More than 50 community members, including pro-Palestinian activists, gathered in the Wolverine Room of the Union Tuesday night to discuss the impact of anti-Palestinian comments that Ben Gerstein, Central Student Government President and Public Policy junior, made as a senior in high school.
Four members from Students for Allied Freedom and Equality addressed the Assembly about their experiences as Palestinian students on campus, and their subsequent conversation with Gerstein about his comments. LSA sophomore Jinan Abufarha said she felt hopeless and afraid when she heard Gerstein’s comments and called for the Assembly to recognize anti-Palestinian discrimination as racism.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how disheartening it is as a Palestinian on this campus to see an elected representative to say that all I know how to do is to fund terrorism and reject peace deals,” Abufarha said. “Real damage has been done by this video and (the Assembly needs) to correct that.”
LSA senior Reem Al-Khatib thanked Gerstein for apologizing. She called on the Assembly to pass a resolution introduced by SAFE condemning Gerstein’s comments and affirming the presence of the University of Michigan’s Palestinian community.
“This is not my first time bearing my trauma in front of a face of strangers that I don’t know,” Al-Khatib said. “We want initiatives, we want change, and I know that Benjamin is willing to do that. He’s opened the line of communication, we have a trust forming, and we want the rest of the Assembly to be on board. We want the change we should have had two years ago.”
LSA senior Sulayman Qazi said he was inspired by the speakers, the Assembly and Gerstein. He was discussing how his boyfriend purchased a scarf in Jerusalem from a Palestinian vendor to send a message of unity when Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, environmental toxicologist and Ann Arbor City Council candidate, interrupted Qazi’s speech, calling for the Assembly to condemn sending military aid to Israel.
“Heartwarming stories are not going to do it,” Savabieasfahani said. “Just pretty words mean nothing. Cut military aid to (Israel). Cut it off!”
Audience members called for Savabieasfahani to sit down. Savabieasfahani continued speaking for approximately two minutes, at which point she left the meeting.
Gerstein apologized for comments he made about Palestine in a 2017 video interview and op-ed. In a public apology posted to his Facebook page, he called his comments racist and harmful.
“The Palestinian community at this University is a community of this University,” Gerstein said. “We have a duty as a governing body to ensure Palestinian students don’t feel like they don’t have a space.”
Qazi then finished his comments with a call for unity. The resolution condemning Gerstein’s comments passed with 25 in favor and four abstentions.
LSA freshman and ex-officio member Drishaan Jain said the resolution is less about the financial impact on the airline and more about the Assembly and the University taking a stance on injustice.
“We talked more last week about how if the goal of this resolution is to be more of a monetary or financial step that we are trying to take or if it’s just a symbolic resolution to show that the University wants to end its partnership with the company that is doing the deportation flights,” Jain said. “The focus of the resolution is … more about our partnership with them.”
Rackham student Siddharth Singh Chaudhari raised concerns about the resolution’s efficacy and sentiment, saying the resolution was a form of tokenism in regard to the experience of undocumented immigrants. He said the resolution achieves little due to Delta’s limited response to the CSG action.
“I think that a resolution of this nature smacks of us wanting to wipe off guilt without necessarily looking to achieve things that are tangible,” Chaudhari said.
Chaudhari also noted some Assembly members said they would want a Taco Bell on campus after the company has been criticized for its workplace practices.
“Taco Bell is notorious for hiring undocumented immigrants, absusing them through long hours of work, and underpaying them,” Chaudhari said. “Are we now going to pass a resolution sanctioning the University’s relationship with Taco Bell as well?”
LSA sophomore Sam Burnstein, an Assembly member, countered this argument, saying CSG’s advocacy work is one of its core functions.
“I think advocacy is one of the most important things this body can do,” Bernstein said. “I do think it is important, as representatives of the Ann Arbor campus, that we voice our support for these communities and these students … who have been mistreated. And I do think there is power in our voice.”
The Assembly additionally debated calling on the University to increase and improve mental health resources for students on campus and funding a student production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the Union courtyard.
Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at email@example.com