Then and now: The struggle of divestment at the University

University students protest in favor of divestment during CSG on the Diag November 8.

University students protest in favor of divestment during CSG on the Diag November 8. Buy this photo
Ayush Thakur/Daily

 

Monday, November 13, 2017 - 8:43pm

On Tuesday, University of Michigan Central Student Government will vote on its divestment resolution. Tensions have been ramping up, as it has in mid-Novembers over the past decade. The resolution aims to gain support from CSG on divestment from companies operating in Israel due to possible human rights violations of Palestinians.

This year’s iteration of the resolution has not been without conflict. Last week, an investigative committee within CSG was convened to review “improper use of CSG materials” by a member of the executive team stating CSG did not support the #UMDivest movement.

According to the ethics committee’s reports, the undisclosed member of CSG’s executive committee sent an email to a recipient outlining CSG’s supposed opposal to the movement. According to allegations, the member then had a conversation with another student stating CSG’s opposition to divestment. A Facebook post also discussed anti-divestment sentiment in the body, this time in relation to the assembly’s diversity. The post claimed the individual stated there are “not enough white men” and “Jewish people” on the assembly; however, a self-survey distributed within CSG last year found a member of the body was most likely to be a wealthy, white heterosexual male.

History of the resolution

Students Allied for Freedom and Equality — a group of “student activists organized to promote social justice, human rights, liberation, equality, and self-determination for the Palestinian people” — brought the resolution in its current form in 2014, in what remains the high-water mark for the campus movement. After first reads in mid-March, the assembly voted to indefinitely postpone a decision on the resolution. AFE members and allies held a weeklong sit-in in CSG’s Union chambers to force a vote — but the resolution ended up failing in a secret ballot vote 25-9.

SAFE’s arguments center around alleged human rights violations by companies supporting Israeli military activities and operations. This year’s resolution names Boeing, Hewlett Packard and United Technologies as “companies that supply weapons and equipment to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories in violation of international human rights law” through actions such as checkpoints and civilian casualties.

Divestment is rare. Since 1817, the University has divested just twice — first in 1978 from apartheid in South Africa and later in 2000 from the tobacco industry. Yet before any resolution even reached the floor of any student government on any of the University's campuses, former University president Mary Sue Coleman expressed in 2002 the University would not be divesting from Israel. In a 2005 statement describing the University's investment portfolio, then-Chief Financial Officer Timothy Slottow remarked the University’s endowment is profit-driven, veering away from political persuasions. SAFE draws upon the precedent of South Africa, tobacco in its resolutions, arguing human rights violations are antithetical to the University’s commitment to “invest in socially responsible companies.”

Institutions like Columbia and Harvard had already established endowment ethical advisory review committees. In the last decade, Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Minnesota and the University of California-Berkeley have passed resolutions calling for divestment. Student governing bodies at the Ohio State University, meanwhile, spoke out against divestment where the resolutions failed to pass.

On this campus, the resolution’s proponents and critics seem to reach an annual impasse on core issues such as identity, inclusion and the role of dialogue. Students on both sides wonder if this year will be any different.

The divide between sides

Historically, the divestment movement has been characterized as divisive; critics argue SAFE seeks to break apart the student body rather than bring it together. In an interview with The Daily, two SAFE members — who wish to remain anonymous due to targeting of pro-Palestinian activists online — decried the “divisive” argument as one used to quell Palestinians’ concerns.

“This argument has historically been used silence marginalized voices, historically in the country and not just on campuses,” one of the students said. “Voicing someone's concerns about literal human rights violations should not be a divisive point.”

During last year’s resolution, one SAFE member asked, “How is helping Palestinians on your campus hurting Jewish students?”

Earlier this month, SAFE released a “Statement of Solidarity to Support Divestment” in 2017. More than 30 student organizations — many of which are social justice-oriented — signed the statement, including the Black Student Union, Jewish Voice for Peace, the executive board of United Asian American Organizations and the School of Social Work Student Union. This year’s proposal also leans upon the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan to argue divestment represents a campus commitment to inclusion by uplifting marginalized voices of Palestinian students

During CSG’s final meeting in October, more than 50 members of the Latinx Alliance for Community Action, Support and Advocacy, expressed their support of divestment as well.

“It is my moral obligation to stand here in solidarity with my Palestinian brothers and sisters,” Public Policy senior Gloriela Iguina-Colon said. “As Latinx people we know what it feels like to be run out of our homes, to know that there are legacies of colonialism persisting today, to feel in our souls the pain of ours and others’ oppression, to know that our liberation is bound together.”

