The Room Where it Happened

November 9, 2017

CAMERA Fellow Ben Shapiro.

I was lucky enough to see “Hamilton: An American Musical” in Los Angeles this summer. The now cult-classic story of the inner workings of our fledgling country is an inspiring tale of ambition and revolution. Its “shout-outs” to women and immigrants, moments that saw the most applause during the show, are especially relevant with the Trump administration’s recent policies and actions.

I couldn’t help but be inspired to fight for the democratic ideals that hold our country together and should apply to all peoples equally. It is for exactly this reason that one particular scene stood out to me as especially relevant to my experience here at Tufts: Aaron Burr’s dramatic number, “The Room Where It Happens,” recounts a meeting completed in secrecy, resulting in a legislative agreement between Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Photo: Hamilton: An American Musical

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between this off-the-record assembly and the recent BDS resolution heard by the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate. I won’t comment on the BDS campaign as a whole right now, but on the abhorrent tactics used to disenfranchise Jewish, pro-Israel students.

Almost 48 hours after the proposed resolution’s text was publicly released, our class senators voted on the eve of Passover — one of the holiest Jewish holidays — on an issue very deeply relevant to the Jewish community. To debate an issue with many implications requires more than casual thought, and the Jews of the pro-Israel community were denied their due equality in this meeting.

With no time to prepare, we were thrown into an awful situation that had seemingly little regard for our religious practices or emotional well-being. This vote taking place at a time when many Jewish students had left campus to prepare for the Passover holiday demonstrates an intentional lack of representation in our representative body.

I saw how this meeting transpired over the hours which, despite its length, felt rushed. Senators on more than one occasion motioned to vote on the resolution at hand, a ridiculous proposition to cut off speaking time, since everyone knew that matters had not been discussed to completion.

A fair and free debate could not be had even with unlimited time to speak, as my community was prevented from adequate time to prepare an argument. A weighty topic should not feel rushed, and involved communities should definitely not be disenfranchised.

The resolution’s writers did not consult any of the Israel-related groups on campus (J Street U, Tufts Friends of Israel, Tufts American Israel Alliance, Visions of Peace) in their preparations, meaning any possibility for collaboration and compromise was intentionally avoided.

We do not want to hide this debate from the campus but instead, engage over an issue we are all passionate about. At the meeting, not only was the live-stream devoid of video imagery, but the audio intentionally omitted any mention of senators’ names.

Furthermore, the results of the vote were published only in number and senators were not tied to their vote. With this meeting taking place behind closed doors, the TCU Senate represented authoritarian levels of lacking transparency.

“No one else was in the room where it happened.”

The closed nature of the TCU Senate proceeding flies in the face of democracy and is the antithesis of true representation. In the United States today we are privileged to have all congressional meetings televised on the ever-so-exciting C-SPAN, footage available at our disposal to hold our elected representatives accountable.

The “compromise” by the BDS resolution’s writers to accommodate students who were away for the holiday, which was agreed upon with the TCU Senate, is comical at best: a Google Form for students to submit written statements that may or not even be read during the meeting, and with no way to validate the authors’ connection to Tufts.

If it was so widely known that students with relevant opinions necessary for fair debate could not be present to voice those thoughts, why hear the meeting at this time? The date being the last senate meeting of the year is not a valid excuse — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, unfortunately, and the university’s investments (if they even were to change) would not occur at a different date if the resolution was proposed at the beginning of the next school year.

I understand the safety concerns of the meeting, valid reasons why involved students would not want their faces or names broadcast to a world of right-wing intimidators.

But to those involved I pose this question — is it the place of the student senate to debate geopolitical matters that could threaten their safety and the safety of their peers on campus? I feel that the senate should vote on matters relevant to changing the student experience on campus, passing resolutions that are direct pleas to the administration to change how student life operates.

Aerial photos of the Tufts University Medford/Somerville campus. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

It seems highly unorthodox to change the senate proceedings involving transparency for specific meetings — the usual practices should have been followed if it was to be heard, or it should not have been heard at all.

Surely the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts are a discussion to be had on campus, but it is a debate that needs time, preparation, nuance and the right setting. The university and student body could and should work to create intentional spaces for discourse, whether that shapes up to be a club, online forum or committee task force. Already groups like CIVIC and other political groups, especially Tufts Democrats and Republicans, are open forums to discuss exactly these matters. The TCU Senate is not this place.

While there is merit to debating whether or not the senate should even delve into national or international politics in their resolution-passing powers, our advocacy and activist energy should not be put into symbolic action but into actual change-making efforts. I learn from my Jewish tradition the value of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world — the university can and should be an active player in repairing the world.

That being said, this has to start with student voices and lead to real action. If we really care about these issues, let’s work together so the university can elevate our voices to a productive platform that will contribute to peacemaking efforts on the ground. We need dialogue between both sides, and if the TCU Senate thinks it’s the right forum to facilitate that, by all means, help bring us together. For that to happen though, it can’t come in the form of one-sided resolutions that alienate relevant voices, endanger participants’ safety and don’t result in any productive or actual action.

To the new TCU Senate for this school year, I know you have ambitious goals and hopes to refine the duties of your work. I ask that you hold the democratic ideals of transparency and accountability close to your heart in all of your work — students have a right and a need to know how you are representing them. Of course, your safety is of paramount importance, and so it seems like a logical benchmark to not deliberate over issues that would threaten your well-being on campus. Leave these matters to actual political debate groups, where an open dialogue really can and should be had. Work to give students a wider platform for debate on heated issues.

But most importantly, go above and beyond in promoting and broadcasting your work, because we want to see what’s going on and take an active stake in student life matters.

I demand more of our elected student representatives. I demand a fair and free campus environment that holds true to the ideals of democracy. That did not happen here.

I say this because I was in the room where it happened.

Contributed by Tufts University CAMERA Fellow and CAMERA-supported group Tufts Friends of Israel Co-Director of Advocacy Ben Shapiro.

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