The University of Michigan’s Central Student Government (CSG) hosted a “Community Concerns” panel during the sixth meeting of the 11th CSG assembly. Students, alumni and staff voiced their concerns or support for CSG leadership’s recent statement of solidarity with the Palestinian community, which was released last Tuesday.
In the statement, executive team members of CSG wrote that they recognize anti-Palestinian sentiment on campus, the University’s refusal to divest from Israeli companies that they say contributes to the violence, and CSG’s past complicity in participating in annual trips that support the Israeli government. The CSG leaders closed their statement by promoting H.R.2590, a bill that urges U.S President Joe Biden and his administration to withdraw taxpayer money from funding the Israeli military.
“Palestinians have been pushed out of the political discourse and have been censored,” the statement said. “Our solidarity with Palestinians is late but necessary and we aim to do whatever is in our power to ensure that we remain in lockstep with them and their fight against oppression.”
Solidarity with Palestinians
The panel opened with rising Public Policy junior Mahnoor Imran, who said she supported the CSG statement. Imran said as an incoming Ford student, she was particularly disappointed by the separate statement released by CSG Representative Emma Sandberg, who wrote she held a neutral stance in regards to Palestine and Israel.
“Let me be very clear: neutrality entrenches oppression,” Imran said. “The CSG statement in support of Palestinian liberation is one step. I urge us and challenge us to take more (steps) on this campus.”
Another speaker, rising LSA junior Salma Ammar Hamamy, said what Palestinians are experiencing is more than a two-sided conflict, but is instead an imbalance of power that is rarely acknowledged by the media.
“I’m not here to make the colonizers feel comfortable when the mainstream media decides to broadcast broken windows of an Israeli building rather than thousands of innocent Palestinians killed,” Hamamy said. “If you only like to talk about the reaction of the oppressed, rather than the cause of the oppression, congratulations —you play a vital role in keeping colonialism and genocide.”
Due to a high volume of petitioners, CSG hosted another virtual session on Wednesday to give more students the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions on the crisis in Israel. LSA rising senior Hadeel Abulenin, one of the student callers, expressed disbelief regarding the poor treatment of Palestinians.
“Even animals are treated better than the people who live in Gaza, which is unbelievable,” Abulenin said. “How can you with any conscience look at what’s happening there and say yes, this is a government that I fully support.”
Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) members — rising Engineering senior Nadine Samaha, rising LSA senior Jacob Sirhan and rising Public Policy senior Jinan Abufarha — also pledged their support for the CSG statement. Sirhan, the co-president of SAFE, said Palestinian students and activists on the U-M campus have been targeted and doxxed on websites for advocating on behalf of the Palestinian people. Sirhan said the CSG statement was a positive step towards making the University community feel more inclusive for Palestinian students.
“Year after year, Palestinians have come to CSG, as well as (to) administrators, to beg for their humanity,” Sirhan said. “This victimization means that Palestinians are only read through loss and need, and in many ways, that has been self internalized. Truth is a precursor to recovery and deliberation — the CSG statement took these steps.”
Abufarha said she feels like the CSG statement amplified her voice along with the voices of blacklisted Palestinian activists who have been made fearful to speak up for decades.
“From an extremely young age, my mother taught me that the condition of being Palestinian in this country is to wrap yourself in your silences and swallow a baseline level of violence against your existence,” Abufarha said.
Abufarha said it was tiresome to constantly share trauma and have her concerns reduced to being too political for powerful institutions to confront.
“Tired — tired of time and time again being expected to put our trauma on display and hope that our existence would be recognized on this campus,” Abufarha said. “Tired of having to humanize or be the face of genocide enough so that people can recognize it. (But) when I read this statement, it felt like I could release a breath I had been holding on to for years. It felt like finally the work and the sacrifices of those who came on this campus before me were being honored.”
Opposition to the CSG statement
While those who support the CSG statement consider it vital, Michigan alum Gabriel Croitoru believes it was ineffective and that the organization could have focused on campus issues instead of attempting to solve international affairs.
