Inside University of Michigan's Israel Divestment Debate

Letter from Ann Arbor

A Campus Divided: Students at the University of Michigan called on their school to divest from companies that they say contribute to human rights violations against the Palestinians.
Adam Glanzman/Michigan Daily
A Campus Divided: Students at the University of Michigan called on their school to divest from companies that they say contribute to human rights violations against the Palestinians.

By Yardain Amron

Published March 30, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

Now it was the night of that meeting. Hours earlier, I visited the SAFE sit-in, then in its sixth day. A poster hanging on the door to the CSG chambers renamed the room the “Edward Said Lounge,” in honor of the late anti-Zionist Columbia University professor who advocated for the Palestinian people. Next to it, another poster in red, green and black lettering read, “We Will Be Heard.”

Inside, about 20 students — a majority Palestinian, but with other races and ethnicities clearly represented — chatted casually about Rihanna and Beyonce, and passed around a hand drum.

Freshman Sarah Blume, a Jewish student and SAFE supporter, happened to be an Arabic language classmate of mine. She talked about growing up in the Reform movement and attending Hebrew school at her synagogue every Sunday.

“I never questioned who the Palestinians were or what they advocated for,” she said. “I always saw them as the enemy, the terrorist. That’s how I was brought up to think, and I think that’s terrible.”

As her views on the issue evolved, said Blume, she initially found it difficult to talk about with Jewish friends.

“It’s kind of a coming out process for people who don’t know your views,” she said. “This is such a strong issue on campus and creates very hostile feelings, I think unfortunately that’s the reality. But at the same time, I think that’s what can instigate change — the more people speak out — and a Jewish voice is very helpful with that.”

Later that evening, as we waited in line to enter the ballroom where the SAFE proposal would be reconsidered, sophomore Jonathan Friedman, a pro-Israel activist, said the group’s resolution effectively threw away any chance at dialogue.

“I think we have a really interesting opportunity here on campus,” said Friedman, who is vice president of Israel - Leadership, Education, Advocacy, Dialogue. “We could be a part of a movement that I think already has divided a lot of campuses; or we have an option to … begin a movement where we actually start listening to what everybody else has to say and start working towards something positive, working towards something that can effectively help both peoples.”

This underlined an important distinction between even the moderate pro-Israel students and the pro-Palestinian activists. The emphasis of the former was, for the most part, on “dialogue,” a goal many upheld as inherently valuable.

The SAFE students voiced interest in dialogue, too. But they had another goal that seemed to them equally, if not more important: helping in a concrete way, with the means they saw at hand, to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its perceived violations of Palestinian human rights. Their contribution from distant Ann Arbor, Mich. might not be much. But it was pressure, not just discussion that they sought to generate.

In the ballroom SAFE’s supporters were clearly in the majority. On the back wall, a few students held up a 20-foot-long Palestinian flag, and the room erupted in cheers. Some 100 pro-Israel students were huddled in the back-right corner. In the front, 39 CSG members sat around a square of tables.

For the next five hours, discussion and debate gripped the room. About 90 students gave three-minute speeches in support of or in opposition to the divestment resolution. This community participation segment was extended twice. But the two sides were dug in too deep to really internalize opposing arguments.

By the time the CSG actually voted it was 1:30 a.m. When they voted on the actual SAFE resolution, the panel chose to do so by secret ballot, despite their status as elected representatives, accountable to the student body. Many cited the hostility they had experienced over the previous week and the thousands of strangers from around the country then tuned in over the internet as their justification.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.