Multicultural organizations at the University of Michigan have called for Ben Gerstein, president of Central Student Government and Public Policy junior, to apologize for remarks he made in a video and article about Palestine while in high school.
The video, published on YouTube by the North Town News Magazine on May 23, 2017, features Gerstein discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with host and pro-Israel activist Avy Meyers. Gerstein spoke as a member of his high school’s pro-Israel student group, which he said prepares students for the anti-Israel activity they will see on college campuses.
“There should be a test for what type of people deserve a state and what type of people don’t,” Gerstein said in the clip. “I think the Palestinian people, with rejecting constant peace deals, with their financing of terror, with their raising kids to hate people purely because of their religion. I don’t think that people deserve a state at this point in time. Until we see a significant change in the Palestinian mentality and a significant change in the Palestinian leadership, I don’t think they deserve a state at this point.”
The Arab Student Association and Students For Allied Freedom and Equality (SAFE) circulated a statement on social media late Tuesday night demanding public apologies from both Gerstein and CSG, as well as anti-bias and anti-Islamophobia training for CSG members. The statement said the community needs public acknowledgment and administrative action in order to heal.
“Ben Gerstein sat across the executive board of the Arab Student Association and claimed that he seeks to build a sense of safety on this campus, but how does he expect us to feel safe when he does not even recognize our people as worthy of basic human rights and humanity?” the statement read. “How can we trust his student government, that was run on a campaign of inclusion, when he believes radicalism is ingrained in our societies?”
Gerstein released a statement on his personal Facebook page Wednesday afternoon apologizing for any harm caused and saying he no longer holds the views conveyed in the video.
“I have grown considerably since I made those statements, and the repulsive views I expressed in the video no longer reflect my current understanding,” Gerstein wrote in his statement. “I am devastated to see them reappear and be defended today. I know an apology is never enough and I am complicit in the oppression of Palestinians through my past actions.”
The statement from SAFE also called on CSG to recognize a resolution passed in 2017 supporting Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Though CSG supported the resolution after a contentious debate, the University’s Board of Regents ultimately voted against the action, which would have made the board create a committee to investigate three companies operating in Israel and involved in alleged human rights violations against Palestinians.
The statement said Gerstein’s comments are particularly hurtful considering past instances in which pro-Palestinian activists have been targeted for their activism. The Daily investigated Canary Mission, a pro-Israel blacklist that named multiple University students as anti-Israel for partaking in actions such as voting in support of BDS as a CSG member.
“If we cannot trust that our own student body government president believes in our humanity, how can we feel supported and safe on our campus,” the statement read. “Our community can no longer trust any intentions or policies from the Central Student government, and once again have watched our university isolate and turn their backs on us.”
In an interview with The Daily Wednesday night, Gerstein acknowledged his comments and the statement circulated by SAFE on Facebook. He also said the changes demanded in their statement were reasonable and that CSG would pursue them in the following weeks.
“I think in the statement by SAFE last night, they outlined some really important points that I had not previously considered,” Gerstein said. “Just in general, with the executive order that came from the White House — that I believe is a targeted attempt to silence Palestinian activism — there has been an increased climate of hostility towards those communities. I want to make sure that I’m not derelict in my responsibility to be a partner in their movement.”
LSA senior Sharif-Ahmed Krabti initially shared the clip on Facebook, which contains a short portion of the 15-minute video, in which Gerstein questions whether the Palestinian people are worthy of a state.
In his interview with The Daily, Gerstein reiterated his positions have changed and he no longer agrees with anything said in the video. He also said he recognizes his role in combating oppression on campus.
“I think this video is a representation of what specifically we’re fighting against, which is a frame of thought that denies and erases the history and real story of people,” Gerstein said. “And back in when I was in high school and in middle school, I had beliefs that were complicit in that. And so I think it’s incumbent upon people who are in leadership positions, especially representing the different communities we have on campus that are oppressed and marginalized, we do have a responsibility to not be passive members in fighting systemic oppression.”
Gerstein also urged people to not defend his previous statements, explaining he recognizes the harm the video has caused. He thanked fellow students at the University for helping him evolve.
“I hope people who would defend what I said in the past, recognize the real impact that words and the history of our society have on people,” Gerstein said. “(It’s important) to participate in that difficult path of realizing the faults in your own thinking and have the vulnerability to move forward and seek empathy. I would encourage people not to resist being open to change and being open to empathy. I want to thank the students here at this university for showing me a different way over these last three years, and I know that there’s a lot more work that I need to do.”
CSG Communications Director Alex Johnson released a statement Wednesday night, acknowledging the harm done to the Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students on campus by Gerstein’s comments. He also addressed the steps CSG would take to repair relationships with affected communities moving forward.
“As an organization we wholeheartedly realize the need to better support Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students on campus,” Johnson wrote. “In the next several days, President Gerstein hopes to listen to the concerns and needs of impacted students and work towards the various asks outlined in SAFE’s statement last night. Apologies are insincere without corresponding action and we collectively are committed to acting on these wrongs.”
Krabti called on the CSG parties running for the election in March to denounce this behavior. He specifically tagged the Facebook account for Mobilize, a new CSG party that announced its formation Monday night.
In a statement to The Daily, Amanda Kaplan, Public Policy junior and presidential candidate for Mobilize, and Sav Nandigama, LSA junior and vice-presidential candidate for Mobilize, said they would pursue anti-racist policies if put in leadership positions.
“If elected, we will require our executive team and strongly encourage all elected representatives to attend anti-racism teach ins and other programs that target biases,” the statement read. “At this time, we have already submitted a request for, and will be participating in, a MESA anti-racism teach in with our core team. We call on all future CSG candidates/campaigns to do the same during this election cycle.”
Sam Burnstein, communications director for Change at Michigan — another CSG party running for seats in the March election — also released a statement about Gerstein’s comments. The party does not officially launch until Feb. 26, and no presidential or vice-presidential candidates have been announced.
“We believe that these remarks, as SAFE rightly states, are inappropriate and unacceptable for any member of our community – but especially for its chief advocate,” Burnstein wrote. “The President’s words make our community more divided, less safe and secure, and less inclusive and we condemn them.”
News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at email@example.com
This is article has been now corrected to reflect that the statement was issued only by SAFE, not the Arab Student Association.