Pro-Palestinian students got trounced on an Israel-related stock divestment vote recently at the University of Michigan. The student government’s 25 to 9 vote against their proposal wasn’t even close.
Yet Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the student group that put forth the proposal, declared the defeat a terrific victory. And they may be right.
I sat toward the front of the campus ballroom where the March 25 vote was held, among Palestinians, some in keffiyehs and hijabs, but also many other students from a diversity of racial and ethnic groups. Towards the back, a smaller number of Jewish students waited wearing maize and blue — the University of Michigan’s school colors — to attest their opposition to divestment and support for a unified campus.
All 375 chairs in the ballroom gallery were filled and hundreds more students were refused entry because of fire code restrictions. About 200 students were placed in an adjacent screening room where they and over 2,000 others at home tuned in to a live-stream of the event.
What I was witnessing was the first true campus-wide discussion of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its alleged violations of Palestinian human rights. And it was a discussion that had grown to involve hundreds, and maybe thousands, of students.
One week earlier, in the same room, the Central Student Government had voted 21 to 15 to indefinitely table the same controversial divestment resolution, refusing to bring it to a vote. The next night SAFE and its supporters launched an indefinite sit-in at the CSG chambers above the ballroom, demanding that the student government consider their proposal. For six days they remained in the chambers, leaving only at night when the building closed at 2 a.m. and returning in the morning.
The student sit-in, with its echoes from the 1960’s, sparked off waves of tension on every side, especially for Jews, who constitute about 10% of the student body, and Arabs, who are also well represented. (Dearborn, Mich. is home to the largest Arab American population in the United States.)
The majority among the CSG members felt that the question of divestment and issues related to Israel and the Middle East were beyond the scope of student government. After the vote, some CSG members said they received threatening messages through social media and in-person. One student government representative, Chris Mays, said he felt unsafe attending class all week due to these threats. But SAFE denied any connection to these messages. And SAFE activists reported receiving threats and racist messages themselves. SAFE’s several hundred members, meanwhile, felt silenced and protested. They blamed CSG’s tabling of their proposal for contributing to a hateful climate.
The sit-in continued over several days amid mounting tensions, and on the weekend of March 21 school administrators got involved, speaking both with SAFE activists and Hillel members. E. Royster Harper, UM’s vice president for student life, emerged from a meeting with SAFE students at their sit-in site, and told The Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper, that she was “a little surprised that people have been talking about this as a violent movement; it’s just not the case. It has been just what you would expect from smart U of M students that are passionate about an important issue.”
The following Monday, CSG president Michael Proppe issued a statement apologizing for making SAFE students feel silenced and promising to support reconsideration of the group’s divestment proposal at CSG’s next meeting.