Defining student activism: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University

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By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 24, 2014

“I’ve always been aware of the Palestinian struggle and the Palestinian cause before coming to college,” said LSA senior Bayan Founas. “But at the time, I never understood how important it was to connect it to my personal identity.”

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Founas is a member of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality — a campus organization that promotes activism regarding issues related to Palestinian social justice and human rights. She said her experiences with identity politics and Arab- and Muslim-American issues at the University pushed her to get involved in the Arab-Israeli debate on campus.

For many students, the history and politics of the conflict between Palestine and Israel might have been issues that were made familiar to them by their upbringing. But for others, these topics may be completely new.

“Before you’re aware of all these things, you don’t really engage with them,” said LSA senior Yazan Kherallah, referring to many of the same issues Founas brought up, such as identity politics and challenges faced by Arabs and Arab-Americans.

Kherallah, SAFE’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions chair, became motivated to engage in issues related to the conflict as a freshman in response to the Arab Spring, a wave of government-toppling civil protests that started in Middle Eastern countries in 2010. As a Syrian, Kherallah said he wanted to learn more about the region and even his own identity.

“The Arab Spring, what it really spurred me to do is just to engage with things and figure out what can you do on a concrete basis to improve situations, and stand up for my rights and other people’s rights,” Kherallah said.

LSA sophomores Erica Mindel and Becca Levin, of I-Lead and the Israel Cohort, respectively, said they became more engaged in the issues surrounding the conflict early on. Both took a gap year in Israel before coming to the University.

“I think that I’ve always been aware that there’s a conflict in the region,” Levin said. “I definitely see my awareness of it and my interest in it starting in high school and then growing in Israel because I was able to explore it firsthand as much as I could.”

Other students did not become involved in the issues of the region until they came to the University.

“I think when you’re in high school, you don’t necessarily see the link between yourself and BDS,” said LSA senior Farah Erzouki, SAFE co-chair. “But once you step onto a campus where the funds of the University are going to these companies, there’s a much more direct link.”

However, for most University students, what’s going on in the Middle East or how it may factor into their lives as students isn’t something that they’re often exposed to.

In the early hours of Dec. 10, SAFE members and supporters went to six residential dorms and slipped mock eviction notices under the doors of 1,500 residents as a part of the group’s boycott and divest initiative.

The notices referred to Israel’s practice of settlement building in Israeli-occupied areas following the Six Day War in 1967. These areas, which include the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, are generally already populated by Palestinians. The mock eviction notice charged that Palestinian residents are forcibly evicted in order to make room for the Israeli civilians who inhabit the settlements, and asked students to imagine themselves going through the same experience.

Overall, the goal of SAFE’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is to call on the University to sever its financial ties with several companies that hold contracts with the Israeli military that are involved in abuses of Palestinian human rights and the occupation of the territories. These companies include General Electric, Caterpillar, Heidelberg Cement and United Technologies.

The sparks of the debate

As students woke up to the mock eviction notices throughout the day, questions and arguments were sparked across campus.

LSA sophomore Micah Nelson, executive board member of JStreet Umich, a student organization that supports a two-state solution — a right to a homeland for both Israelis and Palestinians — said that for her, the reactions to the mock evictions were almost more upsetting than the evictions themselves.

“It felt like an argument on campus to me, between Hillel and SAFE, and I didn’t feel really comfortable in either of those spaces,” Nelson said. Hillel is one of the largest Jewish organizations on campus, and provides programming for Jewish students on a variety of issues relating to politics, faith and culture.

Many students and campus organizations tweeted in support of SAFE with the associated hashtag, #UMMockEvictions, but a large number of students also expressed feelings of being triggered and targeted by the eviction notices.

This, in turn, led to further backlash. The discussion not only involved BDS movements, but also examined why the mock evictions made people uncomfortable, questioning what it meant to hold Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian identities on campus.

