'Wherever We Stand': Pro-Israel groups and the campus divide

Cover by Jake Wellins
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By James Brennan, Columnist
Published March 31, 2015

In 1988, the Muslim Student Association and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee took to the Diag to construct a wooden “shanty house,” a popular protest among anti-apartheid activists of the time. The MSA and PSC were demonstrating in solidarity with the first Palestinian Intifada, painting on their shanty “STOP ISRAELI OPPRESSION.”

Angered by the demonstration, members of the right-leaning pro-Israel group Tagar responded in the fall with their own carpentry project: an Israeli school bus painted with flames shooting from its windows. The display was a memorial to a recent attack, where a mother and her three sons burned alive after terrorists firebombed the bus they were riding. The Tagar model carried the names of the four victims, as well as the demand “STOP ARAB TERRORISM, COME TO THE PEACE TABLE.”

Within hours of its construction, student complaints led Tagar members to reword their sign as “STOP ALL TERRORISM.” But it was already too late.

Outraged by the initial message, the Michigan Student Assembly — a predecessor to Central Student Government — moved to condemn Tagar, demanding an apology and threatening to derecognize the group. The Michigan Daily’s editorial page piled on, calling Tagar racist and endorsing the Assembly’s resolution to cut off funding.

The Michigan Daily

The 1988 controversy over Diag demonstrations was one in a long line of battles between the University’s large Jewish student population and vocal left wing — battles that go back more than thirty years. Fights over divestment resolutions are just the latest manifestations of tensions that have boiled over into racism, anti-Semitism, and exclusionary rules on speech. Israel-Palestine is a polarizing topic on any campus, but this is exacerbated at the University of Michigan, a school equally known for its radical activism and vibrant Jewish community (two traits not mutually exclusive). Powerful pro-Israel groups fuel this extreme polarization, whose resulting climate has led students to attack each other personally, question their own identities, and try to overthrow the status quo.

On campus and abroad

The University first became a popular school among Jewish students in the 1920s, when a rising tide of anti-Semitism led elite schools like Harvard to begin capping the number of Jews they would admit. The University was one of a handful of schools to scoop these students up, building a long-term pipeline from Jewish communities across the country. During a tour of Michigan Hillel last month, Tilly Shames said she often meets Jewish students from out of state with three or even four generations of Wolverines in their family. Shames is the executive director of Michigan Hillel, which has served as the University’s center for Jewish life on campus since 1926.

The state of Israel was founded two decades later in 1948, but its inception as a major political issue for American Jews, let alone college students, would not come until the late sixties. In their book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt contend that a political connectivity to Israel is largely the result of a number of Arab-Israeli wars, especially the Six Day-War. From “The Road to Renaissance,” a history of Hillel International: “Spurred by pride in Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day-War Jewish students created groups that championed causes from Soviet Jewry to Israel, Jewish feminism to chavurot, Ethiopian Jewry to the environment.”

Victories led to a mixture of pride and fear among Jews worldwide; pride in defending Israel, but fear of future wars. By the 1970s, Israel had developed into a crux of Jewish cultural and political identity, which became a contributing factor in the deep relationship between America and the Jewish state. During the same time, college towns like Ann Arbor became ground zero for the New Left. The University has remained synonymous with radical student movements, while continuing to cultivate one of the largest, most vibrant Jewish communities of any university. The tension between these two factions would be palpable by the 1980s, with the 1988 Diag demonstrations serving just one example.

In 1989, after three Michigan Daily editorials were particularly harsh in their criticism of Israel and Zionism (“Zionism … is from its inception a racist construct” read one piece), hundreds of students protested outside of the Student Publications Building. They held signs like “Daily editorials are anti-Jewish” and “Print facts not slander.”

The Michigan Daily

This tension between Jewish students and pro-Palestinian advocates on the left did not disappear, though it temporarily eased during the less contentious 1990s. After the failure of the Camp David peace talks in 2000, Palestinians launched the second Intifada and began calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions on Israel — BDS. In April 2002, students rallied for divestment from Israel at more than 30 campuses across the country. That same year, University students founded Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, or SAFE, the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. SAFE called for divestment and peacefully protested outside of a large Israel-focused conference at the University that year. The Daily came under fire again, this time erroneously publishing that SAFE incited riots.

In the early 2000s, many of the same narratives surrounding BDS were playing out across the country, leading national pro-Israel groups to revamp their campus strategies.

