whose immigration stories made them deeply sympathetic to other immigrants, students who talked about “how their Judaism and their Zionism are inseparable,” Ms. Rivkin said.

“Throughout the night, comments were made that this resolution was only about transparency,” Ms. Rivkin said. “That it was only about wanting to see where the University of Wisconsin foundation is investing. That we don’t get those figures from them, and that we want to see it.

“The argument was that the foundation should not invest in corporations that are committing human rights abuses. They listed examples — but every example they listed was Israel, and never any other country.” Its backers argued that “it is not a BDS resolution, because it doesn’t ask for an academic boycott on campus, or to boycott the companies BDSers traditionally boycott. But my argument is that if it makes students feel that they can’t be openly Zionist on campus, that their student body council doesn’t represent them or believe in them — then it is BDS.

“They kept saying that they just wanted transparency. But my final argument was that what you have created is a terrible division between us. If you want to talk about transparency, we’d be more than happy to talk about it — but that’s not this.”

The debate lasted for six hours. At the end, a motion to table it indefinitely was made, voted on, and passed. The vote was 13 in favor and 12 opposed, with one abstention.

“At this point, we were all very exhausted,” Ms. Rivkin said. “We didn’t necessarily take it as a win, because once something like this hits the floor of the student council, things are said that cannot be unheard. Accusations are made that cannot be unsaid.

“They made accusations like, ‘All you students who talk in favor of Israel, you all have privilege. You all sound like Donald Trump.’

“It was a very difficult, emotional night for everyone involved.” Still, although “this was not really a victory for anyone, we were relieved to hear student council members say that whatever their personal feelings might be, this was not the sort of issue that students should be passing resolutions about.

“We have skyrocketing rates of sexual abuse on campus. We have a campus that is famous for drinking too much. We should focus on those issues rather than on blaming everything on Israel.”

That was the night of March 29.

Student council meetings are scheduled every two weeks. “I knew that there would be a new piece of legislation, and I knew that no matter what shape or size it came in, whether or not it would single out Israel, it would be a clear continuation of the other one,” Ms. Rivkin said.

This year, the first Passover seder was Monday, April 11. The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, April 13, right after the first two days ended. “I wrote an email to the chair of the council, that said that anything that talked about social responsibility, investment, and transparency could not be brought on Passover.

“The email went unanswered, and the agenda was mailed out on Passover.” One of the items on that agenda was “the intent to change the bylaws to create a student government subcommittee to do research about divestment.”

On an AIPAC trip, Ariela Rifkin stands outside the Israeli Parliament.
On an AIPAC trip, Ariela Rivkin stands outside the Israeli Parliament.

That was dangerous, Ms. Rivkin said, because such a committee could present research that pointed to the need for divestment every two weeks, until something got voted in. “So at the very least we wanted to be there when it was discussed, because it was a clear continuation of the last discussion, and by having it on Passover you take away the opportunity for students who were there before to be there again.”

It also was a problem because there is a process for such bylaw changes. “It is a six-week process,” Ms. Rivkin said. It has to be introduced in one meeting, discussed again at the next meeting, and then voted on in the third. “A member of the student council who had been elected to chair it next year made a motion to suspend the rules and not only to introduce it but to vote on it the first night it was presented.

“That motion passed.”

Ms. Rivkin and other Jewish community members filed a suit with the student judiciary; last week, they learned that they had won on all counts. “We won a temporary injunction, we asked for the vote to be voided because there was discrimination in the timing, we asked for a sanctioning of the chair, who did not answer the email and did not take it into consideration, and we asked for the sanctioning of the representative who changed the rules despite being asked not to,” she said.

There was a personal dilemma in this for Ms. Rivkin. “They countersued me,” she said. “It just so happened that they both are black women, and they said that I sued them because I hate black women. They wanted a full third-party investigation into my acts, based on gender and race.”

For whatever reason — perhaps the women didn’t have enough time, perhaps they changed their minds, perhaps it was just meant as a threat in the first place — the two women who filed notice to sue Ms. Rivkin did not follow through. “They just wanted to scare me into withdrawing my notice of intent,” she said.

The threat was real, she added. Had the suit gone through, every time someone googled her name, the top results likely would have labeled her a racist and a sexist, not because she is, nor because there is any evidence showing her to be, but simply because the accusation would have yoked her name to those words. “Those headlines would have followed me for the rest of my life,” she said. “I had to think about what is more important to me — I am getting ready to graduate and get a job — or am I going to sacrifice my Jewish community here, and say it’s okay, they can say what they want.

“They presented me with that choice, and they were pretty sure that I would drop my case. But I did not.”

Don’t breathe easily yet, though. “The worse was still to come,” Ms. Rivkin said. “The council had one more meeting before the end of the year — April 26 — and we knew that we could expect some type of resolution, some legislation, something — because this was their last chance. So we were anxiously waiting for the agenda to come out.”