“To be honest, there’s a lot of issues that students on campus face,” Croitoru said. “And I think it would be wise of CSG to focus on the issues that it has an impact on. This statement isn’t going to make Israel stop bombing Gaza.”
LSA junior Dylan Wheatley said he was upset CSG supported the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) and did not reach out to Jewish organizations on campus to consult or sign the statement before it was released.
“I felt incredibly violated after (because I was) promised that this administration was not going to pursue BDS but then (CSG) decided to,” Wheatley said. “I really trusted CSG to be inclusive of narratives and sensitive to the campus community, but instead they chose to hurt.”
Engineering freshman Tom Sherman said he thought the CSG statement spread misinformation and left out Israeli voices. He said that Israelis were also vulnerable to injury and displacement by the attacks and the statement had demonized the country even though it is unclear if the Israeli government has nuclear weapons to incite aggression.
“The Iron Dome is a defense system,” Sherman said. “It is not just a military weapon, it saves civilian lives. So don’t bash funding that the U.S. government is giving to save civilian lives.”
Rising LSA junior Alana Wilck is the current chair for Michigan Hillel, a student organization on campus with the mission of connecting with Jewish students on campus through leadership and community engagement opportunities. Wilck said Hillel is concerned that the feelings and experiences of Jewish students at a University with a relationship to Israel were not considered when drafting the statement. Hillel hosts annual birthright trips to Israel, which serve to connect the Jewish community and recognize Israel as their homeland. She also said the meeting took place on the second night of Shavuot, a Jewish Holiday in which traditionally, practicing Jewish people do not use technology.
“Whether or not it was intentional, the statement and actions that were taken by CSG representatives further silenced the voices of Jewish students,” said Wilck.
Additional discourse by anti-occupation Jewish organizations
Rising engineering senior Madeline Horvitz, a member of IfNotNow, an American Jewish anti-occupation organization, said she did not agree with Hillel’s response to the CSG statement. She said it is a privilege to consider the term “settler colonialism” problematic and talked about how she did not feel welcome by Hillel because of her opposition to Zionism.
“I think that we need to consider the normalization of silencing Palestinian voices that Hillel continually perpetrates,” said Horvitz. “There’s nothing stopping me from hopping on a plane and going back tomorrow, but there is everything stopping Palestinians and us as the oppressed party in this situation, only they need to be considered in the statement.”
Rising LSA sophomore Micah Sweet and rising Engineering junior Miranda Baltaxe are members of J Street UMich, a Jewish anti-occupation lobbying group on campus. Sweet and Baltaxe said J-Street condemns anti-Palestinian sentiment and encourages the U.S. government to stop funding occupation. The group also works to raise awareness for the reality of occupation within Jewish circles on campus. Baltaxe said J Street feels empowered to criticize Israel and think critically about what’s happening in order to advocate for peace.
“We acknowledge the power that Israel holds over the Palestinians,” Sweet said. “As Jewish people granted the right to return to Israel at our convenience, it is not our right to tell Palestinians who do not have this privilege that they must speak for us during this time.”
CSG members respond to backlash
CSG president Nithya Arun, a rising Public Health senior, responded to the criticisms regarding the CSG statement. She said she stands by the statement and believes the situation isn’t two-sided: there is an unequal distribution of power.
“I strongly condemn anti-semitism and will advocate for, endorse and fund any program or intervention,” Arun said. “But this is not (antisemitism). Palestinian students are marginalized and those who dare to speak out fear being subjected to being blacklisted. That affects their livelihood.”
Vice President of LSA Student Government Zackariah Farah, a rising LSA senior, said he still supports the CSG statement. Regarding the criticism that the statement was one-sided, Farah said the purpose was to support the group suffering from occupation. Following Arun, who said that she received numerous “racist and sexist” messages after the release of the statement, Farah added that other members have received an overwhelming amount of hateful messages, harassment and threats.