As tensions rose in 2003, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, brought 240 students to Washington, D.C. for advocacy training seminars. Since at least 1980, all-expenses paid trips, national conferences and training seminars have been a key tactic in AIPAC’s campus effort. Michigan Hillel sends a cohort of students to the annual policy conference every year.

In a speech at AIPAC’s 2010 conference, Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler told a crowd, “AIPAC’s job is to identify, engage, and educate” leaders in student government and political groups.

Doing this fulfills two goals for AIPAC: advancing the pro-Israel cause in academic environments, where opinions of Israel are typically more critical, and befriending the students who are “self-selecting” to become America’s future policymakers. When students return to campus, they come with the tools and the zeal to spread the pro-Israel message and dismantle BDS efforts. Talking about a 2010 divestment resolution by students at the University of California, Berkeley, Kessler stated matter-of-factly, “We’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote.”

“This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital,” Kessler told the audience. “This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”

This March, some 2,500 students from all fifty states attended AIPAC’s annual policy conference, including hundreds of student government presidents.

Defining “pro-Israel” at Michigan

Like AIPAC, Hillel has taken on an aggressive and often controversial strategy in pushing the pro-Israel message on campus. In 2002 Hillel International established its Center for Israel Affairs and co-founded the Israel on Campus Coalition; the latter began as a national coordinating committee and provides strategic consulting to improve Israel’s image on campus. For a short time in the mid-2000s, Hillel produced signs and T-shirts with the slogan “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.”

Michigan Hillel is home to seven Israel-focused student groups (not all political in nature) and estimates that its programs reach around 3,000 of Michigan’s 4,000-4,500 Jewish undergrads. Along with being the center of Jewish life on 550 campuses, Hillel often speaks with the presumed authority of a united Jewish voice. At the University and other schools, Hillel International’s hard line stance on Israel can be deeply problematic, as it represents a large break for many progressive Jews.

Some of these students have found representation in J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that preaches a two-state solution and opposes BDS. J Street has seen its presence grow both on campus and in Washington, acting as a foil to the increasingly controversial AIPAC. Last week, 1,100 students from around the country attended J Street’s fifth annual conference as members of J Street U college chapters. Speakers blasted recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and after Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut rescinded an offer to speak, students walked to Hillel headquarters, posted sticky notes on the windows in protest, and left a box of letters demanding a meeting.

Despite disagreements with J Street by Hillel International, J Street U chapters are growing and often find a home in the campus Hillel. More than 40 Hillels sent groups to J Street’s conference, including Michigan.

“A lot of times you’ll see pro-Israel as ‘you have to love Israel no matter what’ and just supporting Israel blindly,” said Ari Schoenberg, co-chair of J Street U’s Midwest region. “Pro-Israel is loving Israel in its best way that it can be. So that means, like, being critical of things that we aren’t proud of.”

Schoenberg speaks for many young Jews with a progressive view on Israel, whose growing numbers have led to more representation and power on campus than in the past. In February, students packed into the Michigan Union for an event with Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and enthusiastically applauded as he demanded a more progressive view on Israel.

“We need liberal Zionism again.” Shavit told the energized Hillel crowd. “Only that will give (young people) the energy, the tools, and the concepts to belong to our people.”

Hillel International has moved slightly away from its former slogan in allowing J Street into the fold, and its Israel Guidelines assert that it “welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel.” But there are still those who feel marginalized. Hillel’s standards of partnership prohibit sponsoring “organizations, groups, or speakers” that present certain points of view. Chief among these disallowed perspectives are those who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but the list extends to anyone that “delegitimizes” or “demonizes” Israel or who supports boycott, divest, and sanctions.

In a recent Michigan Daily op-ed, a handful of Jewish students discussed their frustration with Hillel after the organization refused to sponsor a “Palestinian Solidarity” themed Shabbat dinner. LSA student Sarah Blume, a co-author of the op-ed, felt a clear takeaway meeting with Shames at Hillel: “You are a very much not invited here.”

This fall Blume co-founded, and now co-chairs, the University’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP is a Palestinian solidarity group for Jews and supports the BDS movement. Blume, a junior with a disarming smile, spoke in a quick, fiery passion about divestment and Hillel.

“As a Jewish organization and as Hillel as the umbrella of Jewish student life, one would think that we would be a part of Hillel, but we are not,” Blume said. “They actively (exclude) people who … disagree with the political stance on Israel.”

