Staring Down the Devil at the University of Michigan

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Source: The Tower, by Molly Rosen, Student at the University of Michigan, Class of 2014.

A first-hand account of how one of America’s elite schools became the latest flash point of anti-Israel activism and anti-Semitic intimidation.

When I first set foot on the University of Michigan campus four years ago, I felt like I was prepared for anything. I was determined to challenge myself and my beliefs. I was determined to learn from incredible professors and students. I was determined to make a difference. What I was not prepared for was a campus community polarized and paralyzed by a global political issue that had little to do with life at Ann Arbor.

I was not prepared to be told that, if I cared about human rights, I could not support Israel. I was not prepared to be told that my community was racist. I was not prepared to see my fellow students attacked with anti-Semitic slurs. And I was most definitely not prepared to be told that “anyone wearing the Israeli army uniform is a Ku Klux Klansman who does not deserve any place at any table in polite society because they are racist killers trying to break the back of Palestine, and they have succeeded.”

I heard these words for the first time as a newly elected student government representative in the winter of 2012. The University of Michigan’s Central Student Government (CSG) consists of a 50-person elected assembly with representatives from every undergraduate and graduate school. During the weekly assembly meetings, there is a section for Community Concerns, during which people have three minutes to address the assembly on any topic. I expected that this time slot would consist of students discussing new curriculum requirements or better dining facilities. Instead, it often consisted of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate speech. Every week certain individuals would urge students to take action against “the racist, Nazi state of Israel”; and every week I would sit there feeling utterly helpless.

Over the past year, the movement to divest from Israel has become a wedge issue for a once-united student body. Photo: phoebelb / Wikimedia

Over the past year, the movement to divest from Israel has become a wedge issue for a once-united student body. Photo: phoebelb / Wikimedia

So I decided to do something about it. I began asking questions outside CSG, learning about the issue on a deeper level and seeking out new perspectives with which I was unfamiliar. I took courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict, engaging with students of every background and political orientation, trying to make sense of the turmoil that grips the entire Middle East. The more I learned, the more I came to realize that the information many students were receiving outside of class was often de-contextualized, biased, and even hatefully skewed.

Clearly, a broader conversation was needed. Other students also recognized this void on campus, and together we founded a pro-Israel student organization dedicated to dialogue and civil discussion on the issue: I-LEAD.

As I-LEAD become more well-known among Jewish and non-Jewish students, the opportunities for dialogue only increased. I felt proud to be a part of such a positive campus that strived for coexistence despite our radically different political opinions.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

On the last day of classes in the Fall 2013 semester, thousands of U of M students woke up to an eviction notice from the University of Michigan Housing Department. It read,
If you do not vacate the premises by 13 DECEMBER 6 PM, we reserve the right to demolish your premises without delay. We cannot be held responsible for property or persons remaining inside. Charges for demolition will be applied to your student account.

This eviction notice was placed on more than 1,000 students' doors in dorms across campus.

This eviction notice was slipped under more than 1,000 students’ doors in dorms across campus.

This notice turned out to be a publicity stunt carried out by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), a student group that vows, in its code of conduct, to “only engage in peaceful and constructive actions.” In an op-ed that appeared in The Michigan Daily, they explained that the mock evictions were “a tool of political satire intended to emulate a situation that thousands of Palestinians confront on a regular basis.” They called for students to “join and support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement” against Israel.

The mock eviction campaign was a blatant violation of campus regulations, as the University Housing Department has a long-standing solicitation policy that bans non-dorm residents from handing out such material. The campaign disregarded intellectual openness and withheld important contextual information, while presenting misleading or outright untrue statements as “facts,” such as the claim that Israel is an apartheid state. Although SAFE claimed that their advocacy was “nothing controversial,” it was clearly intended to create unneeded and unwanted emotional distress on the part of those both educated and uneducated on the subject.

By addressing a complicated issue in an extremely offensive, aggressive, illogical, and factually incorrect manner, SAFE also disregarded their own code of conduct. The only “constructive” result of the mock eviction campaign was to tear communities and individuals at the university apart. Before the campaign, U of M students had taken tremendous steps toward focusing on peace initiatives and collaboration. But students who were engaged in Arab-Jewish dialogue with members of SAFE felt betrayed by the action.

