Student body divided after #UMDivest
During Tuesday night’s Central Student Government meeting, which extended into early Wednesday morning, the resolution to call for a committee within the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents to investigate and consider divesting from companies allegedly involved in Palestinian human rights violations passed for the first time in the University's Ann Arbor campus history. The results of this vote were met with a wide range of intense emotions from students across campus as well as attendees of the public meeting.
For those in support of the resolution, the announcement of the final vote — 23 in favor, 17 against and 5 abstained — yielded hugs and tears of joy followed by celebration outside the Modern Languages Building. One member of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the group that proposed the resolution, contrasted these tears from those of disappointment shed in years past by resolution supporters.
“We see tears after every resolution for people that want it to pass because we’re so sad that it didn’t pass. But the tears this time, it was tears of joy, tears of disbelief, and people were really sobbing because it was so unprecedented,” the SAFE member, who asked to remain anonymous for safety concerns, explained.
They spoke of one Palestinian student who, before coming to the University, was urged by family members to choose a different university because of the marginalization of Palestinian voices the family had seen on campus. When the results were announced, the SAFE member explained, this student fell to the ground in astonishment.
LSA senior Hafsa Tout explained the atmosphere of the room as the results were announced. They especially noted the uncertainty they felt that the resolution would pass.
“Up to the very moment of the vote I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, and in fact I wasn’t feeling good about it,” Tout said. “I definitely was not expecting it to pass, so I was surprised.”
LSA senior Haleemah Aqel, a member of SAFE, expressed similar sentiments in the surprise she has felt since the passage of the resolution.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said. “Three years later this resolution passed and I honestly wouldn’t have expected it to pass by the time I graduated.”
Aqel, a Palestinian student who has visited Palestine five times, described the difficult experience she faced in 2015 when, during a visit to the nation, she underwent a two-week lockdown. This incident, which she compared to those experiences faced by many other Palestinians on campus while visiting Palestine, she explained, follows suit in the alleged human rights violations committed by companies to be investigated as outlined in the resolution.
Students who opposed the resolution, however, left the meeting upset with the results. One student stated, “I think it’s a really sad day for freedom of thought on this campus,” as she exited the auditorium.
LSA senior Gaby Roth, a member of University of Michigan Hillel, an organization providing programming for Jewish students on campus, and in opposition to the resolution, explained her reaction in an email interview with The Daily.
“I am happy that members of SAFE, Palestinian students and allies were given a platform for their concerns to be heard. However, I am deeply upset that the address of these concerns meant that Jewish students' sentiments about feeling marginalized were pushed aside. It is so upsetting to me that last night, people were pitted against each other and that the vote was framed as a win or a loss,” she wrote.
Roth also described her disappointment in CSG’s vote against approving Prof. Victor Lieberman, who teaches a class on the Arab-Israeli conflict, to be included in the lineup of speakers for CSG’s Tuesday meeting.
University of Michigan Hillel circulated an announcement following the resolution vote, also condemning the decision regarding Lieberman. While praising students who spoke out against divestment and who expressed their commitment to and relationship with Israel, announcement describes the resolution as “one-sided and hurtful” and encourages administrators to condemn the resolution.
“We trust that the Board of Regents will speak out against this one-sided resolution, as they have in (the) past, and remind the campus community that they have already rejected this resolution when it passed at University of Michigan-Dearborn last winter,” the announcement reads. “We also hope that the University will expand its partnerships with Israel, develop new avenues for students to study in Israel, and encourage faculty to deepen their research ties with Israeli institutions.”
Several students took to social media to express their reactions on the resolution’s passing. Postdoctoral fellow Austin McCoy, in a public Facebook post, gave his congratulations to supporters and authors of the resolution.
“This is big,” the post reads. “It’s taken them years of doing the hard work of organizing (and defeats), protests, and coalition building to get this resolution passed. A great example of long-term organizing featuring a diversity of tactics.”
On Twitter, under the hashtag #UMDivest, an array of opinions could be found by those who either supported or opposed the resolution.