It was released about 24 hours before the meeting. “And for many Jewish students it was wonderful,” Ms. Rivkin said. “It called for divestment from a list of things — fossil fuels, border walls, arms manufacturers, and prison labor.” There was no mention of Israel.

“I don’t make decisions on my own — I represent my community. So a bunch of us got together and asked how we feel about it. Students said that we were thankful that they took our needs into consideration, realized that you can’t make Israel synonymous with everything that’s wrong in the world,” she reported.

Still, she was troubled. She knew that this was just the open forum — once the meeting was closed, things could change.

Ariela and other Jewish Badgers pose with the school banner.
Ariela and other Jewish Badgers pose with the school banner.

She was right. “Jewish people from the community came to say that they agree — -that prison labor is terrible, that we should divest from fossil fuels, thank you for writing this legislation as it stands now. But the council had a much different idea. They came prepared with paragraphs of revisions.”

Even with its noncontroversial surface, “the open forum was incredibly hostile,” Ms. Rivkin said. “I was viciously attacked. It got really personal.

“Some people referred to me as the white elephant in the room. Somebody made a comment about how I sit on piles of student dollars, piles of money — and we all know what that means.”

The meeting came just after Kendall Jenner, the model and Kardashian half-sister whose commercial connecting Pepsi with virtue and herself as the representative of the world’s downtrodden, had debuted to worldwide scorn and been hastily pulled back. “In a coordinated prank, when I spoke many council members and 50 or so students took out cans of Pepsi and opened them,” she said. “After I made a point of saying, ‘Guys, we are putting in amendments that are almost verbatim what was tabled indefinitely a month ago — and as far as I can tell, indefinitely hasn’t expired yet — the chair of the student council took a sip of her Pepsi and said, ‘•••k white supremacy.’

“People came with my name on signs. It was a targeted and coordinated effort to make sure that I was as intimidated as possible.”

What about administrators? Wasn’t there anyone around who could stop this campaign of intimidation and humiliation? No matter what the issue, was there no way to stop this behavior?

No, Ms. Rivkin said. Because of the way the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s student council is set up, those 33 representatives of the university’s various schools are overseen directly by the board of regents, not the school itself. “They have no power or control over us,” she said. “All they can do is complain to the board of regents.” So, although some of the “staff members who were in the room had to step out and cry, there was nothing they could do,” she said. “They have absolutely no control over student government.”

Ms. Rivkin’s ordeal by shaming lasted until she left. “I made a final statement, and then I walked out, to cheering and dancing and clapping, because they finally got rid of me,” she said. “But I had to be there, and I had to say something.

“They were trying to intimidate me personally. They were trying to make it abundantly clear that should anyone else speak up or voice a similar position or try to defend me, that would be their fate too. So how could I not show up, if what was at stake was the freedom to speak?”

There was great irony in the proceedings that night, she added. The stated point was transparency, but “they orchestrated it so that the opposition wouldn’t know about it. They would keep Israel out at first — and put it back in when it was too late.”

Her love of Israel does not blind her to Israel’s faults, she said, but it is not right that all of the world’s failures “have fallen on Israel’s back.

“Within our very progressive Jewish community, we spent plenty of time around coffee tables arguing over every decision that Israel has ever made. We would love to have these discussions with people outside the Jewish community, but that gets shut down when student government says, ‘Israel bad.’ That is not a good foundation for a conversation.”

That evening, the vote passed, 22 to 0, with two abstentions. She wasn’t surprised. People who would have opposed it “were intimidated. There was a coordinated effort to intimidate or harass. If I had been watching this happen, of course I would have voted in favor of it too, particularly if I didn’t have any grounding or foundation about Israel. If I hear that anyone who votes against it is a white supremacist, of course I would have voted for it.

The resolution passed — but that was not the end of it. “We received the final judgment in the case,” she said. “The court voided the vote to create the committee.”

The court also voted to suggest that the former chair, on whom it no longer had any jurisdiction, take religious sensitivity and competency training, Ms. Rivkin said. The court does still have jurisdiction over the woman who will chair it next year; it demanded that she “must email the last session of the council to apologize for her actions and explain why they were wrong. She has to notify the current council that no religious discrimination of any sort will be tolerated. And she has to write an official letter apologizing for her actions, explain why Passover is important to Jewish students, and read it out loud at the council session.”

Next year, Ms. Rivkin will not be on the council. Instead, she has been voted president of the senior class.

Where did she get the courage and backbone to stand up to the bullying, harassment, and intimidation she faced? She answers that question less fluidly than the ones about the situation. “I talked to my parents, and I have a really large and wonderful support network of Jewish students and faculty members here, and of Hillel. Everyone said that we are all in this together. It was my name, yes, but I put myself in that position. I could not take myself out of the community I grew up in.”

