University of Michigan’s Jewish community had mixed feelings about the Youth for Palestine conference last weekend.
Pro-Israel organizations condemned a conference held on the University of Michigan campus last weekend aimed at connecting young pro-Palestinian students across the Midwest. But on campus, the University of Michigan’s Jewish community had mixed feelings about the event.
Palestinian Youth Movement and Midwest Students for Justice for Palestine held their second annual Youth for Palestine conference in Ann Arbor Jan. 25-26. The conference was hosted by the University of Michigan chapter of SJP, known on campus as Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.
The conference aimed to connect young people interested in Palestinian rights from various universities and schools across the Midwest through “two days of powerful talks,” according to a page on the conference website.
A schedule of events for the weekend was not made public, but the website advertised workshops on community organizing and a culture night featuring an Arab folk-dance competition. The conference also included a rally Sunday afternoon on the University of Michigan central campus Diag, attended by about 20 people, to protest imperialism worldwide. One chant at the rally called Israel a “terrorist state.”
Representatives from Palestinian Youth Movement, Midwest Students for Justice for Palestine, and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Detroit Jewish News. The Jewish News could not confirm how many people attended the conference or a list of speakers.
Several international pro-Israel organizations including StandWithUs and Students Supporting Israel condemned the conference prior to this weekend. Ilan Sinelnikov, president and founder of Students Supporting Israel, told the Jewish News Syndicate SSI “expects the University of Michigan to condemn and cancel such a hateful conference.”
In a statement on its Facebook page Saturday morning, Midwest SJP wrote they believe in the right to use higher education spaces as “mediums for social and political change.”
“We release this statement in the midst of an era characterized by the systemic censorship of campus activism in order to uplift the important work we do and reaffirm our fundamental right to free speech,” the post reads.
On campus, University of Michigan’s Jewish community viewed the event differently.
Meghann Norden-Bright, a senior at the university and a member of J Street UMich — which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — said she was happy to see students supporting self-determination.
“I think I’m pleased that there are people advocating for this because it feels like an important cause,” Norden-Bright said. But “I am aware that campus politics tend to get really nasty around this issue, and I was definitely a little wary of that happening and sort of bringing out strong voices on both sides of the issue that like can be less than [productive].”
Tilly Shames, executive director of Michigan Hillel, said she worried about the content being taught at the conference, but hadn’t heard students expressing their concerns.
“They recognize this conference would not be stopped as others were calling for, so our leadership students and staff focus their attention on bringing positive Israel programming to campus, building relationships with other campus groups, and focusing on the needs and interests of our Jewish students,” Shames wrote in an email to the Jewish News.
For his part, David Zwick, University of Michigan sophomore and president of the campus group Wolverines for Israel, said the conference highlighted the need for pro-Israel students on campus to organize and work together to make their voices heard.
“Regarding the recent Youth for Palestine conference, I feel that everyone, student and non-student alike, should inform himself on the proper methods for reacting to such a gathering. It goes without saying that such events should not be taken lightly.” Zwick wrote in a statement to the JN.
“With that in mind, I believe it is appropriate that we encourage greater communication within our camp and better coordinate our collective response. This commands both detailed education regarding the event itself as well as a deep familiarity with the resources at our disposal.”
Above all, the University’s Jewish community felt the reactions of off-campus organizations, as portrayed in news reports leading up to the conference, were disproportionate.
“I was deeply disappointed to see how our campus was depicted in the press this week,” Shames wrote. “… We wish the news of all of our positive Israel and bridge-building programming would spread as wide as the news reporting about one anti-Israel program so that our Jewish community could feel the same sense of pride that we do about our campus.”
Norden-Bright agreed, saying she felt uncomfortable with these international groups’ interest in the University of Michigan.
“That’s not how we are and that’s not who we are. That’s not what we align with,” she said. “I wouldn’t want somebody to look at the StandWithUs viewpoint and think that speaks for all Jews on campus.”