Students and faculty gathered in Palmer Commons at the University of Michigan Monday morning to listen to panelists describe the origins and mission of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The movement has always been a contentious issue on campus, but has become a rising issue recently after a Graduate Student Instructor and a professor declined to write letters of recommendation for students hoping to study abroad in Israel last month.

The panel was hosted by the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. CMENAS director Samer Mahdy Ali opened up the event, first recognizing the tragedy of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this past weekend. Ali then noted some people might question CMENAS’s decision to hold an event discussing a movement some equate with anti-Semitism. He explained CMENAS decided BDS is too vital a movement to not be discussed, claiming the movement is against a racist institution rather than a group of people.

“Why hold an event like this after such a terrible tragedy?” Ali said. “Frankly, we considered canceling the event altogether. But violence is contagious … BDS is the most important global issue for thousands of students on the U-M campus. This nonviolent movement is part of who they are. BDS is not against any group, but against a racist structure that oppresses millions of people daily.”

The first speaker was Susan Abulhawa, a political commentator, poet and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine. Abulhawa began her presentation by reading aloud some of Israel’s laws. One of these was a law put into effect this summer, which declared Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and downgraded Arabic from its official language status.

Abulhawa then talked about the history of Palestine and Zionism. Seventy years ago, she said, Palestine was a thriving, pluralistic country with sophisticated businesses and infrastructure. She said this changed with the introduction of Zionism, which was seen as a movement for Jews to return to a land devoid of a culture and a people.  

“They said it was a land without a people for a people without a land,” Abulhawa said.

She showed an image of an online recipe for falafel, calling it an Israeli dish. This, Abulhawa said, illustrates how Israel has co-opted Palestinian culture.

“You get to see this kind of stuff,” Abulhawa said. “Israeli cuisine, falafel, shakshuka, hummus, which has nothing to do with Israel. Not only has Israel stolen our home, and our lands and our dignity, and our heritage. But they’re also stealing our culture and our story and our history.”

Abulhawa continued to describe some of the Israeli government’s policies, including former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s instruction to Israeli soldiers to break Palestinians’ bones while he was the minister of defense. She said in response to these types of policies, and despite what she described as the U.S.’s perception of Israel as a start-up nation, protesters and activists in the BDS movement work to hold Israel accountable.

The next speaker, Israeli sociologist and activist Tom Pessah, spoke of the difference between anti-Semitism and what he called “anti-Semitizing.” He delved into the history of anti-Semitism and explained anti-Semitizing is a way of equating criticism of Israel with the hatred against Jews.

“The most common response that you see is what I would call anti-Semitizing, which means casting the words and the deeds of the opponents of Israel as resembling traditional anti-Jewish posts,” Pessah said. “This is a way of stigmatizing people as anti-Jewish in order to silence opposition.”

This conflation is bad for everyone, Pessah said. He said he believes strongly in solidarity and noted he has found that while working with the BDS movement — a movement which he said works to end the Israeli occupation — to recognize equality of Palestinians, and to allow Palestinian refugees to return home. Pessah said BDS is a strong opponent of anti-Semitism.

“BDS has been a model of solidarity from my knowledge of participation in the movement,” Pessah said. “You see many Palestinians, many Jews, many Israelis working side by side, acknowledging the rights of Palestinians as we said. But also, the BDS movement has been outspoken in combating anti-Semitism.”

Huwaida Arraf, a civil rights attorney and co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement talked about state policies targeting institutions that participate in the BDS movement. Arraf explained the foundation BDS is built on.

“In 2004, Palestinian civil society, 170 organizations, unions, representing really all facets of Palestinian society, political factions came together and announced this call to the world to help us achieve our freedom by instituting the same kind of pressure on Israel that the world instituted against apartheid in South Africa that helped bring it to an end,” Arraf said.

Arraf encouraged the audience to research and verify anything her or the other panelists discussed in order to form their own opinions. But she said she expects independent research will affirm her points.

“Anything I’ve said here, I don’t expect you to take as a given — please go and research yourself to learn more about it,” Arraf said. “Anything that Susan said, anything that Tom said. We want people to do the research themselves and then I’m confident you will also sign on.”

In November 2017, for the first time in the school’s history after years of attempts, Central Student Government passed a divestment resolution calling for the University to investigate several companies it had investments in which have contracts with the Israeli military. The Board of Regents later rejected the resolution.

One student later asked how the panelists felt about the incidents of faculty and staff members declining recommendation letters. Abulhawa denied these actions were discriminatory, as the professors had originally agreed to write the letters before learning they wanted to study in Israel.

“I don’t believe the professors were discriminating against the students,” Abulhawa said. “The professors were pointing out, they were discriminating against Israel if you want to call it discrimination. My understanding is that they had actually agreed to write recommendation letters for those students, but when they learned that these students were applying to a colonial institution, they exercised their conscience not to be party to that.”

After these recommendation letter incidents, Shay Vaughn, an administrative partner and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion advocate in LSA, said she received many phone calls about this issue. That’s why she attended the panel — she hoped to learn how to support as many people through DEI as possible.

“When it comes to being the DEI advocate, I think there is a responsibility to know certain things, and I take that very seriously, so I shared this event out to everyone in the office,” Vaughn said. “I just really appreciate being allowed to be here.”

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