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The Michigan Defeat; the Michigan Victory – Keeping the Issue of Palestine Alive on Campus

Whether the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movements on campuses are successful, they are raising awareness.

Divestment Quilt

Shortly after the American Studies Association (ASA) voted last December for an academic boycott of Israel, college and university presidents began to write op-eds and letters criticizing the vote, specifically as it seemed to threaten business as usual on their campuses. Instead of recapitulating what I have written elsewhere, I want to focus here on how college and university students have been advocating for and debating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

First, some generational issues, nicely expressed by Professor Nick Bromell in an Open Letter to Amherst College President Biddy Martin regarding her letter criticizing the ASA boycott. Among other things, Bromell reminds Martin that her criticism is not unlike that of university and college administrators with regard to protests during his time on campus:

When I attended Amherst back in the early 1970s, students responded to President Nixon’s intensification and expansion of the war against Vietnam and Cambodia by insisting that the College halt “business as usual” and consider the ways in which it was complicit in the war effort. Using words strikingly like yours, the institution’s first response to these students’ calls was to claim that they threatened “academic freedom.” In those years too, African-American students demanded that the College halt “business as usual” and face the ways its curriculum and community were perverted by racism. Using language remarkably like yours, the institution’s first response was to claim that these students were irresponsibly jeopardizing the College’s “academic freedom.”

As soon became clear, however, these students and their social movements did not curtail “academic freedom.” They broadened it. Thanks to these students’ efforts, we have now have a Five-College Program in Peace and World Security Studies that focuses on exactly the issues the College’s conventional curriculum in the early 1970s omitted and occluded…. Doubtless you know this history well. You graduated from college just one year after I did. This is the history of our lifetime.

It is heartening to see that many people are passionately involved, and that the legacy of activism is strong in those, young and old, who have not given in to complacency. In fact, as their administrators criticized the boycott (unsurprisingly, none mentioned that the boycott was an entirely legal exercise in academic freedom), students began writing letters to their administrators defending those who supported the boycott and in effect educating their administrators on the actual content of the resolution and the issues involved. One letter, written to their administration by Tufts students andalumni, eloquently states:

In our local community, it has come to our attention that several Tufts faculty members have been targeted for signing on to the American Studies Association’s resolution. We hereby affirm our unwavering and unequivocal support for them and their right to express their opinions in an environment free of harassment, coercion, or intimidation.

These professors and leaders have encouraged us to open our minds, supported us in our varied endeavors, and helped us achieve our best work as our best selves. As they have supported and fiercely defended our academic freedom and self-expression, we now pledge to support and fiercely defend theirs.

There has been a marked change in the debate over Israel-Palestine. Little by little, in various parts of the campus, one finds small but significant openings in the discussion. For example, even in Hillel groups, there are signs that students wish to speak more freely and with a wider set of options as to what is permissible to discuss, as in the case at Swarthmore.

Sadly, it is inevitable that when this topic is discussed emotions can take over, and the instantaneous and global nature of social media and Internet blogging can in such cases make the situation worse. For example, when students at the University of Michigan recently held a vote on a resolution for divestment from firms who directly or indirectly violate human rights, a photo on one pro-divestment student’s Facebook page of him wearing a keffiyeh and stabbing a pineapple went viral, with comments like, “This photo of a thug leader of the BDS (‘Boycott, Divest and Sanction’ the Jewish State) is illustrative of the kind of intimidation and threats Jewish students on college campuses face on a regular basis. These genocide fetishists think their Jew-hatred is pious and sanctioned by Allah.”

Well, if it is typical, that’s a sad statement. As the reputed jihadist explained in an op-ed:

It is embarrassing to even have to address this. None of these claims are true whatsoever. I jokingly posted the photo on Facebook before any talk of a divestment resolution started. I was playing on an intramural basketball team and posted the photo in the lead-up to a game against a team of friends. Their team was called Ananas – the name of their favorite sandwich joint in Dearborn, also the Arabic word for pineapple. In the caption, I tagged the members of Team Ananas and wrote, “It’s on,” alluding to the basketball game we had the following week.

The photo was an innocent joke that engaged in a longstanding basketball rivalry between friends, who were overwhelmingly Arab and non-Arab Muslim. At another level, the photo was intended to make fun of racial stereotypes of Arabs as violent and extreme by juxtaposing the image of a “violent” Arab man with a piece of fruit. When your identity is repeatedly demonized in public, all you can do is laugh it off.

The need for open and rational discussion of this subject is thus more necessary than ever, which is why “open” Hillels and just plain open conversations are the first step. Again, for this one would expect that the university and its various institutions and organs would hold true to their commitment to democratic process and academic freedom.