For many Jewish and pro-Israel students, the implications of a resolution for divestment align with the broader Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, though SAFE states its resolution is unaffiliated. Many Jewish students said they feel divestment promotes anti-Semitism. University of Michigan Hillel, an organization providing programming for Jewish students on campus, recently circulated a petition for students who oppose divestment and the BDS movement to sign.

In a statement to The Daily, LSA senior Joshua Blum, chair of Hillel, said the petition is evident of the resolution’s divisiveness.

“The resolution pits different student groups against each other, rather than promoting the diversity of voices,” he said. “For me, I oppose divestment because I feel as if it targets the one Jewish state unfairly and it is not conducive to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Last January, after the 2016 resolution to divest on the University campus failed by a vote of 34-13, then-LSA junior Gaby Roth — a CSG representative — and then-LSA sophomore Eli Schrayer — a CSG representative and member of Hillel — proposed a resolution to fund monthly luncheons to promote dialogue between sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Then-CSG president David Schaefer, an LSA senior, vetoed the effort, arguing CSG’s priorities did not align with the values put forth by the dialogues, and voiced concern SAFE did not sponsor the resolution.  

The luncheon measure did not pass, even after the body's judiciary committee overturned Schafer’s veto. Roth, along with members of the Palestinian and Israeli community, met unofficially four times, but still opposes the resolution due to its perceived ties to BDS.

“It’s hard to see that this movement, the BDS movement that #UMDivest is part of, is anti-Semitic because it’s not necessarily blatant swastikas being painted around campus,” she said. “I think that at this point I can really relate to some of the calls to action in the resolution and I understand a lot of what they are saying just from hearing some of the author’s perspectives and stories and family history. It’s all real and it’s all their own truth. But with that said, I think that divestment is really problematic for a few reasons,” she said. “There are things happening in Israel that I really stand against, but at the same time it’s a complex issue and this just doesn’t paint the full picture.”


The Egyptian Student Association countered Blum’s points on division with an email statement. Supporting divestment, the board stated, is a cause uniting marginalized communities in their efforts to be heard and supported on campus.

“ESA strongly supports SAFE’s mission to divest from companies that profit off the violation of human rights of the Palestinian people,” the statement reads. “ESA is part of a large campus coalition that stands with this movement,” it read. “This is what real DEI looks like — listening to marginalized and silenced voices on campus that are being amplified by communities of color. We urge CSG to listen to these communities and not to be complicit in this abuse.”

CSG representative Hafsa Tout, an LSA senior, agreed on the need for dialogue, and emphasized its place within divestment.

“A committee—which the resolution calls for—will decide whether or not the University will divest, and to get there you have to start that institutionalized dialogue," she said." It’s not just dialogue between students at that point. It’s an institutionalized conversation around this topic."

Potential for Backlash

Even as SAFE members take action, they said they remain fearful of the repercussions of their activism. Divestment, they said, has received the support of faculty, including tenured professors, These faculty members, however, remain silent on the issue due to similar concerns of losing their jobs. A SAFE member argued the issue’s playing field is unlevel given no professors can publicly support the effort.

“The people who oppose the resolution usually bring in administration or professors to speak and have institutions backing them up,” the member said. “Although we have the same (support) as well, it's that that institutional support cannot be voiced and show because they are scared.”

At first reads of the resolution last week, LSA Rep. Jay Cutler, a Public Health junior voiced concerns about the direct impact Palestinians face. One of the SAFE members answered the query to The Daily, describing the many threats affecting her day to day life.

“I know specifically a Palestinian student who was at the frontline of this issue, she literally attended therapy sessions because she was put on a blacklist for voicing her concerns about the violations of human rights of the people in her country,” she said.

The SAFE member went on to argue consequences for speaking in favor of divestment play out differently in terms of student welfare than anti-divest students.

“When you’re sitting there studying and then you get a tweet from a blacklist or a tweet that literally says we’re watching you, obviously that’s going to take away from your focus,” she said.

The national — and global — context

Attempts at institutional action towards divestment at the University campus has primarily remained contained in CSG chambers. According to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, there has not been “involvement in this topic.” LSA senior Nicholas Fadanelli, LSA Student Government president, also confirmed he is not aware of divestment being brought to LSA SG.

