Passionate U-M Hillel students worked hard
to combat on-campus anti-Israel resolution.
Turmoil at the University of Michigan over a controversial divestment proposal culminated at an emotionally charged six-hour meeting of the Central Student Government (CSG) assembly, where the resolution was defeated by a 25-9 vote. Endorsed by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) and other groups, the resolution asked the university to divest funds from four companies: Caterpillar, General Electric, Heidelberg Cement and United Technologies. Supporters alleged that those businesses were violating the human rights of Palestinians by engaging in military contracts with Israel.
While dissention over the issue spread across campus, U-M Hillel student leaders were hard at work behind the scenes, advocating for the defeat of the resolution while striving to keep the growing acrimony at bay.
“The resolution has caused a divided campus; it’s very polarizing,” said Becca Levin of Cleveland, a sophomore and Israel Cohort Chair at U-M Hillel. “We came together to figure out how we could work together.”
The controversy escalated following a student government meeting on March 18, where members voted 21-15 to table the divestment resolution indefinitely.
Before that meeting, U-M Hillel student leaders were prepared with speeches and support, but made a conscious decision not to give attention to the divestment campaign through social media and other means. That soon changed.
After the March 18 meeting, disgruntled members of SAFE and other groups staged a weeklong sit-in at the CSG chambers, insisting that their voices be heard. Some students who had voted for indefinite postponement said they received threats; others became worried about their safety on campus.
CSG President Michael Proppe met with sit-in organizers and agreed to present a motion for reconsideration of the resolution at its next meeting on March 25.
Hillel student leaders and staff members again swung into action, holding brainstorming sessions late into the night to determine the best way to gain support and encourage a large number of people to attend the March 25 meeting.
They drafted a template letter to CSG representatives outlining problems with BDS and made these available to students so they could reach out to representatives. And they made lists of friends and classmates who could help spread the word across campus.
Ultimately, more than 4,000 people were invited to the meeting via scores of emails, text messages and a special Facebook group called “Invest in Peace.” Speakers were enlisted to prepare comments for the public comment portion of the meeting, where both sides would have the opportunity to present their respective opinions. Each side also was allotted 30 minutes for a guest speaker.
According to junior Michele Freed of Ann Arbor, U-M Hillel Governing Board chair, the group worked carefully to choose the speakers and to ensure the various speeches conveyed the appropriate messages without insulting those in favor of the resolution.
“We discussed the words being used; we took out any accusatory language,” Freed said. “Through that process, people grew and learned to think critically.”
While several students had differing opinions about how to accomplish their mutual goals, everyone was treated with respect.
SAFE and other organizations also publicized the need to attend the March 25 meeting, resulting in more than 800 people lining up inside the Michigan Union, where the CSG chambers are housed. The general assembly room, which holds 400, was filled to capacity, while 200 people watched the proceedings from an overflow room. More than 300 others were turned away. There was a live stream feed, which Freed believes was seen by an estimated 4,000 viewers.
The students encountered a few unpleasant surprises prior to the meeting. According to Freed, their group had been told that no one could line up before 7:30 p.m., but by 6:45 a long line had already formed, consisting mainly of supporters of the resolution.
“The audience who got inside was not representative of the general student population,” she said. “The majority of those who were left out were opposing the resolution.”
Another unexpected occurrence was the announcement that a lottery would be held to determine who would be allowed to speak, so that many of those who had prepared speeches were not able to present them. The students scrambled to distribute the prepared speeches to those who had been selected by the lottery.
Freed, selected during the lottery, read a speech written by another student and added some of her own thoughts based on research she had done about the companies targeted by the resolution.
“Some of those companies did really incredible things. GE is involved in medical research, and Caterpillar helps with disaster relief and also builds houses,” she said.
The meeting began at 8 p.m. and lasted until 2 a.m., culminating in a vote of 25-9 to defeat the resolution. Five CSG members abstained. Due to the proliferation of threats after the vote to indefinitely postpone the resolution, a silent ballot was used to alleviate fears of potential repercussions to voters.
More Work To Do
While they are happy the resolution was defeated, Hillel student leaders made it clear they do not consider the vote a victory or cause for celebration.
“We don’t see this as a win,” Levin said. “Nothing is over. The majority of students are interested in having conversations about the Middle East and figuring out how we can work together.”
Freed agreed. “This is the first step in bringing students together,” she said. “A lot of people still don’t feel safe on campus.”
Freed believes the current controversy was sparked by an incident at the end of last year, when students in six residence halls received mock eviction notices created and distributed by members of SAFE’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) committee.
“The notices were intended to simulate those received by Palestinians,” Freed said. “It was very concerning and caused a lot of friction. The dorms are supposed to be a place of safety and comfort.”
Levin is concerned that many students who supported the resolution did not understand its true implications or view it as a potential roadblock to peace in the Middle East.
“It was framed as a human rights issue — if you don’t support this, you don’t support human rights,” she said. “The BDS founders say the situation harms workers, but some of these companies employ Palestinians.”
Not every Jewish student was in favor of the action taken by the CSG. In an editorial published in the Michigan Daily, David Snider, an Orthodox Jew, said he believed the issue should have been permanently tabled because of the divisiveness, mutual blame, and lack of productive and respectful dialogue that has resulted.
“Lately, I have been getting what I can only describe as ‘hate stares’,” Snider wrote. “I am being judged, not for what I believe or for who I am, but simply because of the religion I am a part of.”
He wrote that he attended the March 25 meeting but chose not to sit with the group opposing the divestment resolution.
“I did not think I needed to join in with a group to support what I believe in,” he wrote. “I sat surrounded by people standing up and passionately chanting and, by the end, I honestly did not feel safe.”
Outside Support Offered
Support for the U-M Hillel students’ efforts was provided by other organizations on campus and in Metro Detroit. A joint letter from Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, commended U-M Hillel students and staff, as well as the surrounding community, for their cooperation and hard work.
“U-M Hillel and the Jewish students there showed that with good preparation, cool heads and respectful presentations, Israel’s advocates can prevail,” said Sharon Lipton, JCRC president. “We’re proud of them and of the student government leaders who voted to do the right thing rather than cave to intimidation from BDS proponents.”
Tilly Shames, U-M Hillel executive director, said some of the organizations offered to attend the meeting to support the cause, but she felt it was important for the meeting and preparatory work to be done primarily by students.
“We kept our Federation and organizational partners regularly informed of what was happening on campus,” she said. “What was most important was that the students had their space to be able to address their own campus issues. I am grateful for the support our partners provided, but also the space they allowed for the students to exhibit their own leadership and advocacy.”
Shames said the students have followed up with other student groups that supported the divestment resolution. They hope to meet with group leaders to learn about their position and to share why Hillel does not support BDS.
“We hope this will help our campus move forward and see there are many sides to this issue,” she said. “Our students are committed to dialogue and building a more peaceful campus climate moving forward. My hope is that they will be met halfway and will find partners to improve campus relations together.”
Junior Elana Graf of Minneapolis, U-M Hillel vice chair, agrees that the recent vote is a step toward an ongoing dialogue between the opposing factions. She and others hope the university administration will take steps to resolve the conflict and dissipate the tension.
“Our whole campus is very divided, and it’s time to move forward,” Graf said. “We did a good job getting people together, now it’s important that we’re still there to continue the work.” ■
Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer