Over the past few weeks, pro-Palestine and pro-Israel rhetoric have taken over the Rock at the corner of Hill St. and Washtenaw Ave. The Rock, which usually sports painted U-M colors or support for various student organizations in a decades-long tradition, gained larger community attention Jun. 5 when the words “Fuck Israel” were painted over a Pride flag painted the previous day. 

The rock was originally painted with the Palestinian flag on May 21 as part of a protest in support of Palestinian people, according the LSA junior Salma Hamamy said. Less than 12 hours later, the rock was repainted to a class of 2021 graduation message. Over the next week, pro-Palestine and pro-Israeli messages alternated nearly every day, according to Hamamy.

“My life has revolved around that rock for the past couple of weeks,” Hamamy said. “I believe I had to repaint that rock five times.” 

Hamamy recalled that oftentimes the pro-Palestine paintings weren’t fully painted over and instead had additional text added to them to change the meaning of the message. On May 23, members from Hamamy’s WhatsApp group painted the Rock with the message “We are humans, save the children” in the colors of the Palestine flag. On May 25, in blue lettering, “that are trash” was written under the original painting to read: “We are humans, save the children that are trash.”

The Rock was painted with pro-Palestinian messages on May 23 which were covered up on May 25, 2021. Courtesy of Salma Hamami.

“It becomes extremely frustrating when we are constantly trying to use the rock to amplify Palestinian voices, and the voices of people are constantly being denied and subjugated into violence and oppression and apartheid and ethnic cleansing,” Hamamy said. “We are met, time and time again, with people coming to paint over the rock and silence our voices and write hateful messages, yet no one ever says anything.”

Hamamy was part of a WhatsApp groupchat of a few dozen Arab students who were the ones mainly responsible for the Palestinian paintings on the rock, she said. 

Pro-Israel messages on the Rock included “Israel wants peace” and “Stop Jewish hate” painted in the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag, as well as stars of David that represent both the flag and the Jewish faith.  

The paint disputes extended beyond just the Rock. On June 1, the trash can which sits next to the Rock to dispose of paint cans was painted white with blue lettering with the words “Israel is trash.” Messages were also painted in the famous graffiti alley on Liberty St., which had been sprayed with pro-Palestine artwork on May 26. On May 27, the words “you are not free” were painted over the Palestinian artwork. 

After nearly two weeks of the back-and-forth painting, Samii Stoloff, LSA graduate and incoming Rackham student, painted the Rock to celebrate Pride month on June 2. Stoloff, a member of the Jewish faith, arrived at the Rock that Wednesday morning with paints and the goal to paint the entire rock with the colors of the rainbow. When she got there, the flag of Israel was painted on the Rock.

“When I saw the flag it didn’t really matter,” Stoloff said. “I was gonna cover the Rock anyways even though there was an Israel flag. I was like, this whole rock just needs to be painted over. I don’t want any Israel or Palestine fights. I just want it to be a very neutral Happy Pride Month rock.” 

After 45 minutes, Stoloff and her friend who was also painting the rock were approached by three girls who had brought their own paints to illustrate the rock. Zorastreon Kalonymos, an Ann Arbor community member, was among the group of three.

“I was with two of my friends who happened to be Arab, just like me,” Kalonymos said. “And we went to the rock with the intent of painting Palestinian flags and slogans and markings. And we got there. And there were two women who were painting Pride stuff, which is absolutely fine.” 

Kalonymos approached the rock where the flag of Israel had not yet been painted over yet and got out her paints looking to paint the flag of Palestine over the Israeli flag. 

“(The three girls) were like, well, we don’t really want to look at the Israeli flag, it represents genocide and terrorism and all of this, stuff,” Stoloff said, “I was like, well, we’re Jewish students and, you know, we don’t actually mind looking at the Israel flag, but we’re gonna paint over anyways, so like don’t worry about it. They were just very persistent about covering up the Israel flag.” 

After an argument, Stoloff and Kalonymos came to the agreement that Kalonymos could paint over the Israeli flag with white spray paint, which would later be covered by the pride flag wrapped around the entire rock. 

“We didn’t want anything to escalate, so we agreed,” Kalonymos said, “So my friends and I painted this light box with Palestinian civil flags. And we departed, we left — that’s it.” 

After Kalonymos left, Stoloff and her friend completed the rainbow on the flag and left. When Hamamy’s WhatsApp group chat saw the Pride flag, it was agreed that there would be no more painting of the rock during Pride month. 

Saturday morning, Stoloff got out of the shower and opened her phone to a text with an image of the Rock. Over the Pride flag, “Fuck Israel” was sprayed in bold letters across the rock. This incident was repeated Saturday night again with the same message sprayed over the repainted rock.

Both Saturday and Sunday, Stoloff gathered her paints and went to the rock to paint over the message and restore the rock back to her Pride month painting.  

“I was sent a post from the stop antisemitism Instagram account by one of my friends and I just got out of the shower and I was like, here we go,”  Stoloff said. “I drove to the Rock and I got my paints out and I painted over the message. I’ve gotten a lot of support from it, but I’ve also gotten some hate from it.” 

Stoloff first re-painted the Rock on Saturday during Shabbat, a Jewish holiday which occurs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. During Shabbat, Stoloff typically stays off her phone and spends time with friends and family to honor the day of rest, but felt it was important to re-paint the Rock during the holiday. 

“It’s very upsetting, like, just, I painted a literal flag for Pride, which has nothing to do with Israel or Palestine so, it’s just, it’s upsetting to know that there is so much hate on campus,” Stoloff said. “And then there are students who will say, you know fuck Israel, or that Israel does this does that, but it still has nothing to do with Pride or, you know, even keeping anyone remotely safe on campus, especially Jewish students who, you know, want to feel safe on campus.” 

Hamamy said she and other students who had previously contributed to pro-Palestine art on the rock were unsure of who had painted over the Pride flag. 

“Once we saw that the Pride flag was painted we all came to unanimous agreement saying no one touched the pride flag whatsoever,” Hamamy said. “So the people who did cover the Pride flag, we have absolutely no idea who they are. We are trying to figure that out.”

University responses 

The University spoke out in a tweet the afternoon the vulgar anti-Israel message was painted over the Pride flag. 

“U-M denounces all vulgar and hateful messages, both on or near campus, such as “the rock” along Washtenaw Avenue. We offer our thanks to those members of the community who stepped up today to add more speech by repainting the rock,” the statement reads. 

U-M President Mark Schlissel sent a statement to the campus community Wednesday titled “support one another during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and stated that hateful discourses have no place on the U-M campus.

“To fully thrive as a university and confront the most difficult issues we face as a society, we must remain a unified community that believes in peaceful disagreement, free speech, and advancing arguments through productive discourse and respect for our shared humanity,” Schlissel wrote in his statement. “Any actions motivated by anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian bias or any other form of bigotry have no place in the discourse of a great university.”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Rick Fitzgerald, University of Michigan spokesman, discussed the consequences of hate speech in the U-M community. 

“While it’s close to campus, you know the rock has for decades been painted with different messages, most of them are positive and congratulatory, but sometimes they’re not,” Fitzgerald said. “Other than to keep educating our community about the damage that can be done with hateful public messages like this, there isn’t a specific action that the University can take to stop things like this in public spaces like that. I mean we’re an educational institution, and we work to educate our students and our faculty and staff about speech and the importance of speech and how it can sometimes hurt others. The speech can be harmful as well as positive, and we’ll keep working on that output as we have for many generations.”

Fitzgerald additionally spoke about the protocols set in place by the University to support students who experience hate speech and the importance of Hillel, an organization which supports Jewish students on campus.

“We are in constant contact with Hillel to make sure that those students have the resources they need and the support that they need, as we do with other student groups on campus anytime there’s a hateful message that that targets,” Fitzgerald said. “When it comes to students, the Dean of Students offices is very quick to reach out and to help understand the situation and to offer whatever support may be appropriate, and it could be different from one situation to the next, but when it comes to our Jewish students, again — Hillel is an important resource for those students as well and the University works very closely with Hillel.”

University Regent Jordan Acker (D) spoke out on Twitter expressing his disappointment about the Pride flag being painted over with the vulgar anti-Israel message. 

“I’m disgusted by the hateful and antisemitic graffiti found on the Rock (at U-M) this morning. This vulgar messaging, displacing a pride month painting, is disgraceful. Make no mistake, our campus is not and cannot be a haven for such hatred,” Acker wrote in his tweet. 

Community responses

University of Michigan Hillel released a statement Sunday addressing the rhetoric in the U-M community.

“This is not a Jewish issue; it is a campus issue in which language and vandalism are escalating to unacceptable levels of hate and intimidation,” the statement reads. “We are the Leaders and Best. We are better than this.”

Stoloff said her intention of painting the Rock was to show support to the LGBTQ+ community as an ally.

“Painting the Pride flag on the rock is an act of love and to celebrate Pride month on campus,” Stoloff said. “I literally just want to be something that’s going to be a neutral thing that everyone can enjoy and that doesn’t have to be so divisive on campus and make someone feel unsafe like, that’s just my goal, really.”

Kalonymos said she believes Stoloff is “pinkwashing” the situation. Pinkwashing entails using progressive actions or messaging in support of the LGBTQ+ community to distract from other actions of governments or organizations. 

“I think saying fuck Israel is not a problem,” Kalonymous said. “It shouldn’t be treated as a problem. Simply free speech. But I think painting over it with a pride flag as I said before, it’s a public space. People can paint whatever they want on it whenever they want. But I think it’s pinkwashing a situation that people are really trying to support at this time because of what’s happening in Palestine for children being killed every day, and people are being arrested under false pretenses every day.”

The back-and-forth rhetoric on The Rock has caused students to speak up on social media regarding the environment and community at the University and its support of both Israeli and Palestinean students. Hamamy said she feels the University is not listening to Palestinian students and the forms of racism they are experiencing. 

“A lot of people wrote hate speech in the weeks before (against Palestine),” Hamamy said. “No one said anything and you know we’re not expecting the University to say anything because although U-M likes to claim that it’s not racist, we constantly email them and try to talk to them, and they ignore everything we say …. instead write a message (saying that) we denounce any forms of bigotry and racism, yet they don’t denounce the racism that we’re expressing to them and that we’re going through. So, you know they like to paint this pretty image of peace and acting like they are against colonization and genocide and whatnot, but the reality is they’re not, they don’t — their actions, their actions do not match up with their words whatsoever.”

Stoloff leveled similar criticism at the non-specificity of the initial U-M statement.

“It didn’t go towards the antisemitism or say anything about hate speech or promoting inclusivity on campus,” Stoloff said. “I’m happy that they did come out with a statement, as weak of a statement as it was, but there is a lot of work to do on campus, especially around antisemitism and islamophobia.” 

Kalonymos said that in the following days, she hopes the Rock will be treated like the public property that it is. 

“(What) I hope to see is that people in a few days or weeks let everyone paint the Rock who wants to paint the Rock as long as they’re not being hateful,” Kalonymos said. “(People) can divvy up (the Rock) however (they like) …. and I want everyone to just — I know this is gonna sound like a like a little kid, but I just want everyone in the Rock situation to just be peaceful and say, ‘Okay, you are painting pro-Israel art on this half of the Rock. Go ahead. You are painting pro-Palestinian are on this half the Rock. Go ahead.’”

Hamamy said she hopes that the community is able to celebrate Pride month, but plans on painting the rock again once June is over.

“Many students have tried time and time again to silence us and to paint this as a ‘conflict’ and not tell it for what it is,” Hamamy said. “They’re not going to stop us. We’re going to continue, and we are going to fight, and we are going to fight over this rock — I don’t care. We are going to paint this rock until we feel that the Rock has not been covered up by someone trying to silence our voices.”

The Ann Arbor Police Department told The Daily on Sunday that they are aware of the situation and monitoring the Rock. The U-M Department of Public Safety and Security declined to comment due to the fact that the Rock is on Ann Arbor city property and falls out of their jurisdiction.

Summer Managing News Editor Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu.