On Tuesday, June 1, we, the executive board of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, wrote an open letter to the community and administration regarding the hostile situation on campus and in Palestine over the last few weeks. Signed by over 23 student organizations on campus and hundreds of students, we intended to “confront the University of Michigan’s failure to condemn Israeli state-sanctioned violence against Palestinians in recent weeks, to highlight the long-standing anti-Palestinian bias and harm that the administration’s silence has further enabled, and to demand that the University take action to create a more inclusive campus environment centering the voices of Palestinians and all marginalized communities.”
In our letter, we described the current injustices taking place in Palestine and the discrimination that runs rampant on campus, outlining the hostility that Palestinians and their allies have historically faced and continue to face from members of the University community. This hostility is part of a larger anti-Palestinian environment that has existed on this campus for years, continuously enabled by administrations past and present. We also began to outline ways that the administration can begin to lessen this hostility towards Palestinians while uplifting and supporting Palestinian students, professors and faculty all across campus. These include demands to reckon with the anti-Palestinian environment on campus, divest from companies that violate Palestinian human rights, address the exclusion of Palestinian narratives in the curriculum, respect the right to exercise freedom of conscience in regards to academic boycotts and more. Despite this, the administration has chosen to continue their inaction and have even added to the hostility, as evidenced by their paltry response to our letter and the continued tradition of brushing off the cries of Palestinians on campus.
On Wednesday, June 2 — the day after our open letter was released — we received the following response from University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, on behalf of University President Mark Schlissel and other U-M leaders.
Considering the increased hostility and bigotry Palestinian students and their allies have faced over the past few weeks and in years past, this is a wholly inadequate and inappropriate response from the administration of a top public university that seeks to pride itself on diversity, equity and inclusion. Our first questions for the U-M leaders who took part in this response: What does this accomplish for students? How does this support any Palestinian student “suffering a great deal of pain and loss”? While the University still has not divested from companies that violate Palestinian human rights, addressed the exclusion of Palestinian narratives from the curriculum or reckoned with the anti-Palestinian environment that runs rampant on campus, how is this anything but empty lip service?
In our open letter, we talked about the targeted harassment Palestinians and their allies continue to face as a result of this campus environment. We mentioned the abusive emails, racist remarks and threats of violence we and our allies received. We mentioned incidents of students being emailed propaganda from listservs they did not subscribe to. We mentioned how messages, flags and other symbols painted on the Rock and elsewhere in support of Palestinians have been deliberately defaced, crossed out and painted over — in some cases with hateful and anti-Palestinian rhetoric. We mentioned the lopsided nature of how campus curricula gloss over our oppression and exclude Palestinian narratives. We mentioned how Palestinian activists and their allies have been doxxed and blacklisted. We mentioned how our traumas and identities have been and continue to be erased and dismissed by this institution and its leaders.
Yet again, as our administration, you are brushing us off and ignoring our concerns. You acknowledge that words cannot express this type of suffering, but we are not asking for words. We are demanding that you, as leaders of this University, for once take action on behalf of your Palestinian students and community members.
In your response, you deliberately chose not to acknowledge, respond to or act on any of the concerns or demands we outlined in our letter. We put into words our suffering for you, and all we got was a week-old statement that simply acknowledged “pain and loss” and hastily threw in links to resources for “support.” Resources that have time and time again failed to help us. You have failed to make the experiences of Palestinians on campus better and failed to correct any of the harm this University continues to enable. We did not ask you to direct us to underfunded mental health resources or campus offices that do not have the power to enact necessary change. We are demanding action that will radically change the campus environment for Palestinians. We need concrete policies that will improve the way the University approaches Palestine as a whole.
You also claim in your response that “at the University of Michigan, we denounce all forms of bigotry, hatred and violence wherever it may occur.” Yet, we have time and time again brought up our experiences with bigotry and hatred on campus to no avail. You cannot say you denounce all forms of bigotry and hatred while you are not actively doing anything to combat it, turning a blind eye as your Palestinian students are targeted. You cannot simply acknowledge that community members are hurt and then fail to do anything concrete to reckon with how the University is an enabler of that hurt.
On June 9, President Schlissel sent out a campus-wide email titled “Supporting one another during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” First, the occupation of Palestine is not a “conflict.” This term implies that two similarly powerful entities are involved in some sort of dispute. Palestine does not have a military or billions of dollars in military funding from the United States. Palestinians in the West Bank live each and every day under brutal military occupation with little to no rights. Palestinians living in the occupied territories are being attacked and killed by settlers on the streets. Palestinians in Gaza have been living under a suffocating siege for over 14 years. Even Palestinians living in the diaspora suffer from Israel’s apartheid regime as they are denied the right of return. When you decide to issue statements that recognize suffering, make sure you are able to distinguish the perpetrator from the victim.
While we would not have gone out of our way to paint over the LGBTQ+ pride flag on the Rock, only when there was anti-Zionist sentiment did you choose to release a statement despite weeks of pro-Palestine sentiment being defaced and covered. And let us be clear in stating that it is intellectually false to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism as some members of the U-M community have done. This course of action on your part indicates the lack of importance and representation that Palestinians have on this campus. It also gaslights Palestinians and their allies by falsely claiming they are perpetuating hateful speech and anti-Semitism when the rhetoric found on the rock was solely criticizing Israel as an apartheid state with documented human rights violations. University Regent Jordan Acker also seems to imply the messaging deliberately displaces the pride flag, which is an example of pinkwashing — referring to when a country, government or organization “appeals to LGBTQ+ rights in order to deflect attention from its harmful practices.” As administrators, you have done nothing but prove that you do not care to understand the experiences of your Palestinian community members. You are only willing to take effective action when it comes to Zionism being rightfully challenged on campus, but will not do the same when it comes to your Palestinian students who have been victims of hatred and bigotry for years.
Additionally, in an interview that was released by The Michigan Daily on June 11, Fitzgerald said, “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.” President Schlissel’s letter similarly claimed that the Division of Student Life “has been working closely with students affected by the conflict and offering support.” Yet, despite all that Palestinian students have faced over the last few weeks, SAFE — the only official Palestine solidarity organization on campus — has not been contacted or reached out to beyond the response to our open letter.
To the regents and administration: Palestinian students have not seen support from the administration and have not experienced the same outreach that other student groups clearly have. Where has the support and outreach been after the years of trauma that Palestinians have continuously experienced on your campus? Palestinian students have asked the administration to take greater action to protect Palestinians for years but have never been extended a helpful hand or support system to rely on.
We reject your inadequate response to our open letter as well as your subsequent actions and statements following it, and we reiterate the original demands from our letter: “Thus we, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) and our allies, demand that the University of Michigan issue a public statement condemning anti-Palestinian sentiment on campus, apologizing for UM’s role in allowing this harm to go unaddressed for so long, and committing to actionable steps that the University will take to correct the harms it has enabled.” We’re ready to work with you to create a better campus for Palestinians, as soon as you decide we deserve an administration that actively cares and fights for us.
The executive board of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality can be reached at SAFEboard@umich.edu.