Several months later, these questions are still ongoing, reinvigorated by the submission of a divestment resolution to Central Student Government. The resolution, which would call on the University to establish a committee to investigate the conduct of the four companies and divest from them, was indefinitely tabled by the CSG Student Assembly on March 18, leading to a sit-in protest by SAFE members and supporters.

The debate surrounding both actions has prompted the question: What is the appropriate way to address these issues of identity and climate on campus?

In this case, most of the disconnect seems to come from drastically differing views on what student activism is and what it should achieve.

Navigating identities

Students with identities tied to the conflict, such as Israeli, Jewish and Palestinian students, often find the political biases, stereotypes and ramifications of the conflict hard to avoid even on days where there aren’t protests.

LSA sophomore Mohammed Hamdan, Palestinian Student Association executive board member, gave the example of walking into a campus dining hall with a Michigan PSA t-shirt.

“Wearing that shirt, I could just personally feel like it was not just oh, Palestine, there’s dabke, music, the food — it was more like ‘oh, OK, the BDS movement, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, that protest that happened on the Diag last week,’ ” Hamdan said.

Nelson, of JStreet UMich, said she often runs into politicized misperceptions of what a Jewish identity means on campus.

“I think a lot of times, people just assume that if you’re Jewish, you have a connection to Israel which is not true for everyone,” Nelson said. “And I think a lot of times that’s overgeneralized like, ‘oh, Zionist.’ ”

Even in spaces where individuals are specifically designated as students, such as University classrooms, identity still comes into play.

Erzouki, from SAFE, said that because of her identity as a Palestinian solidarity activist, she’s not always comfortable in the classroom.

“I’ll give University professors credit where it’s due; I have been in classes where I feel like it’s a safe space to express my views,” Erzouki said. “But there definitely are situations where I feel very intimidated to express myself.”

LSA junior Eli Batchelor, advisor to the PSA, said Palestinian students often feel misrepresented in campus academic discussions on the issue, some of which are led by Jewish professors, even if those professors attempt to remain neutral.

“Even if the Jewish voice is offering a Palestinian narrative, it’s still a Jewish voice,” Batchelor said. “There’s not the equal representation within academia. And a lot of Palestinian students feel withdrawn. They don’t want to take those classes for that very reason. They don’t want another Jewish person telling them their story.”

Jeff Stanzler, a lecturer in the School of Education who teaches a class in which University students mentor high school students as they go through a simulation of Middle Eastern affairs, said marginalized representation of both Jews and Palestinians is something that worries him in classroom settings. He said he’s not confident students from a variety of identities have their voices heard or values understood.

“At some level, as an educator, if you accept as I do that that’s really important,” Stanzler said. “Then you have to try to be as proactive as possible in terms of helping to create a classroom climate where that can actually happen.”

A polarized discussion

For some students, the focus of student activism is to alleviate tension in campus climate.

I-Lead and J Street Umich, two Israel-affiliated campus groups, as well as a representative from the Israel Cohort, an umbrella organization under which most Israel-affiliated groups on campus operate, all expressed concerns about a campus that they felt was currently very polarized, something Mindel characterized as discouraging.

Nelson said that though the mock eviction was effective in raising awareness, it also caused increased polarization on campus.

“It simply just pushed people back to their corners,” she said.

The groups’ ideal outcome is a non-polarized, non-binary campus — a place where the focus is on dialogue between the two groups.

“We think no solution can be reached in any situation without bringing together and hearing the opinions and the needs of everyone involved, so that’s why we think dialogue is the perfect opportunity for people to come together and express their concerns,” Levin said.

Mindel added that I-Lead understood why dialogue might not be viewed as the most direct route to change. For her group, the importance was its potential long-term impact.

“Maybe nothing has been tried beyond dialogue right now because we feel like there isn’t a lot of dialogue, and we don’t know what else we can do,” Levin said, citing the need to hear and celebrate all narratives.

“I don’t think we’re looking to just stop at dialogue, but the point is that we need to get back to dialogue.”

Overcoming dominant viewpoints

In contrast, both SAFE and PSA representatives, two Palestinian-focused groups on campus, viewed actions like the mock evictions and the BDS campaign as necessary in challenging and overcoming what they see as a pro-Israel dominant viewpoint on campus and beyond.