Asked if she considered herself pro-Israel, Blume responded, “I’m anti-occupation,” adding, “I don’t like the labels.”

That dislike of labels was evident as JVP’s op-ed called for the University to join the “Open Hillel” movement, which presses individual chapters and Hillel International to abandon the pro-Israel standards of partnership.

Along with a few other students, Blume also attended Open Hillel’s conference at Harvard this fall. Swarthmore College Hillel, after officially breaking from the international organization, renamed itself Kehilah, meaning “Community.”

In an e-mail, Shames, the Hillel Director, defended Hillel’s “broad and diverse array of programs,” writing that Israel is a part of Hillel’s mission.

“Our Hillel does not expect or insist that all participants in Hillel will pursue our Israel mission. But we expect that our mission will be respected just as our Hillel respects the diversity of views among our Hillel and campus community.”

Blume does not feel very respected.

“I don’t want to be affiliated with an organization like Hillel that discludes and speaks out against and … totally discourages and offends the voices that I support.”

LSA junior Jonathan Friedman, chair of Hillel’s Israel Cohort, was empathetic to Blume’s position. Though Friedman opposes BDS, he said he hopes students with differing views “have the same opportunity to express themselves.”

A major goal of Friedman’s as cohort chair is to “make the environment more inclusive” for students who feel unwelcome at Hillel — concerns he called “quite disheartening.”

Friedman, with shaggy hair, a bushy beard and dark, glassy eyes, speaks slowly and hesitantly, with an inflection of nervousness that grows when discussing more sensitive topics. At numerous events on Israel and BDS, he engaged with students across the ideological spectrum. He believes in the necessity of a Jewish state, but was cautious to note that he can only speak for himself.

“Criticism of Israel is healthy, and by no means disqualifies someone from being pro-Israel.”

BDS, Friedman fears, divides people and hardens them, pushing Israelis and Palestinians further apart.

LSA junior Jacob Abudaram, a CSG representative and Friedman’s roommate, was disappointed with the 2014 divestment debate and the current campus climate since, which he calls “terrible.”

“It puts everyone in a box,” Abudaram said, “I was immediately put in the Hillel box, the pro-Israel box, so that immediately excludes me from being pro-Palestine, which I very much identify as.”

Abudaram is Jewish and spent a gap year living in Israel through the program Kivunim, where he worked on grassroots, peace-building efforts. He spoke at length about the conflict, Judaism, and tensions within American Jewry. As an underclassman, Abudaram interned at AIPAC, worked with pro-Israel groups WolvPAC and Tamid, and ran for CSG — he had “poured his soul” into unifying work during his gap year, and hoped to do the same on campus.

When asked what was going through his mind during last year’s divestment debate, the usually well-spoken Abudaram struggled to articulate his feelings on the polarization and grew quiet.

“It was saddening for me.”

Dishell’s complex relationship

The first time he traveled to Israel, Bobby Dishell was fourteen. Dishell felt an immediate, deep connection to the land, which he saw through the eyes of his grandfather. A first-generation Jewish American, Dishell’s grandfather was born into a world wrought with anti-Semitism. He was a self-made man, who spoke several languages, served as a Cold War intelligence officer, and like many Jews, grew up in a world absent a Jewish homeland. His love for Israel would rub off on his grandson, who would return to the country four more times in the next eight years, including a three week trip through the Jewish youth organization BBYO. Dishell got involved with AIPAC programs as a junior in high school, later interning for the organization in Washington, D.C.

Dishell also took on his grandfather’s love for public service, majoring in public policy and running for student government. Now finishing his time as CSG President, Dishell has served two terms as a CSG executive, both of which saw initiatives by SAFE targeting Israel for divestment. As vice president in 2014, Dishell spoke out against BDS in strong terms, condemning threats and anti-Semitic attacks on himself and other Jewish students — attacks from an era with which his grandfather would have been all too familiar.

“BDS has no place on campus in my opinion,” Dishell said in an interview, where he stressed that his opposition to BDS was not about the conflict or his own connection to Israel. “I’m against a pro-Israel resolution just as much as I am against a resolution that asks for divestment from Israel. Both resolutions only bring a one-sided narrative to the table.”

Dishell’s story is not surprising to many opponents of BDS, who have deemed divestment resolutions as a key factor in polarizing students against their Jewish peers. Though trying to maintain his neutrality on BDS as a representative for all students, Dishell said from his personal point of view “it’s hard to see how it’s not an attack on the Jewish people.”

