Open Letter Regarding the Blue Ribbon Panel

Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - 12:17pm

These statements were given on December 5, 2018, at the Board of Regents meeting in Ann Arbor. They express solidarity with #UMDivest, academic freedom, and all movements against settler colonization.

 

I’m a Palestinian undergraduate student in LSA at the University of Michigan. I am a dual citizen of both the United States and Israel. I just transferred here this semester. This past summer, I went to the West Bank and Israeli-occupied land where some of my family members still live. I went with my dad, who, in the ‘80’s, had been a student at the University of Michigan and studied abroad in Palestine. He witnessed snipers killing Palestinian children and protested the violence. The Israeli soldiers tear gassed the protest, held my father up against a wall, pointed a gun at his head, stole his passport, and kicked him out of the country. He was barred from re-entering our homeland for a number of years. I had also grown up hearing stories about how my grandfather crawled across the Palestine-Lebanon border under a hail of Israeli bullets in order to return to his home in Palestine. More than 65 laws in Israel discriminate against Palestinians. In short, I have personally witnessed the repercussions of these human rights abuses.

 

You can imagine how shocked, frightened, and ashamed I was to come back to Michigan and see that the University I’m which I have just enrolled in (or I attend) invests money into companies that hurt my family. Companies like Boeing, HP and United Technologies sponsor and participate in the colonial forces which have displaced my family and which continue to physically, emotionally, and financially burden our lives. Additionally, I feel that the University has made it clear that they do not care about the perspectives of Palestinian students. After CSG had passed a resolution last year to form a committee to investigate into U of M’s divestment into Israel, a resolution that took 13 years to pass, the Board of Regents issued a statement saying that they will not only reject the resolution, but will oppose not be in favor of future actions that propose divestment from companies that profit off the human rights violations in occupied Palestine.

 

Your job as the Board of Rregents is to reflect the interests of students and community members. As both a tuition-paying students and a resident of Michigan, I feel that this statement is a blatant rejection of student interests. Especially since so many of the organizations who supported the resolution were composed of students of color, I feel that this response was wholly dismissive of minority groups on campus, who are your constituents and to whom you have a responsibility as their board. I commend regents Katherine E. White and Shauna Ryder Diggs who chose to withhold their signatures on the published rejection statement from the board saying that they refuse to vote on the divestment resolution. If for no other reason than to recognize the human rights abuses that Israel has committed and to make Aarab students feel more welcome on campus, I urge you to reconsider the divestment resolution. Thank you.

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Hello, as a graduate student on the Ann Arbor campus, I’m here to highlight the gross inequality that UM perpetuates by sponsoring study abroad programs in Israel. I studied abroad as an undergraduate at a different institution, an experience that enriched my academic and critical engagement with non-US social and political realities, and has led to an academic career in the Humanities. To be clear: I consider my comments today a professional responsibility.

 

As a  foreign language instructor, I regularly advise students on study abroad options. This March, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) publicized the importance of applying the boycott specifically to study abroad programs, arguing that “to enroll, or participate in any way, in a Study Abroad program at an Israeli institution means ignoring if not perpetuating the ongoing violation of the academic—and, indeed, human—freedoms of Palestinians.” At UM, however, Assoc. Prof. John Cheney-Lippold was denied merit pay and sabbatical privileges for participating in this boycott, and GSI Lucy Peterson was intimidated, reprimanded and ultimately, her integrity and capacity as an instructor were degraded by barring her from writing letters of recommendation for the rest of the academic year. Both Cheney-Lippold and Peterson were denied due process rights and personally denigrated by the University in this process. Moreover, U-M has appealed to a gross manipulation of the concept of academic freedom, and included offensive and inflammatory accusations of anti-Semitism against them and others who defend these students’ rights.

 

Provost Philbert’s justification of these sanctions limits the academic freedom of faculty and instructors by prioritizing a peculiar vision of students’ academic freedom: “Students have academic freedom as well to pursue programs of study and research that they are most interested in.” If this is in fact true, then it follows that Israel’s travel restrictions and sundry discriminatory policies, as well as the Canary Mission blacklist, represent serious violations of UM students’ academic freedom. And yet, what has UM, and what have you, the Regents, done to protect this supposed freedom? When Central Student Government passed a resolution to explore divestment from Israel last year, you rejected this proposal out of hand, again referring to the financial priorities and incentives of the endowment. Does this rejection of a democratically-approved student resolution not violate the university’s own vision of students’ academic freedom? Does this university care about anything other than money????

