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Inside University of Michigan’s Israel Divestment Debate

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.

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 resolution itself called for the university to investigate its investment portfolio and divest from companies whose sales to Israel allegedly tied the firms to human rights violations against the Palestinians. SAFE identified United Technologies, General Electric, Heidelberg Cement, and Caterpillar as among these companies. The result was one SAFE expected. But Barbara Harvey, a co-founder of the Jewish Voice for Peace’s chapter in Detroit, said the night was a huge victory.

“This was the first significant exposure [this campus] has had to the Palestinian narrative,” enthused Harvey, whose group supports the divestment drive.

Sophomore Erica Mindel, president of I-LEAD said she was upset because she felt inhibited from expressing her feelings at times.

“Any time that anybody in our community would say that we’re trying to understand your narrative and we accept your narrative as legitimate, that wasn’t reciprocated in any way,” Mindel said. “It’s scary to be targeted like that, and scary to know that how you’re feeling won’t be accepted as legitimate by other people on this campus.”

Her sentiment could be heard, in mirror image, on the other side. SAFE supporter Joel Reinstein said of the pro-Israel students, “They just clearly weren’t listening. They were continually speaking for Palestinians. They were continually ignoring the arguments we were putting forward in terms of their responses. They were ignoring these incredible heartbreaking Palestinian narratives.”

As a journalist for the campus daily, I found it a very hard week. I have friends on both sides of the conflict, and while I’m Jewish and come to the issue with a bias, I found myself swaying back and forth throughout the week. I saw students stretching towards compassion and I saw students angry and full of hate. I’ve been a part of this issue since I was born, but have never felt so torn between the sides as I do currently.

They say college is over before you know it. But this past week is one that will define many students’ experience here.

Yardain Amron is a staff reporter for the Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


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