This is a belief that Dishell publicly repeated during debate on this year's divestment resolution, saying "As a Jew, I cannot help but know that behind all the political rhetoric, this resolution attacks my people."

Last year, Dishell says he was “vilified” for voicing the anti-Semitic slurs that he alleges. Taking Dishell’s story as truth, he comes away as one of many victims in a polarized debate.

Recalling last year’s resolution, members of SAFE and CSG tell very different stories.

In interviews, many students named Dishell among hard line pro-Israel leaders who fabricated personal attacks and threats, making themselves into victims to discredit divestment. Sam Molnar, a former Rackham CSG representative and BDS advocate, called Dishell “a right-wing Zionist” while Suha Najjar, former SAFE co-chair, said she was “appalled” by Dishell’s actions in 2014.

In response to the allegations of lying, Dishell said, “I know what I heard. I know what happened that day.”

The issue of funding

This ultra-polarization of campus is often blamed solely on BDS, but the responses rather than the act itself may be more culpable. Campus leaders have bemoaned the breakdown of dialogue and meaningful debate regarding Israel-Palestine — people like Friedman and Abudaram, Dishell and Blume, and even Tilly Shames, the Hillel director.

“Something’s gotta change,” Abudaram told me. “I don’t know what.”

“I think if things continue the way they are we’re just gonna further split our campus,” he added.

Plenty of other students — from both the campus left and the pro-Israel community — have similar sentiments to share. Younger Jews are also increasingly critical of Israel, with only 26 percent of 18 to 29 year olds believing the Israeli government is making a sincere effort for peace with the Palestinians, according to a recent Pew survey.

So why are things still so bad?

At the core of this constant strife is an issue that all institutions face, one that often leads to bad outcomes: the need for funding. While younger Jews are considerably further to the left of the ideological spectrum, their parents are not. Significantly more Jews aged 50 and older — 43 percent according to the Pew survey — feel that Israel is making a sincere effort for peace. Older, more conservative Jewish Americans still control the funding, and hence the direction, of many powerful pro-Israel institutions.

Groups like AIPAC and Hillel have both conservative political views and the cash to make sure they get heard. AIPAC’s yearly budget is estimated to exceed $60 million, some of which pays for hundreds if not thousands of student trips to conferences and seminars. In 2013, Michigan Hillel had expenditures of over $2 million — $300,000 alone for student organizations. Hillel has many functions beyond Israel advocacy, but few campus organizations have that level of funding available.

This influence can go beyond advocacy work, often spilling into academia. In October 2013, the Center for the Education of Women withdrew a speaking invitation for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. On her website, Walker wrote that she was disinvited due to her controversial views and activism surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a claim the CEW denied. The events’ funding, Walker withdrew, was compromised as donors angered with her politics had threatened to pull out.

Seven years earlier, in 2006, University History Professor Juan Cole, a prominent blogger, was being considered for a position at Yale University. Due to his often-harsh criticism of Israel, Cole’s appointment became highly politicized and was voted down. Rumors quickly surfaced that Yale’s appointment committee came under pressure from prominent pro-Israel donors, but Cole, who declined comment for this story, has downplayed the incident.

In a similar situation this past summer, the University of Illinois reversed an appointment for Professor Steven Salaita after a string of anti-Israel tweets, some of which were interpreted as anti-Semitic. Illinois denies that de-hiring Salaita, who favors BDS and spoke to SAFE this December, was at all influenced by donors. A trove of e-mails show several threats by alumni to never enroll their children or donate another dollar as long as Salaita teaches at Illinois.

In 2014 both UCLA’s The Daily Bruin and UC Berkeley’s Daily Californian released e-mails showing student government candidates soliciting funds from pro-Israel donor Adam Milstein. Milstein appealed to other members of the pro-Israel community in Los Angeles, invoking a looming campus divestment resolution.

Avi Oved, who now serves as the University of California’s student regent, thanked Milstein and promised to “make sure UCLA maintains its allegiance to Israel and the Jewish community.”

This is not to posit that wealthy donors and powerful, nefarious organizations are using their wealth to control college campuses. This line of thinking is terribly blind to a more nuanced and reasonable reality.