 

Meanwhile, other universities are showing more of a backbone. For example, one week ago today, “faculty at Pitzer College called for the suspension of study abroad in Israel programs with the University of Haifa.” Earlier this fall, more than 30 student organizations at NYU pledged “to not participate in or apply to study abroad programs hosted at NYU Tel Aviv” because to do so amounts to “complicity in the state of Israel’s targeted discrimination against activists and Palestinian and Muslim students.” We reject UM’s argument that fiduciary responsibilities outweigh legal, academic and ethical responsibilities. UM must stop sponsoring study abroad in Israel, if it is indeed committed to improving access, diversity, equity and inclusion.

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I am a Master’s student in Middle East and North African Studies, and am a dual-citizen Arab- American citizen. My family moved to the United States during a bloody civil war that led to the deaths of 100,000 of my countrymen, including family members, during what was called the black decade in Algeria. My grandfather, for example, a veteran of the Algerian Independence struggle against French Settler Colonial rule, was tortured by his own government during this period. Thankfully my family was able to flee to the United States as political asylees. The regime in that instance had rejected efforts to put a democratically elected government, and democratic norms, into place after non-violent protests.

 

When I traveled to Palestine and Israel last summer, I bore witness to the hope and passion Palestinians put into their own call for non-violent protest against military occupation and settler colonialism. As a relatively new member of the University of Michigan community, I was therefore disappointed to see the backlash experienced by a faculty member and a GSI after taking a position of conscience in the tradition of non-violent solidarity.

 

Administrators (and regents?) have said pointed at that they have a responsibility to support students’ academic aspirations. Unfortunately, this support often does not include the academic aspirations of their Palestinian students. For Palestinian, and other Arab-Americans, the concern is not whether a faculty member will write them a letter of recommendation. Rather, they are routinely barred from entering Palestine and Israel, whether to study abroad or to visit their homes and family;,  and if they enter, they face the risk of routine violence, check points, racial discrimination and segregation

 

By rejecting and punishing efforts to support BDS to campus, regents are not taking a position that protects students’ academic aspirations. Rather, they are taking a position that makes them complicit in the discrimination against of U-M students, as follows:

 

·       The Israeli government discriminates against Palestinians

·       UM invests in companies complicit in that discrimination

·       Some UM students are Palestinian

·       UM invests in companies complicit in discrimination against UM Students.

 

I invite you to broaden your consideration of what supporting student aspirations looks like, and at the very least, to not take explicit positions against those who seek to engage in non-violent protest.

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My statement today is in response to the university’s retaliation against professor John Cheney-Lippold and Lucy Peterson. Professors who for withdrawing their consent to write letters of rec for students seeking to study abroad in Israeli academic institutions complicit in exacerbating settler occupation and violence. The actions of the university’s leadership have subjected UM to national and even international embarrassment. Countless influential academic organizations have taken public stances against the university’s actions, putting the university to public shame, while demonstrating the lack of merit in the university’s actions. Furthermore, there is no policy rationale for the university’s actions as both groups which Interim LSA dean Elizabeth Cole draws language from in her sanction letter, those being the University of Michigan Academic Senate and the Association of American University Professors, have rejected the legitimacy of how Cole has deployed their language. The statements from these two entities, as well as the multiple UM faculty statements in support of Cheney-Lippold and Peterson, also discredit University leadership’s claim that there is an established “expectation” that the instructors had no right to rescind their letter of rec offers. Expectations are widely agreed upon and understood, and it is unbearably clear that this was not the case in these situations.

 

That the provost then unilaterally created a panel to retroactively justify and recommend policies in line with these actions is even more egregious, particularly given the complete exclusion of any panel members from the humanities. No amount of “community input” can make up for the undemocratic structure of the panel and the strategic decisions made about who would sit on it. As such, it should be completely dissolved, as nothing objective or meaningful can come out of it. All of this is to say nothing of the immorality of validating Israeli universities through hosting study abroad programs and maintaining academic partnerships. Meanwhile these institutions develop military, surveillance, and incarceration technologies that reinforce and exacerbate violent aggression and suppression of Palestinians., while institutionally legitimizing the erasure of Palestinian history from curriculum and downplaying the settler colonial history of genocide against and displacement of Palestinians in the creation of the Zionist state.

