Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rightly generated international outcry and condemnation. The war is clearly an imperial action, with Putin denying the very existence of the Ukrainian people and explicitly attempting to make Ukraine a part of Russia. The consequences are horrific. Russian forces have killed or injured thousands of civilians and have committed a number of atrocities that are likely war crimes, including destroying the maternity and children’s wards of a prenatal hospital, cluster bombing a preschool, dropping landmines on a civilian escape route and executing civilians.
As of March 24, the invasion had displaced 10 million people, “the fastest and largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II.” A wide variety of groups have rightly demanded that Russia immediately end its attack and completely withdraw its forces. Afterward, Russia must be held accountable for its actions.
The vital attention to and support for Ukrainians comparatively highlights the widespread lack of such a stance toward Palestinians’ decades-long fight for self-determination. The world largely stands by as Palestinians are bombed, murdered, imprisoned, evicted and maimed; as Palestinian human rights groups are banned as “terrorist” organizations; and as Palestinians are forced to live under apartheid — a crime against humanity according to international law. The primary Palestinian liberation movement — the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement — has been falsely labeled as inherently antisemitic and therefore oppressive.
To many, the situations in Ukraine and Palestine are so different as to be incomparable. And clearly, the situations have many differences, including the fact that Ukraine is a member state of the United Nations, whereas the State of Palestine is a non-member observer state. However, this legal difference has nothing to do with the basic right of all peoples to self-determination. In fact, Russia’s denial of Ukrainian statehood underscores how recognition of this right is ultimately political. If we accept that all peoples have the right to choose their own destinies, then we must be as insistent and urgent in our support for Palestinians as we are for Ukrainians.
The University of Michigan’s actions demonstrate that it is not committed to respecting the right of all peoples to self-determination. On March 15, the University announced that it would divest from Russia after Ukrainian students submitted an open letter calling for divestment (as well as aid to displaced Ukrainian scholars and students and support for students and employees from Belarus and Russia). By contrast, the University has long refused to divest from companies that violate Palestinian human rights, despite decades of advocacy by the Palestinian solidarity group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and its allies.
When Central Student Government passed resolution A.R. 7-109 in 2017, asking the University to appoint a committee that would simply consider divestment from companies doing business with Israel, the University refused, saying that the purpose of the endowment was “to generate the greatest possible income.” This was an explicit statement that the University values profit over people, which remains the University’s position on divestment from Israel to this day. And yet it took less than three weeks for the University to announce an explicitly politically-motivated divestment from Russia.
None of this is to attempt to minimize the atrocities being perpetrated against Ukrainians. Rather, this is a call to recognize that the urgency we rightly feel to support Ukrainian self-determination must also be applied toward the liberation of Palestinians and other oppressed peoples. We must fight as passionately for Palestinian self-determination as we fight for Ukrainian self-determination. Indeed, we need only look to Palestine, the Native American lands now known as the United States and other colonized regions of the globe to see what Ukraine might look like if Ukrainians’ right to self-determination is not defended and upheld.
Fortunately, Palestinian, Native American, Black, Latinx and Asian students have already done significant work to identify concrete ways that the University can support the liberation of all peoples. The Students of Color Liberation Front, composed of a variety of racial justice organizations on campus, has articulated a unified set of anti-racist demands addressing pedagogy, curriculum, faculty hiring (including a demand for the creation of a Palestinian Studies Scholar/Chair), student support and recruitment, divestment, policing and more.
Nineteen campus organizations and over 200 individuals cosigned these demands, but the University has yet to implement or take meaningful action toward most of them. Ukrainian students are also currently identifying ways that the University can support Ukrainian students and scholars through remote education, emergency admissions and material support. By implementing these plans, the University has an opportunity to become an institution that respects the human rights of all people and peoples. The only question is whether it will.
Jared Eno is a graduate student studying sociology and public policy. He can be reached at email@example.com.