WOW #UMDIVEST finally passed!!!! so proud of all the hard working people who made this happen!!!!
— Afiqahhhhhh (@afiqahhhaha) November 15, 2017
Today, my campus is a less safe and welcoming place for me and all Jewish students because of #UMDivest and the blatant disregard for our vocalized concerns
— Daniel Roth (@droth97) November 15, 2017
As a pro-Israel student on campus, #UMDivest only seeks to divide the community further. I am embarrassed to be apart of a university in which an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic resolution passed the student body that I voted for.
— Cooper Seligson (@CooperSeligson) November 15, 2017
Other divestment and Students for Justice in Palestine groups at universities across the country, such as at Ohio State University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, acknowledged the resolution’s passing via social media.
SAFE sent out a press release Wednesday morning describing the work of #UMDivest in allowing Palestinian voices to be heard on campus and affirming the organization’s dedication to continue to work for equality, safety, and freedom of Palestinians.
“The struggle is not over. Efforts to dialogue and build relationships with our classmates must, and will, continue,” the press release reads. “SAFE continues to work to uproot seeds of division, and affirm the humanity of all groups on campus. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. SAFE will never stop fighting for what is right.”
The SAFE member interviewed by The Daily described the group’s next steps, specifically highlighting the importance of conversation with those of opposing viewpoints to help create a campus of inclusion for all students.
“We recognize that right now there are people that aren’t necessarily happy that this resolution did pass and we really identify with that feeling and we understand how it feels,” they said. “Reaching out to all of the people that have been invested in this resolution, whether pro or against, and ensuring that people feel comfortable, ensuring that people understand that their identities are still welcome on this campus and creating more of a conversation around that dialogue.”
Roth, while in agreement of the importance of dialogue and conversation, explained her concern about the future effects of the anti-Semitic nature she and other students feel to be present within the resolution.
“I worry that because CSG leaders were unable to see the subtle yet crucial forms of antisemitism lying in this resolution and the broader BDS movement it represents, people will feel emboldened to let these types of subtle antisemitic comments run rampant,” she wrote. “We have so much work to do to address hate in all forms, and I hope we can work toward doing this in a way that does not cast any group aside.”
Aqel described her ideas for moving forward, suggesting a potential mirroring of other universities that have passed resolutions similar to Tuesday’s.
“A good idea is to see what other universities similar to the University of Michigan, what their groups that have passed resolutions in this nature, what they did following the passing of their resolution,” she said.
University administration has spoken on the resolution following its announced result. According to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, the University’s investments are undertaken so as to “generate the greatest possible income” to assist the University in its overall missions and to adhere to the desires of donors. Because of this, Fitzgerald explained, the University’s investment portfolio must be “diversified across a full range of legally recognized entities.”
“The University’s longstanding policy is to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base our investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return,” his statement reads. “This approach has been underscored consistently by university leaders, including the Board of Regents, most recently in December 2015. We do not anticipate a change in this approach or the creation of a committee.”
In an interview with The Daily, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, also explained this concept, stating the decisions behind the University’s investments are primarily made on finance rather than any social movements.
When asked about concern for potential bias incidents against certain groups on campus following the resolution’s passing, Harper described the effort the administration has been making to ensure support is given to communities who may feel targeted.
“We have Jewish students that are worried about their safety; we have Muslim and Arab students that are worried about their safety,” she said. “So we have a pretty active Department of Public Safety right now trying to be attuned to and mindful of this, and this conversation in the context of a national conversation.”
Still, Tout explained, the initial reactions of students who worked in support of the resolution have continued to change — especially for those students whose relatives attended the University and worked for this same cause.
“In all of the work that we do around the resolution, we sort of forget that as much as it means to us it means infinitely more to Palestinian students,” Tout said. “It’s amazing that it’s generations of their families … who came and worked on the same resolution and the fact that it passed this year is just way more shocking to them, and amazing and restores their faith in Central Student Government and the student body even more than it does for us.”