 

University leadership has also claimed that its retaliation against Cheney-Lippold and Peterson are not related to their stances on Palestine and the BDS movement, yet in all the university’s statements in response to the events, university leadership have made it a point to emphasize the university’s strong opposition to the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The university has insisted on making this an opportunity in which they can re-affirm a pro-Zionist stance.

 

This position is further demonstrated in the university’s swift refusal to merely form a committee to investigate three companies it is invested in for their roles in upholding human rights violations against Palestinians in order to consider the ethicality of maintaining those investments, even after called upon to do so by successful student government resolutions at all three of its campuses. This is unsurprising given the University of Michigan’s egregious lack of ethicality in its investment history. In a 2015 letter to the university community, President Mark Schlissel argued that, "In the previous two instances where we eventually divested, the investments - tobacco and South African apartheid – both were inextricably linked to immoral and unethical actions and ideologies. There was little to no redeeming social value related to the investments or the industries.” However, in the case of South Africa, it wasn’t until the University of Michigan was legally mandated by the state of Michigan to divest from companies complicit in apartheid that it finally took action. That action was choosing to sue the state of Michigan rather than complying with divestment. The university’s official policy of “shielding the university endowment from political pressure” is literally a statement that the university is committed to putting financial profit over human rights violations regardless of concerns for ethicality and morality and has been used as such. This is quite frankly disgusting and every one of the regents and university officials in this room should be ashamed of their role in allowing such a policy to continue.

 

By all these actions, the shallowness of the University of Michigan’s claim to a commitment to DEI is painfully apparent, particularly as it relates to Palestinian students. The university continues to make no effort to meaningfully account for or acknowledge the violence which it financially contributes to and ideologically validates against the families and communities of its Palestinian students. Yet it still has the audacity to claim that it is pursuing an inclusive and welcoming learning environment. No learning environment that is literally profiting off human rights violations and ongoing colonialism will ever be inclusive or equitable.

 

We’ve already passed divestment resolutions on all three campuses. We’ve sat with the president and spoke time after time at regents meetings. We’ve been playing nice for at least 13 years and honestly much longer. And in response, the university has said it would never stop supporting the violent colonial, military, and violent projects of Zionism. The university has said it only considers financial risk and profit in decisions around its endowment. In other words, the University has communicated that if the community wants to work towards dismantling UM’s complicity in ongoing colonial violence, the only way is to make it financially risky for the university to hold these investments. And if that’s what you all keep insisting, be prepared for it to happen.

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I am a senior double majoring in Accounting and Finance at the University of Michigan- Dearborn. You may recognize me, as 2 years ago I had expressed my frustrations of feeling excluded on campus because of my Palestinian background, and here I am 2 years later feeling even more marginalized than I thought I ever would ever be at the University of Michigan Community.

 

I am a senator of the Student Government on the Dearborn campus, and I have authored the resolution to divest from companies that violate Palestinian rights which was passed in March 2016. Regent Bernstein, you referred to a resolution that I had authored, that over 10 Recognized Student Organizations sponsored, and over 800 students signed a petition for as “intellectually bankrupt, morally repugnant expression of Anti-Semitism”. You are a public official, we vote for you, we would have never imagined that you would quickly dismiss a resolution that students care about and deeply offend the spirit of the resolution. You may have personally apologized to me, but this statement was made publicly, and the students at the Dearborn campus that have spent time and effort into this resolution, deserve public apology.

 

As much as I appreciate standing here and expressing my concerns, we feel that we lack meaningful support from our Administration when it comes to speaking in our own voices. The issues that we care deeply about seem to have traction only when non-Arabs are involved. Our Center of Arab American Studies, where Arabs have marginal involvement, posted a map of the middle eastern region including Israel, but with no mention of Palestine, the Westbank, nor the Gaza strip. This mistake was later corrected and those responsible were regretful, but we believe that a mistake of this magnitude should have never happened. That’s just one example of the disconnect between the communities’ priorities and academic programs.

