A demonstration Tuesday by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, an organization that aims to support justice and human rights for Palestinians, in which they constructed a mock “apartheid” wall on the University of Michigan’s diag Tuesday, led to pushback Wednesday and Thursday from Jewish students.
The wall was meant to signify checkpoints and a physcial seperation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, a Palestinian territory, which have been in place for about a decade. The Israeli government has said they are necessary due to ongoing terrorist activity in the area. Palestination authorities have charged they create a apartheid division between Israel and the West Bank.
SAFE organizers said they constructed the wall Tuesday, a demonstration they've done several times on campus in past years, to protest the apartheid they said they feel the wall resembles in Palestine, as well as to have conversations and educate passing students on the situation.
However, after the demonstration took place, Jewish students on campus began circulating a petition and statement against the demonstration, noting that it took place during Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest Jewish holidays, when many Jewish students were not on campus. The statement was sent explicitly to University President Mark Schlissel but was also made available to the public.
“SAFE’s decision to put up the “apartheid” wall on one of the holiest days of the Jewish year is extremely insulting and deeply troubling to many students on our campus,” the statement said.
“We felt ostracized and excluded as many of us sat in synagogue, unable to share our stories,” the statement read. “Yesterday, many voices were silenced by our fellow students who didn’t take into consideration the absence of those observing Rosh Hashanah.”
In response to the statement, LSA senior Devin Jones, an executive member of SAFE, wrote in an email interview that the wall was meant to demonsrate to other members of campus what it is like to be Palestinian.
“SAFE used Tuesday to demonstrate to students on our campus what life is like for Palestinians living under occupation,” Jones wrote. “It was a chance for us to showcase the systemic oppression that Palestinians face on a daily basis and to start the conversation about human rights absues against Palestinians on our own terms.”
Jones wrote that SAFE knew their demonstration fell on Rosh Hashanah but they were unable to avoid the conflict. He also noted that that day was also a holy time for Muslims and close to the Orthodox Christian new year.
“We understand that our even fell on the final day of Rosh Hashanah, but this was also a holy time for Muslims and Orthodox Christians,” Jones said. “We never intentionally palnned to target the day of Rosh Hashanah as we had planned the wall three weeks in advance and were lucky enough to get an opening that would not be available again until mid-November.”
However, LSA senior Natalie Bloom, who signed the petition, said to her, the demonstration lacked a willingness to engage in respectful discussion with the pro-Israel community at the University.
“The demonstration was done on a day of significance and sadly this can not be overlooked as an unfortunate coincidence,” Bloom said. “This demonstration was on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, and as a result prohibited Jewish voices to be heard.”
LSA sophomore Rina Steninberg, who also signed the petition, wrote in an email interview that she believes that the wall signified a broad generalization and misrepresentation of the issues facing Israelis and Palestinians.
“The wall that SAFE constructed wrongly puts Israel in a demonizing light, innapropriately takes the conflict, as well as the wall itself, out of context, and fails to acknowledge years upon years of complicated history betweent the two peoples,” Steninberg wrote. “By writing “Controlt, Alt, Delete" on the wall, SAFE seeks the deletion and destruction of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, a toxic and discriminatory belief which threatens the livelihood of millions of Israeli civilians of all different faiths and backgrounds.”
On Friday, in an email to students, the Hillel governing board called the demonstration hurtful and intentionally antagonistic, and announced that Hillel staff and student leaders would be available Friday evening and Saturday morning.
In an email interview, LSA senior Eitan Katz, student Hillel chair, wrote that he and many other students waere frustrated he could not engage with the protest because he was at home with family, and added that he felt a response from Schlissel to the petition was important to helping the Jewish community feel included on campus.
“A response from President Schlissel would acknowledge the hurting of our community as a minority group who was not given the space to voice our concerns,” Katz said.
For Jones and other members of SAFE, however, the wall was a symbol of protest against Israel as a government and its policies against Palestinians.
“SAFE distinguished time and again between Judaism, a religious and ethnic identity, and Zionism, a political ideology in support of Isreal and its oppresive policies,” Jones said. “In no way did we ever target the Jewish community in our demonstration. We showcased the oppression of Palestinians at the hands of Israel state policy.”
Jones also charged that the petition and statement only served to "derail" the conversation surronding Israel state oppression of the Palestinian people and state.
“Critcizing oppressive state policy is never off limits and the assumption that criticizing the oppression of Palestinians is equivalent to attacking Jews is based in a racist myth that Palestinians and Palestinian activists are inherently anti-Jewish,” Jones said.