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.
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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.

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