Like most pro-Israel students, Bobby Dishell did not begin his connection with Israel after a free trip or “brainwashing” by AIPAC. But he has had extensive opportunities to cultivate his interests that most students don’t — from a paid internship in Washington to AIPAC’s Saban Leadership Seminars, which are named for wealthy pro-Israel businessman and philanthropist Haim Saban. Programs like these, and the money behind them, do not control campus debates on Israel — but they do have an influence.

LSA sophomore Lindsay Hurwitz is currently a fellow with the Committee for Accuracy on Middle East Reporting in America, a right-leaning pro-Israel group. CAMERA pays student fellows to hold CAMERA-funded campus events and write op-eds with a pro-Israel spin. Hurwitz published articles with the Daily in November 2014 and February 2015, though only stipulated her fellowship in the November piece. Both were displayed on CAMERA’s website as an example of Hurwitz’s work through her fellowship.

Students who are enthusiastically pro-Israel, like Dishell and Hurwitz, do not hold their stance purely because they were enticed by donations or a paid fellowship. There are many students who grew up in staunchly pro-Israel environments and did not change their views to assimilate in college. There are even some students who become more Zionist in college, or adapt a pro-Israel stance after being exposed to the issue for the first time. This could be because of a panel at an AIPAC conference, or from a 3:00 a.m., heart-to-heart conversation with a new friend.

The influence of money on the Israel-Palestine debate is often an impossible topic to breach, even more hot button than the conflict itself. The concept of wealthy, manipulative, Jewish donors trying to control politics hits on the worst of anti-Semitic stereotypes, one that is both dangerous and untrue. The influence of money on campus politics and climate is a reality that must be acknowledged, even though it is not the sole reason behind the current feelings on Israel and BDS.

Alex Adler, the chair of Hillel’s student governing board, explained in clear terms that Hillel limits its group membership and events due to its mission as a long-standing (and private) institution — not donors. Shames said the same. It is possible to live in a world where money, institutional barriers, and genuine commitment to Israel all work in tandem to amplify some campus voices and stifle others.

On the other side of the debate, the once dominant and always vocal campus left has of late been pushed to the margins. Student government, once a platform for firebrand activists, has taken a step back and focused on athletics, Greek life, and day-to-day campus problems. CSG will give an occasional endorsement to initiatives like tuition equality or increased diversity, but they seldom inspire social movements and have set a high bar for any divestment initiative.

Likewise, The Daily’s editorial voice is far removed from the radical liberalism of the ’80s and ’90s. The paper has also turned away from opining on international conflicts to focus on campus issues, the city of Ann Arbor, and higher education. During divestment debates the last two years, The Daily has published numerous student op-eds, but the editorial board has not taken a firm stance one way or the other on BDS.

Moving forward

In the midst of this year’s divestment resolution, which was voted down at the March 31 CSG meeting, several pro-Israel students formed the group Wolverines for Peace, which opposes BDS and has spoken out in favor of more space for dialogue about the conflict. Jonathan Friedman, the Israel cohort chair, hopes this dialogue will be purposeful and lead to support for people who empower positive change in the region.

While their goals for action have been vague, and primarily defensive about Israel, it would be action nonetheless — like supporters of divestment, many, especially progressive — Zionists are dissatisfied with the current stalemate. Predictably, however, BDS supporters are not impressed. On Twitter, UM Divest supporters juxtaposed the hashtag #WolverinesForPeace with images of Israeli oppression, while former SAFE co-chair and Public Health student Farah Erzouki condemned the group in a March 24 speech.

“They have not reached out to Palestinians on campus, but they want dialogue?” Erzouki asked. “They have done nothing to listen to the voices of Palestinians on this campus.”

Even a progressive group like J Street U is far from making friends with SAFE or Jewish Voice for Peace, but a number of campus leaders are committed to building a less divided community. Progressive Zionists have consistently played the difficult role, the child exchanging passive aggressive messages between her feuding siblings. After the 1988 controversy over Tagar’s bus and the Palestinian students’ shanty, the Progressive Zionist Caucus placed a sign in the Diag painted with a dove and the slogan “TWO PEOPLES, TWO STATES.” Uniting the campus without taking sides is a goal equal parts ambitious and idealistic; as Herzl once said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

But the doubts loom: Another failed peace plan; another grisly war in Gaza this summer; another right wing Israeli Prime Minister denying Palestinian statehood. In their op-ed this fall, the students of Jewish Voice for Peace quoted Hillel the Sage, asking, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Student activists of all shades do not have a response for this question, but they are frantically searching for an answer.