 

Just like any other student on this campus, we want to have the ability to study in an environment where there are open exchanges of support. I do not want to be called into a Dean’s office because of suspicion that I had worked with a faculty member. I do not want professors to be criminalized when they nonviolently protest for the rights of my people, my family, and my inclusion as a Palestinian Student. Which is why I have authored a resolution to call for Academic Freedom in support of Professor Lippold and Instructor Peterson that was passed on November 2.

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As both an alumni of the University of Michigan and a member of the Jewish community, I have been extremely frustrated with the University’s response to Palestine solidarity action within our community. Its refusal to form a Divestment committee despite democratically passed resolutions on all 3 campuses, its failure to protect students targeted by Canary Mission, and its decision to punish John Cheney-Lippold are part of a pattern. The University has abdicated its responsibility to protect its community, and instead chooses to protect privileged outside media voices and interests.

 

So when I heard Regent Ilitch call Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation to a boycotted institution antisemitic and “profoundly exclusionary,”, I was incensed but not surprised. This was yet another instance of a University leader failing to understand power structures or what academic freedom really means. Instead, she used antisemitism as a political tool in service of a very narrow agenda.

 

This is dangerous. These words conflate Judaism with the state of Israel, and suggest a unified voice that speaks for all Jewish people. There is a substantial and growing part of the Jewish community that opposes the occupation of Palestine, that is active in Palestine solidarity movements including BDS, and you’re leaving us behind. You’re empowering those that try to paint us a sinister, monolithic force while driving our community away from meaningful solidarity and coalition building.

 

White supremacy threatens us all, and in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, we can feel how it puts Jews in harm’s way. This should make it all the more urgent for us to recommit to the values of justice, equality, and collective struggle. From the Jewish Labor Bund in Tsarist Russia to the International Workers Order to the SNCC Freedom Summer, Jewish people have long prioritized solidarity with other struggles. From this tradition, we draw strength and understand that we all need to stand together in order to defeat white supremacy and nationalism.

 

So when I fight for justice in Palestine, I know that I am not just supporting people in a faraway land. I am fighting for the safety, freedom, and moral character of the University of Michigan community and the Jewish community. I am fighting to ensure that everyone can be empowered here, that our values can carry weight.

 

And what we need from the Board of Regents is an actual commitment to this community and its values. We need action on democratically passed resolutions, protections for targeted and marginalized folks, and a culture that promotes learning, not McCarthyist fear and backlash.

 

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In 1977, students at the University of Michigan called on the university to divest its financial holdings in and to cut all ties with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Their tuition money was supporting one of the most racist and repressive regimes in human history. U of M invited the South African Ambassador to the US and the administration was rightly denounced for acting as a platform foring a representative of a racist regime. Throughout the entirety of the 70’s, the regents at U of M refused to take any concrete steps toward divestment from Apartheid and the companies that economically supported it. In fact, U of M sent strongly worded letters to the companies and banks the school owned stock in and which urged them to continue operating in South Africa. Instead of siding with its students and the oppressed of South Africa, the university voted on “caution” and “debate”, arrested students who protested against Apartheid, and sued the state of Michigan when it passed a law requiring universities to divest from South Africa., while they endorsing platitudes that made no demand for the political rights of its native inhabitants. MSU comparatively was one of the first universities to fully divest, a decade ahead of U of M.

 

Regents of the University Of Michigan, this university has a shameful history of siding against the oppressed for its own financial gain, and it’s heinous that this university is continuing to do so. The University is again punishing those that stand up against the oppression that this university is complicit in. As long as this university, its regents, and its administrators refuse to divest from the state of Israel and continue to punish lecturers and students for boycotting Israel, they will continue to stay complicit in the ongoing oppression of Palestinians and Bedouins. I am a tuition paying student of this university and I do not consent to my money being used in support of a terrorist regime. History has repeated itself and U of M is clearly on the wrong side of it.         --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

As someone who has benefited greatly from the power and prestige of the University of Michigan, I am here today because I feel this institution is not sharing those benefits with all the people that it can, should, and must.

 

On its DEI website, the University commits to “working actively to challenge and respond to bias, harassment, and discrimination.” And yet, the Uuniversity is currently failing to actively challenge and respond to bias, harassment, and discrimination against its Palestinian, Palestinian American, and allied students. I’ll focus today on two things in particular ––-- travel to Israel and Palestine, and the Canary Mission blacklist. As a note, my position is informed by last Monday’s excellent Unappointed Advisory Committee on Academic Freedom, which I hope you all are aware of ––-- it was written up in Tthe Michigan Daily.

