Pro-Palestinian protest at U-M raises concern among Jewish students.
Shouting “Long Live the Intifada” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” from bullhorns, pro-Palestinian supporters unfurled large Palestinian flags and marched through the campus of the University of Michigan and then through the streets of Ann Arbor Thursday, Jan. 12.
The student organization Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) timed the march with Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Ann Arbor campus to discuss the challenge of climate change. The marchers were also protesting a recent proposal from the new Israeli government to ban the flying of the Palestinian flag in Israel and the disputed territories.
Videos of the protest circulated widely on social media and received millions of views.
The chants calling for an intifada alarmed some Jewish alumni and students, many whom were not yet born during the height of these waves of terrorism. According to data from the Israeli Embassy, the Second Intifada lasted from 2000-2005. During this period, Palestinian suicide bombers used increasingly powerful bombs to kill larger numbers of Israelis in their terror attacks.
More than 1,000 Israelis were killed and thousands severely injured. Over 2,000 Palestinians were also killed during this period. The disproportionate number of Palestinian casualties was primarily a result of the number of Palestinians involved in violence. The deaths of noncombatants were largely due to the practice of Palestinian terrorists using civilians as shields, according to the Israeli Embassy.
Following the march, student group Wolverines for Israel released a statement on its Instagram page. The group acknowledged that while it disagrees with the rightward slant of the current Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and law proposals to ban the Palestinian flag there, the campus protest carried things too far.
The statement read: “Instead of fairly criticizing the law, student organizations ‘protested’ it by carrying a sign stating, ‘there is only one solution’ and chanting ‘long live the intifada,’ in other words a call to violence against Israelis and the Jewish state. As we have seen over the last year, such violent rhetoric has led to the brutalizing of Jews in the United States as well. This direct call for violence directly affects the lives of many innocent Israelis and is not the solution for peace.”
Wolverines for Israel did not offer further comment when contacted by the JN.
In its written charter, SAFE, which is the local chapter of the national Students for Justice in Palestine, states that it “upholds itself and its members to a high standard of conduct in order to engage in positive student activism that promotes the stated mission. Individuals or groups acting as members, representatives or sponsors of SAFE agree to abide by the guiding principles of the organization.”
However, the organization — under the guise of protecting human rights — has a record for escalating tensions on campus for Jewish and pro-Israel students. This year, just as it has done in the past, it has endorsed passing a resolution within the University of Michigan Central Student Government (U-M CSG) calling for the university to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) any ties to Israel as well as businesses that do business in Israel.
The U-M CSG passed this resolution in 2017 in Ann Arbor, and BDS resolutions passed on all U-M campuses in 2018. However, the university has long maintained that it rejects any call to boycott Israel, continues to hold academic and research ties to the Jewish state, and still invests in companies doing business in Israel.
In 2015, SAFE brought up ethics charges against Jewish Central Student Government member Jesse Arm who expressed his support for Israel by voicing his displeasure of the presence of an apartheid wall installed on campus by the organization immediately following a terror attack that killed an American Jewish student in the West Bank.
In 2018, SAFE wrote an open letter in the Michigan Daily newspaper standing in solidarity with John Cheney-Lippold, the professor who refused to give a student a letter of recommendation because she chose a study abroad program in Israel and he supported the BDS movement.
In 2020, SAFE sponsored and hosted a clandestine Palestine Youth Movement Conference. The conference was held in an undisclosed location on campus and did not list keynote speakers or details of any lectures or workshops. Those who wished to attend had to first be vetted by a member of SAFE and had to swear their allegiance to Palestine in a Google form.
In 2021, at the height of Hamas’ escalation with Israel, SAFE, in collaboration with the U-M CSG, issued a statement that came squarely down on the side of Palestinians. It claimed that Israel was complicit in genocide and ethnic cleansing while ignoring the thousands of rockets Hamas fired from the Gaza strip that terrorized Israelis for nearly 10 days.
The JN contacted SAFE and the university administration several times for comment for this story. Neither responded.
Ethan Friedman, 22, a senior from White Plains, New York, studying International Relations with a minor focus on Middle East Security Issues, said there has been a feeling of unease among his Jewish friends.
“The one solution language evokes the final solution, and ethnic cleansing of Israelis. Like, really. What solution are they calling for when they call for an intifada?”
— u-m student Ethan Friedman
Friedman said if Jewish students marched on campus with Israeli flags crying for the end to Hamas, there would be an outpouring of disapproval. But somehow, he said pro-Palestinian activists waving national flags and calling for intifada and holding signs calling for “one solution” has been normalized and accepted on campus.
“What is most troubling to the Jewish students I know and myself is this ‘one solution’ sentiment, which is growing in popularity on campus,” Friedman said. “The ‘one solution’ language evokes the final solution and ethnic cleansing of Israelis. Like, really. What solution are they calling for when they call for an intifada?”
Friedman said while he has felt comfortable carrying an Israeli flag on campus to pro-Israel events, he and other Jewish students feel they must keep their heads down and their pro-Israel leanings silent in the classroom, especially in Middle Eastern studies classes within the university’s College of Literature, Science and Arts.
