Students hoping to bring the topic of divestment to Ohio State’s administration via the Undergraduate Student Government elections on Monday are facing an opposition campaign composed of paid staff and targeted advertising.
OSU Hillel, a Jewish student center on East 16th Avenue which is part of the larger group of Hillel International Jewish student centers, has joined in the opposition campaign by buying advertising and having staff help organize opposition efforts behind Issue Two, according to documents and audio obtained by The Lantern.
Connor Greenwood, chief justice of USG’s Judicial Panel, said he had not heard of OSU Hillel’s involvement in the ballot initiative, although there didn’t appear to be any bylaws being broken.
“We have no formal record of them, but they don’t have to register with us,” Greenwood said. “There’s no formal process they have to go through (as an opposition campaign). I don’t really know the whole background for why there is no process, but what I do know is it would be difficult to enforce — if there’s multiple groups opposing divestment, how are we supposed to set a spending limit for all opposition?”
Though bylaws aren’t being broken, OSU Divest: Buckeyes for Human Rights, one of the backers of the divestment ballot measure, issued a statement saying Hillel’s involvement presented an unequal playing field.
“While we have no way of knowing how much money is being spent on these internet ads, we are disappointed to learn that OSU Hillel is footing the bill. A tactic like campus-wide targeted advertising is completely out of reach to our student organizers, who often print flyers on their own dime,” the statement read. “It is concerning that our main opposition is being organized by paid Hillel staff, while our student organizers are entirely volunteers, juggling midterms and other campus advocacy.”
The ballot measure, Issue Two, if passed by a popular vote of OSU students, would have USG formally ask the university to remove any OSU investments from five U.S. companies that the backers of the measure — OSU Divest and the OSU Coalition for Black Liberation — along with other organizations, have accused of human-rights violations. The request would be non-binding on any decisions concerning university investments.
Listed for divestment are U.S. private-prison companies CoreCivic and The GEO Group, as well as three U.S. companies — G4S, Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar — listed for their products’ use by the Israeli Defense Forces in the occupied Palestinian territories. The position of divestment related to the Israeli-Palestine conflict specifically has become a contentious and divisive issue, with critics of divestment arguing that divestment from companies won’t help the region find peace. Some critics have gone as far to call divestment anti-Semitic, while supporters point to past divestment movements, such as against apartheid-era South Africa.
In a recording of a training session set up to help students organize a vote “No” campaign, Susannah Sagan, the associate executive director of Hillel, said the companies are being targeted “for needless reasons, for made up reasons,” and also says that all five are being targeting for working with Israel.
Sagan said in an interview there was nothing secretive about Hillel’s involvement. She said that since the organization is registered with the university through campus ministries — Sagan has an osu.edu email address, she pointed out — there was nothing inappropriate about the organization’s work on a student-government ballot issue. An OSU spokesman originally referred to OSU Hillel as a separate, third-party entity, but said he would look further into its exact relation to the university.
“I think everyone knows Hillel is involved, this isn’t a secret,” Sagan said in an interview.
“I think you’re comparing us to the Turning Point article,” Sagan added, referring to a Lantern article that detailed an attempt by conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA to put money into student government campaigns across the U.S., including at OSU. “And I find that that is insulting.”
A flier obtained by The Lantern that was passed out at the meeting includes talking points about opposition to divestment, and links to ProtectOSU.com. In the recording, Sagan directs further questions to [email protected] ProtectOSU, according to its website, is a “grassroots coalition of independent students from all corners of campus.” Hillel is not referenced on the website or the fliers. Ads have appeared on Facebook that target the ballot initiative through the page SJP Uncovered, though it is not clear who is funding them.
Sagan characterized OSU Hillel’s involvement in the ballot issue as no different than helping the way it would facilitate any other kind of event for students, such as organizing a Shabbat dinner or putting on events for students to learn more about the Jewish faith.
“We are here to help Jewish and non-Jewish students with whatever they need, and Jewish students right now feel under attack. They feel for the third year in a row that the Jewish homeland and Israel is under attack,” Sagan said in an interview, referring to divestment making it to the ballot three times in three years. “We are investing resources as part of the campus fabric to educate and engage students on this vital issue.”
OSU’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish anti-occupation group, issued a statement challenging Hillel’s role in the election, saying it limits the scope of Jewish student life.