In fact, no governing student body at any U.S. college or university had passed resolutions to divest from Israel until April 19, 2003, when Wayne State University’s Student Council voted 9-7 in favor to call upon its administration to divest from companies doing business with Israel. The Wayne State University Board of Governors signed a statement which reads: “Therefore be it resolved that the Board of Governors of Wayne State University supports the October 2002 statement of the President and will not take action to divest the university in interests it may hold in companies that do business in Israel.”

Other local divestment efforts were soon successful, as the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s student government passed a similar resolution one year later in 2004. For all of SAFE and #UMDivest’s struggles, U-M Dearborn’s Student Government passed five additional divest resolutions in six years. Though the group brought the measure to the same Board of Regents CSG reports to, yet none of the resolutions gained an actual foothold with the board after being deemed not in accordance with the board’s policy on student activism.   

Outgoing U-M Dearborn student body President Fiana Arbab gave her farewell speech at the Board of Regents meeting held at the University’s Dearborn campus this March. Once again, she brought up the government’s most recent successful divestment resolution that passed last year.

Regent Mark Bernstein (D) spoke out at the meeting, expressing his deep sentiments against BDS.

“I believe it is an intellectually bankrupt, morally repugnant expression of anti-Semitism,” he said. He outlined a set of criteria known as the “3-D Test of Anti-Semitism” that argues the merits between constructive criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.

Arbab recounted the weeks leading up to the Regents meeting in an interview with The Daily. She said Schaefer, then-University student body president, repeatedly asked to review her address to the board, offering help and eventually suggesting to not bring up the divestment issue at all.

“He had requested that I send him my speech for at least a week straight,” Arbab said. “He didn’t know exactly what I was going to do or say, but he did know that I was going to bring up divestment. He wanted to have a phone conversation with me in ‘preparation for the Regents meeting’ to help me out, and I knew exactly what he was doing. He tried to advise me on how I should bring it up, or like, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t bring it up at all, but if you did be very vague.’”

Arbab alleged that prior to the board meeting, Schaefer debriefed Bernstein on the matters Arbab would discuss, as versions of the resolutions passed four days prior were not yet publicly available.

Bernstein approached Arbab after the meeting, and invited her along with Jenin Yaseen, chair of Students for Justice in Palestine at U-M Dearborn and Michael Mchahwar, divestment chair for U-M Dearborn’s student government, to dinner. At the dinner, Regent Bernstein allegedly revoked his statement.

“He apologized at least three times,” Arbab said. “He said that since he’s had some time to think he realized that what he said on the record was a bit out of hand. But ultimately did he apologize on the record? No. So on the record, I’m still an anti-Semite.”

LSA senior Alex Harris stated that while divestment does include implications for the University’s campus, it also creates impacts requiring consideration on the global stage.

“What ends up happening is that divestment becomes this struggle. It’s either are you for or against human rights, which is not the case,” Harris said. “It’s absurd to think that’s what the conflict looks like, but that’s what it kind of boils down to.”

Harris, who first visited Israel in second grade with his father and will soon be taking his seventh trip to the country, described it as a “beacon,” The Promised Land full of rich history and religious importance. He emphasizes, however, the issues arising in Arab land are not because Israel is perfect, nor because it is racist, but because of the complexity on all sides of the conflict.

“Do I think that Israel is perfect in all aspects all the time? No, very opposite, it’s not,” Harris said. “But the reason I’m not for divestment isn’t because I think the Palestinians don’t have rights. What they’re going through now is awful. It’s terrible and I do not condone it, I think it’s horrifying. At the same time, to solely blame Israel for all of these issues, to solely blame Israel

for all the issues of the Palestinians is just unfactual.”

As CSG heads Tuesday night to the Modern Languages Building, accompanied by crowds of students, protesters and activists alike who join the near-annual debate and discussion, tensions will most likely be at their highest.

“No matter what the divestment vote is on Tuesday night, no side is going to win,” Harris said. “Both sides will come out drained, will come out frustrated, will come out upset, hoping that this kind of session doesn’t come up in the next year, hoping that they will be able to come together, hoping that both sides will be able to say, ‘Listen, we know there’s a lot of stuff going on, we know that we feel pain, we know that you feel pain, let’s come together and do something together.’”

Tout fired back, and underscored the importance of uplifting Palestinian students.

“It’s not fair to say to a minority that we don’t want to consider seriously your issue...because it disrupts the status quo,” she said. “Passing the resolution is essentially saying to the group of marginalized students, 'This is an issue that matters enough to you as students.' I don’t think an action like that can be divisive.”