However, the divestment vote at the University of Michigan in fact almost did not happen at all, such was the feeling on the part of some that even discussing the matter was too divisive. Again, it just so happened that the “divisive” element came from those who questioned the status quo. At first the student government voted to permanently table the proposal, effectively denying the petitioners even a hearing. This denial was met with a massive sit-in and roundly called out by the campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily:

Last Tuesday, the Central Student Government voted to indefinitely postpone a vote on Assembly Resolution 3-050, which was proposed by members of SAFE [Students Allied for Freedom and Equality]. The resolution called for CSG to petition the Board of Regents to create an ad hoc committee to investigate University investments in companies accused of violating human rights, including General Electric, Heidelberg Cement, Caterpillar Inc. and United Technologies. The CSG Student Assembly voted to indefinitely postpone a decision on the resolution.

CSG’s refusal to vote on the resolution was a failure in the institution of student representation. Student government has a responsibility to listen to the demands of the student body. The student government is not bound by any requirement to only represent a majority voice on campus. In fact, as the representative body, CSG is obligated to highlight the perspective of minority and underrepresented groups. A blind endorsement of the majority prerogative is to create a dangerously homogenous voice. The University of Michigan is a diverse institution that values all points of view, and the student government should act as such.

By refusing to even allow a robust debate on the proposed resolution, the CSG Student Assembly effectively ignored the very constituency they were elected to represent. Furthermore, by enacting an indefinite postponement and thus denying future dialogue, CSG not only failed to listen to students, but effectively silenced SAFE and the 37 student organizations in support, a significant student voice on campus. With CSG presidential election polls closing tonight, the next administration needs to take steps to ensure that this injustice does not happen again.

A group from the Jewish community at the University made the same points: “We believe the Central Student Government (CSG) has an obligation to respond to the divestment review resolution put forward by SAFE in the same manner they respond to all other resolutions put forward. We believe that by postponing a vote indefinitely, CSG silenced the voices of Palestinians on this campus. We support their recent decision to bring this to a vote and appreciate their recognition of the breakdown of democracy that occurred last Tuesday night. As Jewish faculty, staff, alumni and undergraduate and graduate students, we stand in solidarity with Palestinian students as they ask for recognition of their voices.”

One faculty member, Alan Wald, wrote a letter to the students that is entirely in the spirit found in Bromell’s statement quoted at the start of this article: “Despite all the accusations of ‘divisiveness’ by Hillel and others, the truth is that I have not seen such intellectual electricity around such important and complicated issues on this campus in years. In addition to everything else, the divestment campaign has been (and will be) a positive addition to the quality of educational life at U-M to which everyone should be indebted. What happened last night was in the best tradition of earlier movements here for civil rights, free speech, against the Vietnam War, against US intervention in Latin America, and against S. African apartheid. In each case, many people likewise stood up in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ to provide a zillion reasons why those of us proposing resolutions and militant action had our facts wrong and that our proposals would only make things worse, etc.”

Well, after the long sit-in demonstration, and much discussion, the vote was finally held. The resolution went down in flames. But the statement from the sponsoring group points out the larger victory. Not only were they able to get a hearing and a vote, in so doing they kept the discussion alive and in turn have inspired similar actions nationally. Here is an excerpt from their statement:

While the CSG’s vote against Assembly Resolution AR-3-050 was lopsided against our resolution, the result was no surprise… However, for the last week, the entire campus has been talking about divestment from corporations involved in human rights violations. Students forged new relationships and strengthened old ones with communities of color and progressive student organizations. The Michigan Daily’s resounding endorsement of our resolution confirms Tuesday night’s moral victory and ratifies the strength of our arguments. Make no mistake – while a resolution did not pass, we galvanized student support across campus.

More than 23,000 viewers witnessed dramatic proceedings via an online life stream video recording. That was the ultimate victory. In the end, we generated what amounted to a campus-wide, weeklong referendum on divestment and its role in realizing Palestinian self-determination.

One of the largest groups working on this issue – Students for Justice in Palestine – has been a bulwark in the struggle to give the Palestinian cause a fair hearing on college campuses. Not only is the organization growing, it is connecting up with other progressive groups on many campuses and, crucially, with student groups in Palestine. At Stanford SJP leader Kristian Davis Bailey tells of last year’s national conference:

We held the Students for Justice in Palestine national conference at Stanford last year and we’re already starting to see the effects of the theme “Connecting Struggles, Forging a National Movement.” It was exhilarating to watch what some of my friends and co-organizers called “Divestment Tuesday” – Loyola Chicago, Arizona State, Michigan and San Diego State all brought forward divestment resolutions within 24 hours of each other. Regardless of the outcome, it was clear that our coalitions are growing stronger and – especially coming out of Michigan – that our moral mandate is becoming increasingly clear to the mainstream. As we work to fight the backlash that many of our groups face, we are also working to build solidarity across our SJPs, with other anti-imperialist, transnational groups like Anakbayan and MEChA, and with our student peers in Palestine.

If the BDS movement is successful, it will be in large part because of this sort of broad, imaginative coalition building between diverse sets of people. Each success, and each defeat, ultimately does the same work of keeping the discussion from being silenced and hidden. On college campuses this is especially crucial, as a form of learning, teaching, and activism that perpetuates a legacy of protest against injustice.

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