Last Tuesday representatives of Central Student Government once again decided to wade into the murky waters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue this time? A resolution calling for University divestment from companies whose business activities in Israeli-occupied territories are allegedly violating Palestinian human rights. Much chaos and resentment ensued — acrimony that was entirely avoidable, entirely unnecessary and sadly, entirely predictable.
Why so? Let’s step back, breathe a bit and return to reality. Most glaringly — and this may come as a surprise to some representatives’ egos, so my apologies ahead of time for any bruising inflicted — I am quite sure that CSG does not have jurisdiction over Jerusalem or any other part of the Middle East. I know for a fact they don’t have jurisdiction over my apartment three blocks off campus, because I still own a SodaStream, despite Oxfam and Scarlett Johannson.
#UMDivest will not solve what 65 years of U.N. Security Council resolutions have failed to do. It will not move the needle more than a fraction towards peace. It certainly will not represent the undivided viewpoint of the student body that this is the right thing to do — which is quite unlike the two other instances where the University did divest: in South Africa toward the end of apartheid and from the tobacco industry in the early 2000s. Which leaves me to question what, really, is the point? I very much admire the aim of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the campaign’s main sponsor, but its means — as demonstrated in the incendiary and classless insults I’ve seen its members lob at CSG reps on Facebook, as well as the none-too-subtle way they staged evictions #UMMockEviction last December — leave me with little hope that they’re the sort of leaders who will grow up to bring peace to Palestine. All heat, no light.
Still, to be fair, it’s the job of groups like SAFE to advocate their interests and maybe stir up some controversy. After all, it brings attention to their issue. So I redirect this writing, and my fire, to CSG, whose job is expressly not to become so political.
I fear the Margaret Mead-ification of campuses like Ann Arbor’s — Save the Earth! Heal the planet! — has burrowed too far into students’ heads. Changing the world is not an entry-level task. It takes time, work and resources far beyond what anyone will have in college. That’s not to say it’s not possible, but in our impatient modern lives, we seem to want to have that influence immediately and just skip all the incremental steps along the way. You know, the unsexy parts.
If CSG had had the fortitude to resist opening Pandora’s box, they’d have realized how many of those unsexy parts are nevertheless meaningful campus improvements that they might still make this year. Here’s a list I thought of in thirty seconds: Make MWireless available on the busses; install more bike racks (or longboarding slots!); ensure that every student has access to fresh, healthy food on campus; increase student fanship at sports that aren’t basketball, football or hockey; catch up to the rest of the Big Ten schools by putting a student on the Board of Regents. Not socially conscious enough for you? Then how about continuing to address the shameful lack of minority representation at the University, particularly among Black males. All of these things are possible by the direct action of CSG.
Put another way, one thing I really admire about the outgoing administration is how understated and focused its goals have been. Creating the Night Owl bus service didn’t change the world and neither did making Mujo’s a 24-hour café, but they weren’t designed to. What they did do is improve life on campus — which is worth something. CSG President Michael Proppe set reasonable, accomplishable goals and he followed through. The Student Assembly might learn a thing from that.
Due to the fact that on Tuesday all they wanted to do was save the world, they spent hours debating international relations, when instead they might have helped the student body. Every minute they spent on the Middle East was a minute not spent on addressing problems they could actually solve. They apparently forgot that their election to CSG did not mean their election to the Knesset, or the PNA, or the United Nations — or the Model United Nations, for that matter. What it did mean was their responsibility to serve the students of the University. It meant focusing on ways to improve campus. It meant practicing the art of the possible and having the wisdom to know the difference.
That wisdom seems sorely lacking these days. There are monumental things CSG might accomplish, if only they knew where to look. So to all students, as you go to vote this week for a new round of leaders, ask of those to whom you are entrusting this campus: Where is your focus — Ann Arbor or somewhere else?
Alexander Lane is a 2013 University alum.