Her parents, Oleg and Cheryl, supported her. “My dad is Russian,” she said. “He knows what discrimination looks like. He didn’t come to America for that, and he didn’t raise me for that.

“My parents are remarkable, and so are my grandparents,” she added. “They said that you never ever choose the easy thing over the hard thing, if the hard thing is the right thing to do.

“One of my grandfathers served in the Coast Guard during the war, fighting for this country. And my other grandfather fought to get into this country, to get his sons here. So if my parents and my grandparents could go through that so I could be here, then I will make sure that as a Jew, as an American, as a person, as a Rivkin, I will not allow us to be treated like this again.”

Donna Weintraub of Haworth is a member of the board of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and she was involved actively in creating iCan, a federation-supported advocacy group that helps local high school students prepare themselves for the hostility they might face on campus should they mention that they support Israel. Ms. Rivkin came back from Wisconsin to speak at iCan.

Ms. Weintraub also is the mother of Jillian Weintraub, who just graduated from the University of Wisconsin this week. Like Ariela Rivkin, Jillian Weintraub had been involved with pro-Israel advocacy on campus. In fact, it was Jillian Weintraub who held the video camera and recorded the whole of the last student council meeting.

“I first met Ariela at the first meeting of iCan, last summer, and she started to tell me a little bit about what was coming at Wisconsin,” Donna Weintraub said. “She told me that student reps had told her that there was a strong possibility that an anti-Israel resolution was coming.”

Forewarned, she was forearmed.

Ben Meisel of the University of Michigan and Tenafly, Ariela Rifkin, Aliza Ohnouna from the University of Pennsylvania and Fort Lee, and Hillel director Talia Mizikovsky served on a panel at the iCan conference sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey in March.david silverman
Ben Meisel of the University of Michigan and Tenafly, Ariela Rivkin, Aliza Ohnouna from the University of Pennsylvania and Fort Lee, and Hillel director Talia Mizikovsky served on a panel at the iCan conference sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey in March.   Photo by David Silverman

Ms. Rivkin’s grasp of politics, and how politics affect people, is among her most striking characteristics, Ms. Weintraub said. “At iCan, she talked about how it is important as a student to find out what resonates with other members of student government and use language that works for them. For example, if she is talking to someone who is very active on the sustainability committee, when she was talking about Israel she would talk about what Israel is doing about sustainability, and clean earth, and things like that.”

Ms. Weintraub feels deeply that one of the lessons that Ms. Rivkin puts into practice is vital for students to learn. “We can give these kids the tools they need to advocate for Israel,” she said. “We can suggest that they reinforce their knowledge and their interest.

“But if we don’t encourage them to take an active role in voting for their representatives on campus, then all that is lost.”

At Wisconsin, only about 9 percent of the student body votes for the student council, even though that body allocates the so-called “segregated fee” that is part of each student’s tuition. Those fees are small, but they add up.

“This year I chaired the grant allocation committee,” Ms. Rivkin said. It’s overseen by the student council. “In that capacity, my committee and I were responsible for the distribution about $600,000 throughout the course of the fiscal year.”

It would be wise, therefore, on some many levels, both theoretical and practical, for each student to vote.

“As parents and Israel-loving Jews, we have to teach our children to participate,” Ms. Weintraub said. “Ariela is an unusual girl — an incredibly brave girl — but she needed other students to be there to support her, even if it was just in numbers. She needed other students to be able to stand up with her.

“You can’t advocate alone. You can’t advocate in a vacuum. If we could get more kids to run for student council — which, by the way, looks good on a resume — or to vote, and to understand what they voting for and what they are voting against, that would be really important.

“Wisconsin is a great, beautiful, wonderful campus for a Jewish kid to be on,” Ms. Weintraub concluded. “It is really unfortunate that this happened — but it still is beautiful place.”

Laura Fein, the director of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council, has known Ariela Rivkin since Ariela was a small child. She comes by her adamant refusal to give in naturally, Ms. Fein said.

“Her father was at Juilliard,” she said. “He was a concert pianist. But when he realized that the life of a concert pianist, with constant traveling, would not work with a family, he applied to law school. He applied himself to law with equal diligence and skill, and he is now a very successful lawyer.”

Ariela’s sister, Dahlia, who will begin Penn State in the fall, is an ice skater — in fact, she is a former U.S. juvenile ladies national champion; her older brother, Naphtali, is a Fulbright scholar who lived in Latvia for year while he pursued his studies and now is a student at Cambridge University. Her younger brother, Binny, will begin Frisch in the fall, and he is “in my opinion, the best Rivkin,” his sister said. Their mother is the chief administrative officer at the financial planning firm Muzinich & Co.

“The whole family has an almost military-level discipline, and yet they are all very relaxed,” Ms. Fein said. “Ariela has unusual people skills, along with tremendous discipline and the understanding that sometimes you need to play a long game.”

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