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Direct Action for Palestine (DAP), a coalition of students, faculty and community members, formed “to organize for Palestinian liberation” in response to the Cheney-Lippold and Peterson letter of recommendation controversy, took control of the Blue Ribbon Panel Friday morning in protest of the panel and the University's sanctions addressing the controversy. The event, held at Pierpont Commons and attended by about 40 students and faculty members, was meant to be a continuation in a series of panels on the intersection between faculty responsibility and political thought.
Before the panel commenced the meeting, the DAP leader, who asked to be referred to by the pseudonym Rami Abdullah, took the microphone and turned his back on the panel, announcing to the audience that DAP was taking over the event.
In total, DAP’s protest featured 11 student speakers, explaining their objections to the panel and the University’s sanctions against Cheney-Lippold and Peterson, their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and their views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. All DAP speakers wished to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns.
Before the speakers took the microphone, Abdullah read a list of demands DAP made for University President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents. Abdullah called for the dissolution of the Blue Ribbon Panel, the negation of sanctions against John Cheney-Lippold and Lucy Peterson and public apologies from Schlissel, University Provost Martin Philbert and Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole. In addition, the demands included the divestment of University monies from companies targeted by the BDS movement and an end to partnerships with Israeli academic institutions and study abroad programs, among others. Handouts with an abbreviated list of these demands and protest chants were also passed out to the audience members.
“Our plan is to work towards our demands,” Abdullah said. “We will continue to escalate actions until the University agrees to our demands.”
After Abdullah passed the microphone to the second DAP speaker, James Duderstadt, member of the Blue Ribbon Panel and president emeritus, asked Abdullah how many DAP members were in the audience and how long DAP students planned to speak.
“Since we have an open agenda, we need to allow other people to speak,” Duderstadt said.
Duderstadt’s questions were ignored, leading one audience member to shout at the second DAP speaker before walking out of the event.
“Are you going to allow this to proceed so that we can actually learn something or are you just going to yell at us?” the audience member said. “We came for dialogue. You guys have disrupted what could have been a positive event. I’m leaving.”
In justification of the DAP protest, one anonymous speaker challenged the legitimacy of the panel, reiterating concerns DAP had written in an open letter to the panel. The speaker expressed the panel lacks transparency on its process and timeline, noting also the panel’s limited power as only a recommending body. In particular, they criticized the composition of the panel, noting that none of the members come from humanities departments, have research experience addressing racial-colonial issues nor are Palestinian. They also noted that two members, Deborah Ball and Deborah Goldberg, have had relationships or engagements with Israeli academic institutions.
“It is difficult to imagine this panel building room for dissenting views or serving any purpose other than to uphold established norms and to silence conscientious objections,” the anonymous speaker said. “We understand the point of debates about academic freedom. But this is not a productive forum for that. Our point … is not just to reaffirm what’s in the University’s financial interest.”
Another anonymous speaker explained DAP’s support for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
“Palestinian students feel alienated in an academic system that stubbornly resists integration and seems designed to consolidate rather than challenge discrimination and to further dispossess the Palestinians,” this speaker said. “International educators ought to reject this by endorsing the boycott of academic institutions who engage in this. Such a boycott wouldn’t affect individual Israeli scholars, whose freedom to participate in international conferences, publish in journals, or collaborate with other scholars would not be threatened. Rather, it calls for a break in institutional cooperation and affiliation.”
One DAP speaker, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, said their fight against anti-Semitism does not conflict with Palestine solidarity and called for the panel to be dissolved. This speaker introduced a Jewish Voice for Peace petition in support of Cheney-Lippold and Peterson, which over 8000 Jewish people have signed.
Other speakers read aloud articles about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and an editorial written by Lucy Peterson on her letter of recommendation controversy. Two speakers whose families have fled persecution by the Chinese government, a student of Tibetan descent and a student from Xinjiang, China also spoke to express their solidarity with DAP.
After DAP finished speaking, Abdullah encouraged other audience members to ask questions and make comments, specifying that he wanted to create discussion he believed was missing from the Blue Ribbon Panel.
“I’m here because I believe in disbanding this panel precisely because I believe in dialogue,” Abdullah said. “This is not possible due to the way that power operates, and we have tried to change that today. All three listening sessions in the past had minimal responses to students and vague, politician-y responses to faculty, if any at all. We actually want to have a conversation with you all.”
Avi Steinberg, a lecturer in the Residential College and an Israeli citizen, declared he wanted to go on the record saying he would not write a letter of recommendation for anyone studying abroad in Israel.
“I do this in solidarity both with this cause but also with my colleagues,” Steinberg said. “The policy has been very clear, and it has had a chilling effect. And this is not theoretical. I’ve seen the chilling effect from colleagues who don’t want to speak, who don’t want to give their names. They don’t want to give their names! So I’m going to give my name. Avi Steinberg, on the record, got it?”
Samer Madhy Ali, director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, said that Cheney-Lippold and Peterson did not violate existing policy and that there was no contractual obligation to write letters of obligation. He also noted that there may be too many controversies entangled in the discussion.
“Perhaps we do need to have a separate conversation about what are letters of recommendation, what are our duties to students outside of any boycotts, outside of any protests,” Ali said. “I think many of us realize that we would not be in this situation if it was a protest of Saudi Arabia, if it was a protest of China. We are only in this situation because America has a special relationship — political, financial, historical — with Israel.”
Eli Sider, external relations officer of Hillel and a videographer for The Michigan Daily, spoke for Jewish students on campus who he said has felt hurt and angered by Cheney-Lippold and Peterson’s actions.
“In the professional environment, opinion should never infringe on a student’s ability to do well in the classroom or a student’s academic opportunities,” Sider said. “More specifically, actions, like those taken by Professor Cheney-Lippold, would have a targeted and disproportionate effect on Jewish students on this campus. Although students of all backgrounds study in Israeli academic institutions, it is more common for Jewish students to study or work in Israel during or after college.”
During the two-hour event, the panel members listened without comment as DAP speakers presented their views and lead the discussion. After Abdullah adjourned the event, Duderstadt spoke again, addressing DAP to thank them for facilitating a fruitful conversation.
“Let me also make a comment,” Duderstadt said. “First comment is to thank you very much because I think by taking over our meeting you actually triggered a dialogue which has taught us a great deal. Your voice is very important. This is an institution based on academic freedom and the freedom of speech, not just for faculty and staff but very much so for student groups such as yours.”
Duderstadt also clarified the panel is an independent body charged with providing input.
One audience member then asked if any panel members would support demands calling for the dissolution of the panel by resigning from it. Deborah Goldberg, a member of the panel and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, answered that the panel is a body that acts as a group, which is why individuals on the panel cannot make statements or decisions without discussion as a group first.
Correction: This article has been udpated with clarifications about Direct Action for Palestine and about the sequence of events.