 

Currently, the state of Israel has discriminatory policies governing entry to Israel and Palestine. According to the U.S. State Department, “Some U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage (including Palestinian-Americans) have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.” Israel also denies entry to individuals who participate in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. UM itself has set a travel warning for the West Bank-- which places additional burdens on undergraduate students who wish to go there-- and a travel restriction for the Gaza Strip, which prohibits undergraduate travel there entirely. This is one reason why UM’s Israel study abroad programs are discriminatory, and should be ended until they are no longer so.

 

Canary Mission also maintains a blacklist of students and faculty who support Palestine. According to Haaretz, Canary Mission’s information is “meant to harm students’ job prospects, and have been used in interrogations by Israeli security officials.” Canary Mission has targeted UM students, including those who were involved in CSG’s divestment campaign. Statements from Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, and the powerful statements of Palestinian and allied students here today, indicate that the university is failing to fight this bias, harassment, and discrimination. In fact, the university’s suppression of pro-Palestinian speech and activity on campus help enable Canary Mission’s effectiveness. This includes UM’s effectively anti-BDS stance, and its conflation of criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism.

 

If DEI is to be more than a marketing strategy, then it must include not only the presence of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, but also respecting and empowering their knowledge, experience, and goals. I urge you to act on the initiatives these students and their allies have called for, including protection from blacklists; honoring the academic freedom of faculty, lecturers, and GSIs to participate in boycotts in solidarity with Palestinians; divestment from Israel; and other work toward ending human rights violations in Palestine.

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Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that this meeting is happening on the land of the Anishinaabe (Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe) people. I am standing here because of their wisdom and grace.

 

I’m a second-generation Tibetan in exile. My family is indigenous to the Tibetan plateau, which is currently colonized by China. To this day, I am barred entry to my ancestral homelands by the Chinese government. My existence is a threat to the state.

 

When I walk on campus, I know that my body is not one that is protected by this university. I know that I am already on blacklists for being vocal about Tibet, and that the university is complicit in this and affirms this by installing Chinese government-run soft power tools like the Confucius Institute on our campus.

 

This university has tested me in a lot of ways, but the most significant and gratifying challenge thus far has been learning to stand in radical solidarity with other colonized students. We understand what it’s like to have our land taken from us, to flee, and to be told that we’re not allowed back. I’m here today to support students who know this experience, particularly Palestinian students.

 

Something that I see in the comments section of nearly every article in support of Palestine is this question: “Why are you singling out Israel? Other countries commit human rights violations too. China is so much worse—why don’t you boycott China?” Well, we already boycotted China decades ago—you just haven’t been listening. So don’t use me, my people, and our land to justify or excuse what Israel is doing in Palestine, because we will not be instrumentalized like this. Our experience will not be weaponized to justify the same displacement and colonization that we experienced being inflicted on others. Making this argument is essentializing, and it fundamentally shows that our colonizers (whether it be China, Israel, or the U.S.) will do anything to derail the point that colonized students (whether Tibetan, Palestinian, or Indigenous American) are trying to make.

 

This is an explicit call to divest. Divest from companies that make the fighter planes dropping bombs in Palestine. Support the resolution that has passed on all three campuses. And if we don’t want to single out Israel, that’s great—let’s divest from all of them. Divest from Chinese state-owned companies and shut down Chinese propaganda institutes on our campus. Divest from transnational corporations that are building pipelines on tribal land.

 

We want to be supported. We want our university to stand with us in our struggles for justice and liberation, not fuel our oppression. This requires that you all critically examine who and what it is that you are supporting, and recognizing that in the process, you’ve only contributed to the isolation and alienation that colonized and displaced students already feel on this campus.

 

I also want to leave you with one thing, since people always misinterpret students like me whenever we speak on platforms like this. Everything I just said…that’s not the anger of colonized people.

 

That’s our grief.

 

Thank you.

 

EDIT: Since this statement was given, the University of Michigan has announced its intention to close the Confucius Institute on campus. In doing so, the university affirmed its “growing portfolio of partnerships” with China ––– --a commitment that continues to violate Tibetan boycotts, legitimize the Chinese military occupation of Tibet, and avoid divestment to protect the university’s bottom line.