Last Sunday, a group of students organized an event at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business called Israel Summit at Michigan to celebrate Israel. The summit’s stated goals were to “decrease anti-Israel sentiment on campus” and to “present Israel as the positive world contributor it is.”
Members of Direct Action for Palestine and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality stood in protest against the event, taking issue with both of its stated goals. We marched to draw attention to the problematic nature of the event and to raise awareness of the ongoing settler colonization and military occupation of Palestine. After marching, we stood outside the summit with signs that read “Free Palestine” and “Occupation is not an innovation.”
Despite being careful not to disrupt the actual events of the day and following the University’s protest guidelines, the Division of Public Safety and Security used lies and intimidation to shut down our protest in violation of our First Amendment rights. DPSS said the event was private, but the event was promoted as open to all – not to mention, we were outside the event. They also said that only those registered could be there, but as students, we have the right to enter any building we normally have access to during the daytime. At another point, they said only students could be there, but as members of the University community, we can bring guests to campus. Finally, one officer repeatedly threatened an individual with a misdemeanor charge for covering their face with a scarf, but under Michigan state law, covering one’s face is legal except when committing a crime. As a Palestinian, the individual was protecting their identity to avoid ending up on a blacklist that could inhibit travel to their historic homeland. The officer’s threat led them to expose their face, putting them at risk. We are disturbed that DPSS would infringe on our right to free speech so blatantly and in violation of the University’s own guidelines.
Why did we protest an event focused on celebrating how Israeli citizens and companies have contributed positively to the world? We believe that the technological and entrepreneurial contributions by Israeli companies are inseparable from the settler colonization of historic Palestine, the occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza and violations of Palestinian human rights. Israel’s success is built on the oppression of Palestinians, and Palestinians are excluded from participating meaningfully in Israeli society. While Israelis enjoy a growing standard of living, cutting edge urban infrastructure and access to internationally recognized institutions of higher learning, Palestinians are losing their homes in demolitions, having their olive trees burned and are only offered inadequate, inconsistent internet access, which is controlled by Israel. The disparities are stark.
One summit attendee argued that we misunderstood the conference, highlighting a summit speaker who founded PeacePlayers International, an organization that uses sports to “inspire young people to create a more peaceful world.” We support building relationships between Israeli and Palestinian children and see both groups as victims of Israel, but ultimately, Palestinian children cannot be held accountable for the conflict, and “positive attitudes” will not alleviate the inequality of Israel’s apartheid regime. We do not know whether PeacePlayers International ensures safe travel to and from playing sites for Palestinian participants. Regardless, any Palestinian traveling from the West Bank must travel across a segregated road system that forces them to take circuitous routes where they are subject to harassment by soldiers. And what about the children stolen from their homes in night raids and held in detention? How do they get to the basketball court? We are skeptical of any program that calls for peace without also calling for justice. Likewise, though the Israel Cancer Research Fund – whose Chicago Executive Director, Allyson Greenfield, was a speaker – contributes to fighting cancer, Palestinians in Palestine often cannot access medical care since most hospitals are on the other side of checkpoints. These require hard-to-get medical permits issued by Israel as well as arduous travel as a result of Israel illegally establishing Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank.
In addition to not sharing in the spoils of Israel’s economy, Palestinian lives represent the cost of Israel’s “innovations.” The militarization of Israeli society has fueled the creation of numerous security-focused start-ups. The links between military service and security businesses have attracted global investors interested in Israel's military and security technology. But, the technology that Israelis are celebrated for is used against Palestinians and “tested” on them. Israel has also made it clear that it is more than willing to sell weapons and surveillance tech to anyone and everyone, even for the purposes of genocide and the persecution of LGBTQ people.
We stand against the portrayal of Israel as a positive force in the world while it systematically dispossesses, displaces and terrorizes Palestinians. Celebrating Israel’s accomplishments downplays that Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza lack access to basic resources, normalizes the legalized discrimination and exclusion faced by Palestinian Israelis and disguises that Israel’s wealth and power on the global stage have come at the cost of Palestinian self-determination.
The summit’s stated goal of decreasing anti-Israel sentiment on campus goes directly against DAP’s goal of advocating for a free Palestine. Israel is directly responsible for Palestinian living conditions, and it is our duty as members of an American university community to hold Israel accountable, given the close ties between the two countries.
That the University would sponsor such an event demonstrates their disregard for Palestinian students and community members. We will not stand by in silence. We will not stop critiquing Israel loudly and in public as long as it threatens the existence of Palestinians and Palestine. We will continue to spread the word about the military occupation of Palestine. We will continue to call on the University to divest from companies profiting off of the suffering of Palestinians.
Direct Action for Palestine is a coalition of students, grad students, faculty and community members that organizes for Palestinian liberation. They can be reached at email@example.com.