“Hillel’s use of staff, funding, building space, and student resources to oppose Issue 2 creates divisions within the Jewish community by alienating Jewish students and limiting Jewish life,” the statement read. “We hope that Hillel will recommit itself to serving Jewish students, not its pro-occupation donors.”
Money in USG politics
As an informal opposition campaign, ProtectOSU and OSU Hillel are not formally tied to the ballot initiative and are largely operating in the dark, unlike the student organizations OSU Divest and the OSU Coalition for Black Liberation, which put the ballot measure forward for the upcoming USG election.
Greenwood said his involvement with OSU Divest as chief justice included advising them to wait until the presidential campaigning season officially began to start campaigning. He added that the rules surrounding ballot initiatives are pretty open.
“There is no official bylaw that says you can’t accept any outside assistance,” Greenwood said. “In fact, there is a bylaw that states that you, before campaigning officially starts, you can verbally or digitally ask for assistance, as long as you’re not overtly trying to gain votes.”
He said there were blanket rules that applied to all campaigning.
“We suggest (opposition groups) abide by the same campaigning policies,” Greenwood said. “At the end of the day we don’t think anyone should be interrupting a student studying in the library, campaigning about candidates or a specific issue. That rings true for all campaigning, with those specific off-limits areas.”
Gerard Basalla, USG president and a fourth-year in strategic communication and political science, said ballot issues naturally attract outside attention but don’t affect USG’s integrity.
“Some issues will be inherently partisan or have a particular polarizing stance and usually the initiatives rarely affect the actual structure or integrity of USG as a whole,” he said in a statement. “In general, I don’t believe there’s concern or impropriety if the work on a ballot initiative is transparent, since ballot initiatives aren’t directly related to the structure or function of USG but rather focus on a specific policy point.”
Danielle Di Scala, USG vice president and a fourth-year in political science, urged groups behind ballot measures to aim for transparency.
Greenwood declined to comment on what he thought of Hillel’s involvement, but said that the Judicial Panel looks at the bylaws after the election each year to see how they could be improved.
Emails, meetings, ‘swag bags’
The flier passed out at the training session held earlier this month was titled, “How to Talk to your Friends about Voting NO!” and supplemented the meeting, hosted by Hillel staff, that was geared toward OSU students. Emails obtained by The Lantern detail staff reaching out to students to help organize an opposition campaign to the ballot initiative.
In the recording, Sagan said there will be Facebook ads put up by OSU Hillel aimed at boosting a vote-no campaign. Another person in the audio instructs students on how to look up their IP addresses in residence halls so OSU Hillel can target the ads.
The meeting was also attended by students working as part of fellowships paid by OSU Hillel to bring potential new members to Hillel events. According to the audio, at least one of those paid fellows brought students to the event.
“Whatever you want, we will fund it and help you,” Sagan said, according to the recording.
In the recording, Sagan goes on to say that OSU Hillel’s official position is in opposition to the ballot initiative.
“We have no opinion on the (presidential candidates), as OSU Hillel,” Sagan said, according to the recording. “You are then going to be asked to vote yes we support this resolution or vote no. Our campaign, at this moment, is vote no.”
Sagan said she is hoping her message reaches thousands.
“Everyone you know can vote. So the real key for what we’re trying to do is to get one more vote than the other side, and the way we’re going to get to that is we’re going to create a 5,000-person (voter) tree,” Sagan said, according to the recording.
Emails from OSU Hillel staff sent out to students who attended the meetings contain further instructions for students to help campaign against the ballot issue.
“You are receiving this email because you were selected as a captain for the VOTE NO campaign and attended one of the BDS trainings with Hillel!,” read an email from Cydney Goldberg, the OSU Hillel Birthright Israel coordinator. “You are responsible for picking up a ‘swag bag’ so you have hand outs to give to your friends around campus.”
In another email, titled “Important! Anti-BDS Campaign Information” sent out to students who attended one of the training sessions, Idan Simchony, OSU Hillel’s Israel fellow, thanks students for attending OSU Hillel’s “strategy session” and attaches fliers for students to pass out.
“We appreciate your time and dedication to stopping divestment from happening on OUR campus,” the email read.
Elections open on Monday at noon until Wednesday at midnight.