Dylan Berger: We must come back to our roots on activism

Thursday, February 14, 2019 - 2:18pm

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The Michigan Daily

The University of Michigan has a rich and storied history of student activism. One vivid example is student activism against the horrors of South African apartheid. But today, students have lost sight of that history, instead now organizing against the only stable democracy in the Middle East and resorting to anti-Semitism to do it. Going forward, we must organize against hate-filled movements, such as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, in order to honor our rich history of fighting for what’s right.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King wrote this letter while  detained in the Birmingham City Jail for organizing nonviolent resistance against racial segregation in Alabama. The letter served as a rebuke to critics who spoke out against King as an “outsider” and derided his popular campaign against segregation in the state.

King’s words remind us all that it is our duty to stand against injustice, wherever it may exist. King so profoundly articulated that none of us can sit idly by while our fellow members of humankind are denied their God-given rights. Despite his life being cut short by hate, his words live on. Inspired by King, countless Americans have picked up his mission to spread the light of freedom wherever darkness may exist. Students right here at the University of Michigan have an especially storied history of carrying on King’s eternal struggle against injustice.

When confronted with the menace of apartheid in South Africa, University students led the movement to tear down such an unjust system. In 1977, students launched a divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa with the formation of the South Africa Liberation Committee. Through these organizations, students pressed University leadership to divest all corporate investments in South Africa and cut ties with any segregated academic institutions in South Africa. At first, progress was slow. While opposed to apartheid, University leadership was reluctant to fully divest from South Africa. However, students were not deterred.

A new generation of student activists kept the movement humming on campus throughout the 1980s as the rest of the world woke up to the horrors of apartheid. Thanks in large part to the work of students, the University Board of Regents voted in 1983 to divest 90 percent of University holdings in companies with ties to South Africa. By 1985, the board voted to divest a further $4.5 million of holdings connected to apartheid South Africa.

Students continued their quest for justice with an intense push to bestow an honorary degree on Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the South African anti-apartheid movement. After weeks of intense demonstrations, the board finally voted in favor of awarding Mandela with said honorary degree. After his release from prison, Mandela visited Michigan in 1990, holding a rally at Tiger Stadium and receiving his honorary degree. With two decades of hard work and determination, University students honored King’s legacy by doing their part in bringing an evil system to an end.

Currently, however, similar forms of activism are employed by students on campus to smear a beacon of freedom and democracy while looking the other way on real evil. This is painfully apparent in the rise of the BDS movement on campus. In a sea of Middle Eastern illiberal theocracies and failed states, Israel has developed as a paragon of liberal democracy. The country’s diverse population of Jews, Muslims and Christians live in relative peace, with equal rights for all. In fact, next month marks the 20th anniversary of Abdel Rahman Zuabi, the first Arab-Israeli Supreme Court Justice, taking his seat on the court. Arab-Israelis also contribute to Israeli government, business and academia as equal citizens.

In opposition to the facts, BDS supporters on campus have forged ahead with their crusade against Israel. Since 2002, student activists tried and failed 10 times to pass a resolution in support of the BDS movement against Israel. Exemplifying the frightening rise of anti-Semitism worldwide as of late, Central Student Government ultimately passed a motion in support of BDS in 2017. Thankfully, the University Board of Regents have stood against this unjust effort to wage economic war against the world’s only Jewish state.

While speaking out against Israel, a beacon of freedom and a key pillar of American security in the Middle East, student activists have been mum on the rising tide of anti-Semitism associated with their movement. Just this month, newly-elected U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., accused supporters of Israel in Congress of being bought off with Jewish (specifically from AIPAC) money. While some came to her defense, her comments provoked significant backlash on both sides of the aisle. In a rare show of bipartisanship, both President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., condemned Omar’s comment. While Omar represents a fresh face for liberal Democrats, her ideas are anything but. Instead, Omar has reverted to age-old anti-Semitic tropes to make her case against Israel.

As a Jewish-American, those comments hit close to home for me. My loyalties are with one country and one country alone: the United States of America. That being said, I’m a strong believer in Israeli sovereignty and security. My opposition to the BDS movement should in no way be construed as opposition to Palestinian sovereignty or the Palestinian people. Quite the contrary. I believe wholeheartedly in the Palestinian right to self-determination and am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. Having said that, I oppose BDS’s antagonization of a liberal democracy that is key to advancing U.S. security interests in the region. With public figures such as Omar increasingly comfortable with calling the loyalties of patriotic Americans into question because of their religion, now is the time for action on campus.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the past, students at the University of Michigan have stood on the side of justice, tirelessly working to extend the flame of freedom into the next generation. Now, however, a movement built on anti-Semitic hate has taken root on campus and in our country as a whole. University of Michigan students must again honor our legacy of leading the fight against hatred, no matter how long it takes.

Dylan Berger can be dylberge@umich.edu.