“We live in a society where there is a very one-sided discourse on Israel and Palestine, and the mock eviction challenged that,” Kherallah said.

When it comes to an ideal outcome, both SAFE and PSA are striving to avoid perceived one-sidedness of the issue. For SAFE that means developing mock evictions and BDS campaigns, dialogues and teach-ins. For PSA that means creating opportunities for Palestinian students to share and celebrate their cultural identity, instead of a politicized one.

Kherallah said SAFE chose to take a more controversial action like the mock evictions, which have occurred on other campuses as well, to have a more far-reaching impact.

“A lot of the time activism on this campus is really institutionalized,” Kherallah said. “People sometimes have a very sanitized view of what activism is. With this, it was really groundbreaking in the sense that people who never heard about this issue — the conflict or the fact that their tuition money is invested in this — had their eyes opened.”

Erzouki said that SAFE felt actions like the evictions were ultimately about expanding the discussion and information available on the issue.

“The University is a place where all of your views are going to be challenged,” Erzouki said. “The mock evictions didn’t target anybody. They may have challenged political views, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think we’re at this University to receive an education, and to be challenged on what we’ve been taught, and formulate on our opinions on those bases.”

PSA’s Batchelor expressed a similar sentiment. He said that he viewed BDS and similar campaigns as an opportunity to expand the discussion to include more perspective from the Palestinian perspective, not halt it.

“We’re not promoting conflict, we’re promoting discussion,” he said. “And we’re promoting justice, through BDS or whatever campaign it is to bring awareness of this.”

Both Erzouki and Kherallah stressed that SAFE does hold dialogues and teach-ins —the group held a dialogue after the mock eviction, for example — but as an activist organization, they also find it important to take on projects such as the mock evictions.

Not a silenced campus: Moving forward

It’s unclear what will happen next: if this is just a temporary rise in activity around the issue, or if the increased focus is here to stay.

This isn’t the first time BDS, or the conflict in general, has made waves on campus. In 2005 and 2011, CSG voted down resolutions to divest, though the subject of the 2011 vote was broader than just companies tied to Israel and Palestine. In 2012, campus erupted in response to an e-mail sent out by a member of a pro-Israel student group accusing Omar Hashwi, then a candidate for CSG vice president, whose platform included advocating for “socially responsible investments” of being anti-Israel and homophobic. For at least the past decade, there has been a succession of well-attended, high-energy protests on campus.

In the end, none of these high notes were enough to change the persistent issues of identity and campus climate still reported by students today.

However, this academic year isn’t over quite yet.

Two weeks ago, SAFE introduced a resolution before CSG that would use the body’s influence to call on the University to divest from the four companies it views as assisting the Israeli military in committing alleged human rights violations against Palestinians.

On the night of the March 18, CSG representatives voted to postpone the resolution indefinitely, sparking protests both that night and the following days in the form of a SAFE sit-in at the CSG chambers, which lasted seven days as of Tuesday.

At Tuesday’s meeting, CSG president Michael Proppe, a Business senior, motioned to reconsider the tabling of the divestment resolution. After a series of votes by CSG members, which were preceded by a speaker and a 90-minute community concerns section during which proponents of both sides expressed their opinions, the vote on the resolution was opened early Wednesday morning.

After five hours of debate and discussion, at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, the divestment resolution failed to pass.

Following the announcement of the vote, a speaker for supporters of the resolution told attendees to walk out silently, and that the next step was the University’s Board of Regents.

In the end, the visibility that the BDS campaign has garnered over the past two semesters — from the mock evictions to the resolution and protests — might be what’s most important, regardless of its success in getting the University to divest, Hamdan said.

“That’s the reality check, why do a lot of students want a divestment?” Hamdan said. “I think the BDS movement is a way to understand a little bit what other students on campus are feeling. And even if it makes them uncomfortable and raises conflict, it’s better than us living on a silenced campus.”