Participants of a demonstration organized by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) pose in front of the mock apartheid wall on the Diag. Courtesy of Samin Hassan/MiC.

On September 29th, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) erected a 36-foot-long wall made of foam boards on the Diag. Covered with murals and slogans, the makeshift wall symbolized the concrete barriers that confine the West Bank and Gaza’s five million Palestinians. Hundreds of students gathered around the wall, as members of SAFE relayed the stories of Palestinians killed or abused by Israeli occupation forces and settlers. The demonstration, which was first held in 2003, serves to express solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation and to demand the University of Michigan to divest from companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories.

When asked why SAFE chooses to spread awareness through a makeshift wall, a member of the organization who requested anonymity due to Zionists’ blacklisting of Palestinian activists said that “we build mock walls to bring attention to the illegal barricades and inhumane living conditions endured by Palestinians living under apartheid… We find it necessary to protest through live simulations that resensitize our community to the everyday experiences of those facing occupation.” 

Continuing on from the previous question, the anonymous student expressed that “the combination of resistance art and resistance speech constructed within the mock wall draws attention to the (Palestinian) cause and amplifies (SAFE’s) demands to the University to discontinue its compliance and immoral contributions to the settler-colonial state and to ultimately establish a free Palestine.”

Students hold the Israeli flag while members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) stage a demonstration on the Diag to raise awareness of Palestinian suffering. Courtesy of Samin Hassan/MiC.

In response to SAFE’s demonstration demanding the University to end its complicity in apartheid—as the Zionist system has been deemed by notable organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—a group of students arrived at the Diag with Israeli flags. Antagonizing the demonstration’s participants, these students shouted at speakers and sang the Israeli national anthem. Later, some claimed that they felt “threatened” by SAFE’s messaging and accused the organization of inciting division because of its refusal to engage in dialogue with them. Claiming to feel threatened and discriminated against is a common tactic Zionists use to undermine Palestinian resistance and activism, especially at universities where administrators align with the pro-Israel lobby. 

The influence of the pro-Israel lobby has resulted in Palestinian students and allies facing ostracism and vilification for their activism across university campuses, including at the University of Michigan. These student are often dismissed, as they are deliberately mischaracterized as anti-Semites and terrorist sympathizers to prevent university administrators from addressing their demands. This is the main reason why SAFE and other organizations refuse to engage in dialogue with Zionists, as doing so has historically resulted in the defamation and blacklisting of Palestinian student activists and allies.

Clear examples of the targeting of Palestinian students and allies at the University include the intimidation and harassment of Central Student Government (CSG) members last year. Amid the May 2021 crisis in which Israeli airstrikes killed 261 Palestinians and displaced over 72,000, CSG released a statement recognizing the violence and censorship Palestinians have faced. Members who signed onto the letter were met with threatening emails and posts, the content of which ranged from calling for their removal to celebrating the death of Palestinians in Gaza. Along with pushing for divestment, SAFE called on the University to condemn and combat anti-Palestinian sentiments and targetting on campus. Yet, even these demands went ignored by the U-M administrators, as they neither released statements nor took action against anti-Palestinian discrimination.

In the past, Zionist organizations have argued that SAFE’s activism and calls for divestment are divisive, asserting that they pit two communities on campus against each other. However, this argument fails to consider the dynamic at hand, as well as the severity of the Palestinian struggle. The reality is that Zionist organizations are the ones politicizing identities by claiming that divestment sidelines Jewish students. Opposing apartheid is not a question of valuing one community over another — it is a question of the University’s commitment to opposing the restriction of people’s freedom, along with ensuring the safety and inclusion of its students, including Palestinians.

SAFE’s demands for divestment are not the only time U-M administrators have been pressured to denounce oppressive systems and acts. In 1988, after years of protests by anti-apartheid activists, the Board of Regents fully divested from South Africa, removing a total of $50 million of holdings from the entity. More recently, the University was swift to rightfully condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in addition to aiding in investigating war crimes in the country. 

In contrast, U-M presidents, the Board of Regents and other administrators have never taken a stance on condemning the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that has continued relentlessly for the past 75 years. It took 15 years of protesting by SAFE to pressure the CSG to simply pass a resolution calling for the University to investigate affiliated companies accused of committing human rights abuses against Palestinians. This stark contrast exhibits the University’s lack of concern for its Palestinian students, as well as for Palestinian life and liberation. Instead, the public image of an apartheid state receives precedency.

Under University President Santa J. Ono, the trend of ostracizing Palestinian student activists and allies has continued thus far. While Ono met with other student groups, he has neglected meeting with SAFE. The organization has heard no response after it released a letter to him and the Board of Regents in August 2022, calling on them to make SAFE’s demand for divestment a priority. This is of no surprise, considering that Ono, while serving as president of the University of British Columbia, refused to divest from nine companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank. His actions also follow a trip sponsored by a pro-Israel lobby to illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights in 2014, midway through his tenure as University of Cincinnati President.

As the University of Michigan claims to be committed to equity and inclusion, Palestinian students appear to be excluded from this mission. Instead, it chooses to disregard its Palestinian students, while contributing to their group’s oppression. For a more inclusive and equitable campus to exist for Palestinian students, the University must put an end to its cowardice, starting with addressing the long-neglected demands of SAFE and dozens of allied student organizations. Regrettably, there seem to be no signs of the University currently taking action towards ending its contributions to apartheid and the silencing of Palestinian students.