“Just (by) releasing the statement, I have received a plethora of racist and sexist messages that threaten my employer process and, most importantly, my safety,” said Arun. “When those who stand in solidarity are subjected to vitriol and abuse, this is not the dynamic of having two sides.”
Farah said he heard from critics on social media that the student government shouldn’t comment on controversial issues but recalled that the University’s student government has participated in activism throughout history.
“Back then the (Vietnam) war was extremely controversial, but we look back at those brave students who rightfully called the war immoral, with great pride.” said Farah. “The same goes for when student government took a stance against the apartheid policies to South Africa. This situation is certainly no different.”
The University of Michigan was the center of anti-war protests for many decades. Between 1965 and 1972, the University of Michigan campus experienced a rise in political activism and discourse by students and faculty against the Vietnam War. On October 15, 1969, Michigan Stadium saw one of the largest anti-war protests conducted by students. Other opposition to the Vietnam War included holding the very first teach-in in March 1965 at Angell Hall, organized by a group called Students for a Democratic Society.
Rising Engineering junior Zaynab Elkolaly said she firmly will not compromise with anyone who supports apartheid or ethnic cleansing. She said that contributing to the CSG statement was one of the best things she has done for herself and her commitment to the Student Body.
“And for those that might have an issue with this plan…. I’m not going to stop,” Elkolaly said.
Rising LSA sophomore Ashvin Pai echoed Elkolaly’s sentiment.
“I have no interest in representing Pro-Zionist student voices,” said Pai. “As long as you hold these stances, you’re not welcome to sit at the table of liberation.”
Rising LSA senior Annie Mintun, CSG assembly speaker and the moderator of the panel, reiterated her support for Palestine and expressed her gratitude for all the speakers of the night.
“We can only represent you when we know what you believe in, what you want from us. So it means so much to all of us that you came and trusted us with your story” Mintun said.
Other Student Organizations:
Rising Public Health junior Gina Liu, member of Students of Color Liberation Front (SoC LF) and president of United Asian American Organization (UAO), said SoC LF met with administrative representatives to discuss their anti-racist demands earlier this semester, which specifically included the removal of Sabra hummus from U-M dining halls because the brand financially supports the Israeli military force. Liu said the administration was not responsive to this demand.
“For me, this (refusal) really illustrates the University’s inability to embody a single value of anti-racism despite spending millions of dollars on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives,” Liu said. “The least this University could do is boycott, divest and sanction investments in Israel.”
The Michigan Daily reached out to University Public Affairs for a comment on this matter, but has not received a comment at the time of publication.
Amir Fleischmann, a member of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), said he thinks it takes a lot of courage to take a stance for Palestinians considering the University’s past with silencing protests against the Israeli government. Fleischmann recalled when, three years ago, GEO member Lucy Peterson refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student to study abroad in Israel.
“We saw (Peterson) be chastised by the University and by our department in a way that’s completely unacceptable.” said Fleischmann, “(Now) the tide is turning against Israeli apartheid.”
Rising LSA senior and Muslim Students’ Association president Mariam Azeim, alongside Arab Student Association board members Ziad Fehmi and Akram Irshaid, both rising LSA juniors, and Latifa Cheaito, a rising LSA senior, voiced their support for CSG’s Palestinian solidarity. Cheaito said incidents on campus spreading hate speech demonstrated the erasure of marginalized identities on campus.
Fehmi said he believes it is essential for the world and the Michigan community to recognize the eviction of Palestinians as a clear violation of international law. Fehmi defined the situation as apartheid, and Irshaid said that any decent human being would reject anti-semitism and also stand against the censorship of Palestinian voices.
“I would like to end our comments here today, just as we started them: we are speaking to you here today as Arab students, however, it does not, and should never, take ethnic types to see what is clearly right or wrong,” said Fehmi. “As always, free Palestine.”
Daily Staff Reporter Nirali Patel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org