Jewish students mobilize to counter call for U-M to divest in Israel (March 31, 2005)
Don Cohen Special to the Detroit Jewish News
Ann Arbor - Last Tuesday night was a “Hail To The Victors” moment at the University of Michigan. Pro-Israel students successfully convinced their student government to decisively defeat a resolution that would have created an “advisory committee to investigate the moral and ethical implications” of U-M investments in companies that do business with Israel.
The Michigan Student Assembly (MSA) overwhelmingly rejected the divestment proposal from the Palestinian-focused Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) by a vote of 25-11 with five abstentions. The March 14 victory was all the sweeter since that morning, the campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily, had predicted the resolution was likely to pass.
“U of M’s Jewish community truly proved itself on Tuesday night,” said Monica Woll, a West Bloomfield sophomore who chairs the U-M Hillel governing board. “So many students who could normally not be paid to attend any Jewish event proudly attended the meeting sporting blue and white T-shirts and anxious faces,” said Woll.
“I realized that although some Jewish students do not play an active role in campus affairs, that is more than fine. In a time of need, the Jewish community does not hesitate to appear and prove themselves, which is what is truly important.”
More than 600 students, faculty and community members, almost evenly divided on the issue, packed the ballroom in the Michigan Union. The meeting started 90 minutes late so a room big enough to accommodate the crowd could be found. The late start actually increased the attendance as other meetings let out and students used their cell phones to call friends to come. The three-hour meeting ended just past midnight.
Divestment has been a hot issue on the U-M campus since the Second North American Conference of the Palestine Student Movement (PSM) was held on campus in 2002. At that time, President Mary Sue Coleman made it clear that U-M would not divest funds from companies doing business in Israel.
Nonetheless, last month the student government at U-M Dearborn passed a divestment resolution, prompting U-M spokeswoman Julie Peterson to say in a written statement that “there are no plans to ask the Board of Regents to pursue divestment.” Recent efforts to introduce a similar resolution at U-M Flint have stalled, with the resolution reportedly being redrafted to include a full review of human rights concerns that will not mention Israel by name.
Nationwide, PSM has led the largely unsuccessful divestment movement, which has seen only a handful of campuses, mostly small ones, support the effort.
“Across the country, divestment has been resoundingly defeated,” said Aaron Goldberg, associate director of the U.S.-based Israel on Campus Coalition, a partnership of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and 30 other organizations.
The MSA’s rejection of the divestment resolution “sends a very strong message on where students on campus are today generally and the resources the pro-Israel students have at their fingertips,” said Goldberg. “Generally, politics are local, but this can have a profound impact because these votes cut the legs out from under the divestment movement.
“The proponents of divestment live in a world that doesn’t reflect reality, but rather one of smoke and mirrors.”
About a dozen students involved in pro-Israel activities, many student government members, came together to lead the U-M campaign against the divestment resolution.
“The main players on the anti-divestment planning side were active pro-Israel members of Michigan’s student government, American Movement for Israel board members, the Hillel executive board as well as any Jewish student who felt that he or she could contribute in some manner,” said U-M Hillel’s Woll. “No one was turned away; everyone that wanted to have a part in the planning was welcomed.
Jennifer Gonik, a West Bloomfield sophomore who serves on the MSA and is a vice-chair of the American Movement for Israel, was involved from the beginning and knew the task would be difficult. “If the U-M campus is liberal, the MSA is super liberal. If those behind divestment could get support anywhere, the best hope would have been MSA,” she said.
“[The anti-divestment group] met several mornings at 7:30 a.m. to decide on a message and how to stick to it,” said Gonik.
The main theme was “It’s not just a committee,” to drive home the point that the goal of the resolution was to vilify Israel rather than simply set up a committee to investigate the situation. The students were aided by the 14 clauses in the resolution that condemned Israeli actions without providing context or referring to Palestinian terrorism or suicide bombings even once.
“We asked pro-Israel students to send e-mails to get people there,” added Gonik. “We know the e-mails, along with the Daily’s prediction that the resolution would pass, galvanized the decision of many to attend.”
“We made T-shirts that said, ‘It’s not JUST a committee,’ and wrapped ourselves in blue tape and streamers,” said Gonik, who described the evening as “so many people, so much passion, and kind of nerve-wracking and overwhelming.”
Electronic mail sent by Monica Woll to the leadership of each Jewish fraternity and sorority stated: “If there was ever time the pro-Israel community needed to unite and make a statement, the time is now. Make your mothers proud.”
Matthew Orley, a freshman from Franklin, sent electronic mail to every Jewish member of the Greek system. Said Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of U-M Hillel, “It was very meaningful for me to read the plea sent out by [the late Jewish leader] David Hermelin’s eldest grandson, Matthew Orley, urging them to come out and support the State of Israel and the Jewish people,”
The Annual Israel Academic Conference, held just two days before the vote, provided an opportunity for more strategizing and persuasion. AMI co-chair Alana Kuhn, a sophomore from West Bloomfield, arranged for 15 students to spend an hour with one of the speakers, former Mideast peace negotiator Ambassador Dennis Ross, to discuss how to best counter the divestment effort.
When the MSA meeting began, more than six pages were filled with the names of those requesting to speak. Twelve speakers, six on each side, were chosen and given five minutes each to make their case. A short extension was allowed to hear a few more speakers.
Many students credited MSA President Jason Mironov for running an excellent meeting while being a strong, articulate and respected voice against the resolution.
Mironov, who said he is “21, a senior and a proud member of New Jersey’s Jewish community,” came out against the resolution before the meeting and handed over the gavel to another officer so he could oppose it, even using a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate his arguments. He used his entire “executive report time” to speak against the resolution.
“The need for a Jewish state has been clear for thousands of years, but I do believe that in order for there to be peace in the Middle East that there needs to be concessions on both sides,” says Mironov explaining why he took the stand he did. “I’m pro-peace, and pro-justice, which characterizes me as pro-Israel.”
Mironov, who has visited Israel with Birthright Israel, a New York-based group that organizes free trips to Israel for college-age students, gave credit for the defeat of the resolution to the pro-Israel students.
“As result of the articulate, well-practiced and compassionate presentations, the thinly veiled attempt at vilifying the State of Israel was exposed, and the resolution failed,” said Mironov. “The advancement of the peace process, the divisiveness of the issue and the polarizing of the Michigan campus also acted as a deterrent.”
Mironov felt comfortable in the dual role of MSA president and opponent of the resolution, though he agreed it was unusual for a chair to come out so strongly against a resolution.
“This resolution called into question the legitimacy of a homeland for my people, condemned the State of Israel and did so without regard for current political policy,” observed Mironov. “It is my responsibility to serve as the president of MSA and chair with impartiality, but it is my duty to defend my people.”
“Our Jewish students are amazing,” said U-M Hillel’s Rabbi Miller. “Our entire staff is extremely proud of our students. Rallying around their love of the Jewish homeland, the entire pro-Israel community truly came together to defeat this vote.
“It was impressive to watch the students mobilize. We should rest assured that Zionism and pro-Israel activism are still very much alive with this young generation. God willing, this dynamic activism will spread to other campuses.”
Samantha Woll, a U-M senior who has served on the MSA and is an outspoken Israel activist, agreed that the arguments made against the resolution were compelling, but the people who made the arguments were also important.
“It was conveyed that the issue is much more complicated than the resolution made it appear. A lot of people who spoke didn’t just represent ideas. People knew who they were and respected their judgment. It’s nice to know there are a lot of strong up-and-coming leaders. I can feel very comfortable leaving campus.”
“People showed a lot of strength of character,” said Woll, whose younger sister is Monica. “People really understood that it wasn’t just a committee and that the resolution had already endorsed a guilty verdict before a trial even took place.”
When it was clear that the resolution was facing serious opposition, its supporters offered to remove 12 of the clauses critical of Israel and simply ask for a committee to look into companies doing business with Israel.
“I think it was a very sincere gesture,” said Woll, “but its rejection showed that people understood the nuances and complexity of the issue.”
Though harsh statements were made, and a verbal confrontation led to one person being escorted from the room, the passionate debate was held in a tightly run and generally respectful and civil environment. When the outcome of the vote was known, partisans of both sides hugged their compatriots while acknowledging those who they had opposed.
Or Shotan, 23, a freshman who came to U-M after his Israeli army service, heads the Israeli Students Organization. “It was a highly emotional evening for everyone, even for me, and I wasn’t expecting it to be,” said Shotan. “I came like a normal person to show support, and I saw one of the most crazy events I’ve been to.”
For example, he was shocked to hear a professor call the Israeli army “systematic killers of children” at the same time the campus Holocaust conference was taking place. (The same professor also accused Israel of the “systematic murder of babies of pregnant women at checkpoints.”)
But Shotan was most affected by the pro-Israel presentations and turn out. “What went on had some really, really positive things for me as an Israeli,” said Shotan. “It was amazing to see all that support and seeing so many people being interested in being pro-Israeli on campus.
“As an Israeli from north Tel Aviv, the center of Israel, most people I know are indifferent about the whole Israel-Palestine issue. It was amazing to see all these Americans who don’t really owe anything to Israel to be working so hard. They met beforehand and put a lot of time into it. It was very well organized and very professional and everyone spoke on a particular issue. A lot of people came from the sororities and fraternities in order to help. It was very, very nice to see.”
Adam Soclof, a sophomore from Ann Arbor who is vice-chair of the Hillel governing board, sent a message to Hillel leadership thanking them and sharing a message he had posted on www.campusj.com, a Jewish campus affairs Web site.
“This was an amazing day at the University of Michigan, and for the time being, I can’t foresee any experience topping it in the near future,” he wrote. “I woke up this morning feeling safer and more optimistic about the fate of the Jewish people locally and in Israel.”
Perry Teicher, a sophomore from West Bloomfield, is a Hillel activist who serves on the MSA and is running for re-election. He had similar feelings, saying he was ecstatic when the resolution lost by such a large margin. “My faith in people, rationality and acceptable norms of human behavior stayed in place,” he said.
“While I absolutely disagree with the motion that was brought up,” he said, “I think it is great to see that student activism is not dead.”
“Now, if only those who insist on vilifying Israel and looking at the conflict from one side are willing to divest themselves from that view and instead are ready to work towards a dialogue of understanding, are ready to take advantage of the university as a place of discussion, of exploration, instead of as a dead-end path to hate, then I think we as a university community will be making progress,” said Teicher, echoing a sentiment of many of the pro-Israel students.
He added, “I have heard that some students from all sides — Palestinians, Israelis and Americans — are looking to start talking with each other instead of simply attacking each other.”
But Teicher’s less-hopeful prediction that the divestment resolution would be brought up again, “albeit under a different mask,” already seemed to be coming true. The day after the vote, as the MSA president spoke about the resolution at a U-M Board of Regents meeting, 15-20 students from SAFE, decked out in black “Free Palestine/ Divest From Israeli Apartheid” T-shirts and some wearing gags over their mouths, stood in the corner, protesting the vote’s outcome and the regents’ refusal to consider divestment.
© 2005 Detroit Jewish News
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