A referendum sponsored by the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) is asking undergraduate students to demand the university stop using Caterpillar machinery for its campus construction projects because the company’s equipment is used by Israel against Palestinians. The vote took place April 11-13 and the results are expected to be announced April 15.
The referendum has generated controversy on campus with both sides pushing their views online and in the Daily Princetonian, the campus newspaper.
The resolution requests the university: “Immediately halt usage of all Caterpillar machinery in all ongoing campus construction projects given the violent role that Caterpillar machinery has played in the mass demolition of Palestinian homes, the murder of Palestinians and other innocent people, and the promotion of the prison-industrial complex.”
PCP president Eric Periman, who proposed the referendum, told The Jewish Link he did so because “Caterpillar has knowingly and willingly allowed their machines to be used for these violent purposes for decades. By pressuring Princeton to boycott their machines we will send a message that actions such as these will not be tolerated.”
The referendum cites the case of Rachel Corrie, an American who was killed by a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer used by the Israeli military while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip in 2003, which Periman called “an unthinkably violent act.”
However, Jewish groups have criticized the referendum as part of the antisemitic Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which has been overwhelmingly condemned by the House of Representatives and Senate. Additionally, 35 states, including New Jersey and New York, have passed legislation requiring they divest their state pension funds from any company refusing to do business in Israel.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, it is unlikely the university will take any action against Caterpillar.
“If this initiative passes, we do not expect Princeton to divest from Caterpillar,” said Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life-Princeton Hillel (CJL). “The administration has said that, as a policy, it will not divest from companies when there is no clear consensus on campus, which does not exist here.”
Rabbi Roth said CJL leaders meet regularly with the university administration about matters affecting Jewish life on campus. It had also hosted university President Christopher L Eisgruber earlier this school year for an off-the-record conversation with students about various issues, including antisemitism.
Jared Stone, president of Tigers for Israel—the campus student pro-Israel organization—called out the referendum for being part of “a bigoted global movement” that doesn’t help the Palestinians with any humanitarian issue.
He also told The Jewish Link it could jeopardize the safety of himself and other Jewish and pro-Zionist students. “We who are involved in the Jewish and Zionist community are really invested in this,” said Stone, a sophomore politics major from Las Vegas. “We are trying to make the case this stems from a bigoted movement and is doing nothing to ameliorate the condition of the Palestinians. This is merely a distraction that deserves to be rejected because it does not do anything worthwhile for the Princeton student body.”
Stone said he was particularly concerned about the hostile environment the “purely symbolic” referendum would generate. He and Tigers for Israel Vice President Orli Epstein, as well as Periman. penned op-eds about the issue in the campus newspaper.
Rabbi Roth noted there was spike in antisemitism in 2015 after a student referendum called on the university to divest “from multinational corporations that maintain the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank,” and another increase during last year’s Gaza conflict. Those incidents prompted CJL to spend the last year actively educating Princeton students and administrators in recognizing and calling out antisemitism, and Rabbi Roth herself hosted many workshops on the subject.
Even though the 2015 referendum was defeated, there were reportedly 12 antisemitic incidents in the following two months, including swastikas, attacks on social media and in the Daily Princetonian, and hacks to email accounts, the first such antisemitic incidents in many years on the campus.
“We’re working with campus partners to ensure a respectful conversation around the Caterpillar resolution that does not engage in antisemitic tropes and language,” said Rabbi Roth. “We’re monitoring the discussion closely for antisemitism and will respond immediately as needed.”
She said students have taken the lead in speaking out against BDS and antisemitism, and CJL has worked “to empower and connect them” with needed resources. Its Israel Fellow Eitan Teiger has closely engaged with Tigers United, a broad student group that has mobilized against the referendum. Its Instagram page features information and pieces about BDS, including those from Bassem Eid, a Palestinian and human rights activist living in Israel and a political analyst for Israeli TV and radio. Eid called on the administration to reject the referendum, which he said would contribute to surging antisemitism. He also called the Princeton referendum “misguided,” and said if implemented it would also harm the Palestinian Authority since firms like the Palestinian Tractor and Equipment Company, a leading component of the Palestinian economy, also rely on Caterpillar.
Stone said his group is marshaling a grassroots effort by talking to friends and classmates.
“We are making clear to them why this doesn’t make sense and working to create an understanding of why this legislation is intertwined with BDS and why it is so harmful to the Princeton campus,” said Stone. “The fact is, the information is on our side.”
By Debra Rubin