A Palestinian flag unfurled at the Central Student Government's second vote on the BDS resolution. Photo: Ellie Geller

A Palestinian flag unfurled at the Central Student Government’s second vote on the BDS resolution. Photo: Ellie Geller

Following the incident, the pro-Israel community tried to engage in productive dialogue, reflecting on our thoughts, feelings, and utter confusion about how our U of M community was unnecessarily divided. We wrote articles and corrected misinformation in student publications and on Facebook and Twitter. We voiced concerns to our elected student government representatives and campus administrators. But the tenor of posts on social media and campus listservs became harsher still, filled with hate speech and biased information.

Hoping that winter vacation would wipe the slate clean, we were eager to begin the next semester and continue our programming and partnerships on campus. We wanted to help maintain a campus where intellectual openness, dialogue and respect is valued and upheld.

Once again, this did not happen. In fact, things have only gotten worse.

On March 18, SAFE brought a resolution before the CSG demanding that the university divest from Caterpillar, General Electric, Heidelberg Cement, United Technologies, and “all other companies that explicitly profit from and facilitate the Israeli occupation and siege of Palestinian land in violation of international law and human rights.” The resolution was part of a campaign that quickly spread across campus. This was similar to a proposed resolution that was introduced in 2005, and was defeated by a 11-25 vote.

Unlike the previous semester, the pro-Israel community was ready and prepared. We wrote speeches that represented our opinion that “BDS” — the effort by those who have failed in the past to destroy Israel through conventional military means, and later terrorism, to do so through delegitimization and economic strangulation — is outside the scope of student government, an ineffective means to achieve a resolution to the conflict, polarizes the campus community, and constitutes a one-sided tactic that presents one narrative while excluding others.

The meeting that night was chaotic, uncomfortable, and intimidating. There were frequent outbursts from the crowd that interrupted the official proceedings, and BDS advocates made snide allusions to the Birthright program and various Israeli “war crimes.” After hearing pro and con speeches, CSG members voted to postpone considering the resolution indefinitely. As one representative said, “This is Central Student Government. Not the United Nations.” Just after that vote, the crowd began chanting “Divest” loud enough and long enough that the meeting had to be adjourned before official business was completed.

The resolution’s supporters did not let up their disruptive behavior. The following night, SAFE and other anti-Israel activists staged a sit-in, occupying the CSG chambers and vowing to remain indefinitely unless CSG acceded to their demands. These included a revote on the issue, a mandatory “teach-in” to learn about divestment, an apology from CSG, an unlimited amount of student speaking time, and a requirement that CSG make all of its meetings open. Strangely, the latter two demands are already CSG policy.

In what shocked students, but failed to sufficiently alarm University administrators, the campus environment became as chaotic as the sit-in itself, and far more frightening. Students who opposed the boycott efforts were targeted—subject to derogatory tweets, targeted with slanderous names, and abused for how they express their personal and even religious beliefs.

It was not just individual students who were the victims of violent threats and intimidation by pro-Palestinian forces.  Student Government representatives were similarly targeted and, most tellingly, called “kike” and a “dirty Jew.” Both CSG representatives and ordinary students were afraid to attend their classes because they felt unsafe.

The line to enter the hearing room for the March 25th vote. Photo: Atara Lakritz

The line to enter the hearing room for the March 25th vote. Photo: Atara Lakritz

The University administration responded via a campus-wide email:

A core value of the University of Michigan is respect for diverse ideas and viewpoints. Today we reiterate that core value expressed in the university’s policy on Freedom of Speech and Artistic Expression. This value is never more important than when addressing issues raised by students. It is important to understand how students on all sides of an issue think and are affected while remaining mindful of our campus ethos of civility and respect.

Leaders of the pro-Israel community devised a multi-faceted approach. Our first step was to educate our community on what had occurred and provide a safe place to congregate at the campus Hillel. As a diverse yet extremely cohesive community, we drafted letters of support and thanks to our elected representatives, voiced our concerns to the dean of students and the administration, and discussed ways to avoid fighting fire with fire. Above all, however, we wanted to move beyond this hateful episode.

