When they’re sworn in, Student Government Association officers vow to uphold and adhere to their constitution. But a recent 10-day trip to Israel five officers embarked on — entirely free of charge — raises concern over a potential violation of those vows.
The SGA constitution — specifically article 4, section 4.3 — requires SGA members to “not accept gifts exceeding $5.00 in value from individuals or organizations (except SGA) for performing [their] official SGA duties.”
A round-trip flight from Atlanta to Newark to Tel Aviv is in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, a price which SGA members didn’t have to worry about. The flight alone exceeds the $5 limitation, and it was coupled with tours, room and board expenses that also came free of charge for the representatives.
The trip was an offer by GSU Hillel, Georgia State’s Jewish student organization.
Twenty-four Georgia State student leaders attended. Five were from SGA: President Franklin Patterson, Atlanta Executive Vice President Ayesha Iqbal, Senators Hamza Rahman and Jazmin Mejia, and Atush Dhakal, who recently transferred to Georgia Tech but was, until the end of the fall semester, EVP of the Dunwoody campus.
WHAT IS CONSIDERED A GIFT?
When outside forces attempt to impact SGA policy, this can be problematic — and that’s what the organization’s constitution attempts to prevent.
“The gift is typically to specifically influence the workings of SGA,” Boyd Beckwith, university-wide SGA adviser and director of the student center, said.
He explained that anything that can be given to an officer in hopes of receiving something in return — like a change in the representative’s stance on a particular issue — would be considered a gift by the SGA constitution.
So, can the free trip to Israel be considered a gift?
“Certainly, because it would cost a student a significant amount of money to make that same trip,” Beckwith said.
Student Judicial Board Chief Justice Gavin Hall disagreed with Beckwith’s interpretation, weighing that the free trip to Israel “does not violate” the constitution.
“Something I cannot speak for is personal motive, however the official SGA/presidential statement released expresses each involved parties’ sentiment,” Hall said. “From a general perspective, the trip is offered (while possibly true that it is promoting one side more than the other) to student leaders across campus.”
If members have accepted a gift and violated the constitution, they may be subject to removal from office, but that decision must be made by the SGA senate.
“If anyone is in violation of the bylaws or the constitution, it would be up to the senators to begin the impeachment proceedings,” Beckwith said.
Beckwith and Gail Sutton, SGA’s Downtown campus adviser, said neither of them were aware of the trip until after it occurred.
“As an adviser, I know that I wasn’t aware of who was going on the trip until after the fact,” Sutton said.
Sutton said the representatives never checked in with her or Beckwith to discuss the trip, nor did they approach the senate body for other representatives’ thoughts.
“The students didn’t consult with SGA or ask the opinion of SGA on whether they should go on that trip or not,” she said. “Those individual students made that decision on their own accord.”
WHAT WAS THE TRIP?
The trip took place from Dec. 13 to 23, with GSU Hillel selecting the 24 student leaders who ultimately attended.
Although the students who attended came from a variety of Georgia State organizations, they were expected to represent those organizations while on the trip.
“In the end, students represent themselves,” GSU Hillel Executive Director Russ Shulkes said. “But we expect those that come on the trip to act as representatives of their respective clubs when applicable and/or as a student leader.”
And where did GSU Hillel get the money to fly 24 students to Israel for free?
The funding came from the Maccabee Task Force, a national organization created to “combat the disturbing spread of anti-Semitism on America’s college campuses,” according to their website.
“These trips are conducted to provide students with an opportunity to see the region for themselves and form their own opinions, so when they return to campus they are able to engage in informed discussions,” MTF Executive Director David Brog said in an emailed statement.
One area of focus for MTF has been to counter the BDS movement, which works toward the interest of boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning the state of Israel.
The movement seeks to influence Israel economically and politically, to end their occupation of the West Bank and make reparations toward Palestinians. They also seek to have a presence on college campuses through student engagement.
“We believe that students who are exposed to both sides of this conflict and learn about it in all of its complexity are less likely to believe the simplistic scapegoating of Israel behind BDS,” Brog said.
Their efforts aren’t unique to just Georgia State.
“The Maccabee Task Force supports programs on 80 college campuses across the country, where there is a robust conversation taking place about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We work with partners like Hillel to provide opportunities for students to have an immersive and objective look at the politics of the region,” an MTF spokesperson said.
DID THE TRIP INFLUENCE SGA?
The trip received criticism from several student protestors at SGA’s first university-wide senate in early January, claiming that it was politically biased and did not reflect Palestinian concerns.
“By using [MTF] funding, you are essentially integrating and promoting a pro-Israeli agenda into the university system,” Fatima Ahmad, a Palestinian student protester, said during the meeting.
The group of students in attendance posed several demands to SGA — including a request for pro-BDS legislation, which Patterson rejected in a press release.
Following the trip and the protests, Patterson said in the release that SGA has no power to pass pro-BDS legislation, as the university is state-funded and must adhere to Georgia Senate Bill 327.
The bill, which went into effect in July 2016 and has been referred to as the “anti-BDS bill,” prevents the state of Georgia from entering into contracts with companies that boycott — or plan to boycott — the state of Israel.
But protesters in the meeting expressed demands on how the trip SGA members attended may have influenced them — after all, that is MTF’s mission statement.
SGA REPS GO QUIET
As far as the constitution defines it, a gift to an SGA representative is anything over $5. It’s safe to say the trip to Israel exceeded that cash total.
But Beckwith says there may be more questions for the student government to consider if they set an impeachment process in motion for the representatives that attended — like what the intentions behind the trip were and whether the experience influenced SGA stances and decisions.
The Signal reached out to all four current SGA members that went to Israel. Senators Rahman and Mejia chose not to comment. EVP Iqbal did not respond to questions by press time.
President Patterson confirmed that with the exception of a few meals and personal purchases, the entire experience abroad was free.
But, aside from conditions like having to complete an interview prior to the trip, there were no conditions that required any of the members to take a specific stance on an issue — before or after the trip, according to Patterson.
Patterson declined to comment on the differentiation of being sent on the trip as students or as representatives of their organization — which GSU Hillel said influenced their selection process.
“I would encourage any SGA member — any student leader — to go on trips that expand their horizons, expand their knowledge,” Patterson said.
SGA members, alongside other Georgia State leaders, took up GSU Hillel’s offer to go on the trip. But in SGA’s recent press release, Patterson claimed the members went solely as students, not as representatives of the university’s governance council.
And even though GSU Hillel’s coordinator made the decision to invite them because of their leadership positions on campus, there’s nothing in SGA’s constitution that identifies when (and if) members can detach from those leadership duties, and when they’re acting as student representatives.
Disclaimer: The Signal Editor-in-Chief Daniel Varitek was also invited and attended the trip to Israel. The article does not reflect Varitek’s experience on the trip.
Update (02/22/2019 at 6:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated a protester’s last name. The correct name is Fatima Ahmad.