“Outside the classroom, we know there is no point in starting a dialogue with students like this when they spread their misinformation because we know nothing will come of it,” Friedman explained. “Inside the classroom, if a professor presents skewed information about the Middle East and the origins of the State of Israel, Jewish students like me feel, though we know the information is skewed, we do not want to counter that information and annoy a professor who will determine what our academic standing will be.”
HILLEL AND STUDENT GROUP TAKE ACTION
In a Jan. 18 email signed by Michigan Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shemer and its board of Trustees, Michigan Hillel responded to concerned students, parents, alumni and community members following the march.
“During this rally, the organizers chanted ‘Long Live the Intifada,’ which for many members of our Jewish community recalls images of violent uprisings and terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. We share your concerns regarding this language and want to let you know how our Hillel has responded and is moving forward. … We are also in communication with the campus administration to convey the harmful impact of the language used during the protest. For many in our community, calls for ‘intifada’ invoke memories of violence in Israel during the Second Intifada, including terror attacks, suicide bombings, and thousands of civilian deaths and injuries. Words like these can have a strong and hurtful impact on members of our community. They are also an example of when criticism of a specific Israeli policy (in this case, a proposed ban of a flag) can escalate into anti-Israel or antisemitic rhetoric.”
The letter repeated the organization’s mission of meeting the needs of students, supporting their growth and empowering their identity.
In response to the anti-Israel climate that the protest may perpetuate on campus this semester, Hillel officials said the organization is going to host a series of events for students that address the language of the protest, how it causes harm and how students can talk about this openly with others on the issue. Hillel will also provide and encourage impacted students to share their concerns with the university administration and invites students of all backgrounds to participate in Hillel’s six-part educational series on antisemitism, which includes anti-Israel activism.
Also this semester, Hillel’s Israel Fellow will host a number of classes about Israel to deepen one’s understanding of the complex history of the country, among other Israeli-focused programs.
The grassroots organization Students Supporting Israel (SSI) said that the university needs to investigate and hold SAFE accountable for incendiary activity that may lead to violence against Jewish students on campus. Following the Jan. 12 march, SSI circulated an online petition for the university to adhere to its 2016-2021 Diversity Equity and Inclusion strategic plan, which states that the university will “uphold accountability in commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
In its petition, SSI pointed out that with a student body that is 14% Jewish, the University of Michigan has the fifth largest Jewish population of any American institution of higher education.
“It is the obligation of University of Michigan to speak out and suspend SAFE from campus,” stated the petition. “At a time where words hold a powerful influence and the Jewish community is ranked the number one targeted community in the country per hate crimes in relation to global population, violent chants can, and have, easily escalated into violent actions against Zionists and Jewish students on campus.”
“During this rally, the organizers chanted ‘Long Live the Intifada,’ which for many members of our Jewish community recalls images of violent uprisings and terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. We share your concerns regarding this language and want to let you know how our Hillel has responded and is moving forward.”
— Michigan Hillel
As examples, SSI Executive Director Ilan Sinelnikov, who is based in Delray Beach, Florida, pointed to examples in the spring of 2021 when Jews in Los Angeles and New York were attacked by violent protesters carrying Palestinian flags. In April 2022, brothers of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, claim they were harassed by protesters carrying a Palestinian flag shortly after a pro-Palestinian demonstration there.
Sinelnikov said the petition is being circulated widely and has already collected over 500 signatures. Though there is not an active SSI chapter in Ann Arbor, he said interested students can contact him to get involved through the organization’s website.
“After we wrote this petition, a few students at the University of Michigan have begun to reach out to us,” Sinelnikov said. “We plan to send this to the university president and the University Board of Trustees, and we are petitioning the university to suspend SAFE’s access to apply for campus funding and suspend SAFE’s use of campus facilities for their events.
“Because of this petition, we have heard from concerned students on campus, some who even saw the pro-intifada march. They are not happy about it and they want to get involved. So, if a bad event or a bad action such as this leads to more proactive actions on behalf of our Jewish students, that’s all we need.
“In our organization, we teach students to not just keep quiet and keep their heads down when confronted with anti-Israel actions. We teach them to be proactive, visible and how to respond.”
A PARENT’S CONCERN
Parent Gayle Chait of Seal Beach, California, who had one daughter graduate from U-M and a second currently enrolled, said she had hoped Hillel’s statement would have been stronger.
She said she has contacted Hillel, the University of Michigan administration and the Federation in Ann Arbor with concern and got little to no personal response regarding the Jan. 12 march.
“It’s time for this university to stop being complacent and complicit and do something,” Chait said.
“I have not personally heard back from [University President Santa Ono] on a plan of action. I feel like Hillel and the Jewish Federation are not doing much in the way that I see from their actions or lack thereof. When the university and Hillel do not swiftly and strongly denounce this hatred, it sets a precedent.
“The University of Michigan has done a great job not denouncing antisemitism on its campus,” Chait said.
“It also sends a message to Jewish students: ‘Figure it out on your own because we aren’t here to protect you.’ It also makes for an unsafe campus for Jewish stu-