Unfortunately, the CSG capitulated to one of SAFE’s demands. It decided to revote the BDS resolution. Student Body President Michael Proppe explained,
While I am not personally supportive of the resolution—or any divestment resolution, as I have made clear throughout my time in CSG—I do believe this resolution should have gone up for a vote. Never before, to my knowledge, has the Assembly voted to indefinitely postpone a resolution. The Assembly typically just votes “no” on resolutions it does not feel are the place of CSG to debate…. The Central Student Government needs to take steps to resolve this situation not because there is a sit-in, but because students feel that CSG would not listen to their concerns.

A hearing was set for March 25.

We mobilized immediately. We launched an “Invest in Peace” campaign, and thousands of students showed their support for this unifying message. We posted positive messages on our Facebook and Twitter pages, and urged our pro-Israel communities to share these positive messages across campus. Messages read,

I support all narratives. I support positive change. I support a unified campus. DIVESTMENT DOESN’T. On Tuesday (March 25) CSG will vote on a resolution that calls for Divestment of companies tied to Israel. Come to CSG TUESDAY NIGHT at 7pm at the UNION. INVEST IN PEACE, SHOW YOUR SUPPORT, WEAR MAIZE AND BLUE.

The hearing was so widely anticipated that only a small percentage of students were able to enter the room before it reached maximum capacity, even though it was Michigan Union’s largest. Overflow crowds were forced to watch from adjoining rooms inside the Union, in the Hillel building, and online. The livestream alone was seen by more than 24,000 people.

At the beginning of the hearing, each side brought expert guest speakers to make their case. On the No side, we brought four U of M law students. One explained that U of M policy held that controversial actions such as divestment should only take place “when a general consensus on a significant moral question has emerged within the University community.” Clearly, that consensus had not been reached. As their guest speaker, SAFE brought controversial author Max Blumenthal, whose most recent book was dubbed “The ‘I Hate Israel’ handbook” and compared to the Hamas position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Other than the guest speakers, award-winning U of M history professor Victor Lieberman (who gave historical context to the debate), and the four students who first introduced the resolution, students were allotted only three minutes to state their case. Even considering those constraints, proponents of the resolution dramatically oversimplified matters. They claimed voting Yes meant that CSG supported human rights; voting No meant they supported Israeli “war crimes.”

We held that a No vote meant that representatives would not accept a threat to their safety on campus, that such intimidating behavior was inappropriate and damaged campus unity and peace, and that the broader conversation about Israelis, Palestinians, and the prospects for peace in the Middle East deserved a safer space, with more nuance and patience than a three-minute limit allows. Furthermore, a Yes vote would indicate that CSG—and, by extension, our entire community—supported hateful attacks on our heritage and beliefs, silencing hundreds of student voices.

Inside the hearing room. Photo: Ellie Geller

Inside the hearing room. Photo: Ellie Geller

After almost six hours of debate, CSG representatives voted to vote by secret ballot because they were afraid of possible threats to their personal safety. When the final votes were tallied, hate lost. Nine representatives voted Yes, 25 voted No, and four abstained. The effort to pass BDS — to bully the CSG to pass BDS — failed. Spectacularly.

Our victory would not have been possible without help and support from Hillel, the Israel on Campus Coalition, and campus advocacy groups such as StandWithUs and AIPAC. Their assistance and encouragement fostered my pride in being Jewish and my passion for the state of Israel. Hillel, especially, has not just been a safe haven, but a place I feel challenged to do my best, and will push me to do so no matter what.

The pro-Israel community at the University of Michigan only grew stronger as a result of this experience. I am proud of the community we have fostered on campus; as well as the campaign for education, respect, and dialogue we have fostered, not just in the past few weeks, but over the past several years. I am proud to be a part of such a strong community, where we act rather than wallow in self-pity.

At the same time, however, I am saddened that I and so many other students had to go through such an experience. We faced intense hatred from former friends and many relationships we had worked hard to build were damaged. And this period of unrest may not be over. When the final tally was announced, SAFE members said their next step would be to lobby the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents. In the meantime, we in the pro-Israel community will work to continue an important conversation, in which everyone is treated with respect.