Case Study: University of Michigan

BDS made a lot of noise at the University of Michigan in Spring 2014. When SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a local pro-BDS group) introduced a resolution calling for UMich’s divestment from certain companies that did business with Israel, a brief debate was held at the Central Student Government (CSG). The CSG voted to indefinitely postpone the resolution in a 21-15 vote.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of the BDS circus that would quickly sweep the school. On the night of the vote SAFE immediately struck back with a mob of more than one hundred students surrounding the building where the vote was held, chanting “Divest!” SAFE occupied a school building for six days, until their demand for a second vote on the resolution was met, despite being told that their behavior was illegal. The argument over divestment became more heated. CSG President Michael Proppe said that threatening and inflammatory messages had been sent to CSG representatives, especially those who had voted against the resolution, to the point where some representatives were afraid to attend classes. CSG Vice President Bobby Dishell said that those making the threats identified as members of SAFE, those SAFE denied any responsibility for them.

Two pro-divestment activists threatened with violence a student who disagreed with them, and so University of Michigan police were called. Pro-Israel students received death threats as well as anti-Semitic harassment by pro-divestment students. A CSG representative questioned the “peaceful” nature of BDS and said that he had missed class for a week because he did not feel safe on campus. One of SAFE’s student leaders was found to have posted a picture of himself wearing a keffiyeh and holding a knife. However, Michigan’s administration refused to explain how they would respond to this intimidation.

Finally, on March 25th, the CSG gave in and allowed a vote on the divestment resolution. Hundreds of students packed the hall where the debate was held. Professional anti-Israel activist Max Blumenthal was the first speaker in favor of the resolution, despite not being a student at Michigan and having no formal connection. Many pro-divestment students tweeted vile insults and anti-Semitism using the Twitter hashtag #UMDivest. The CSG representatives voted on the resolution secretly to protect their safety. The debate started at 7:30pm and continued until 1:40am. Ultimately the divestment resolution was soundly defeated with 9 votes in favor and 25 against. When the results were announced, a pro-divestment student said “Now we’ll go to the Board of Regents.”

Student representative Molly Rosen explained how the anti-divestment students approached the issue:

“Leaders of the pro-Israel community devised a multi-faceted approach. Our first step was to educate our community on what had occurred and provide a safe place to congregate at the campus Hillel. As a diverse yet extremely cohesive community, we drafted letters of support and thanks to our elected representatives, voiced our concerns to the dean of students and the administration, and discussed ways to avoid fighting fire with fire. Above all, however, we wanted to move beyond this hateful episode.

“[When the vote was announced] We mobilized immediately. We launched an “Invest in Peace” campaign, and thousands of students showed their support for this unifying message. We posted positive messages on our Facebook and Twitter pages, and urged our pro-Israel communities to share these positive messages across campus.

“We held that a No vote meant that representatives would not accept a threat to their safety on campus, that such intimidating behavior was inappropriate and damaged campus unity and peace, and that the broader conversation about Israelis, Palestinians, and the prospects for peace in the Middle East deserved a safer space, with more nuance and patience than a three-minute limit allows. Furthermore, a Yes vote would indicate that CSG—and, by extension, our entire community—supported hateful attacks on our heritage and beliefs, silencing hundreds of student voices.”

Molly Rosen also thanked pro-Israel groups for their help including the Israel on Campus Coalition, Hillel, AIPAC, and StandWithUs.

Student Groups:
Students Allied for Freedom and Equality
University of Michigan Hillel

Pro-BDS Op-eds: Viewpoint: In Support of SAFE
Israel, BDS, and Fake Balance
Viewpoint: A Reasonable Demand
Michigan in Color: We Will Not Be Silent
Michigan in Color: CSG Does Not Represent Me

Anti-BDS Op-eds:
Viewpoint: Looking at Both Sides of Divestment
Viewpoint: Divestment Is Not the Solution
Viewpoint: Stop Hating and Try a Little Empathy
Viewpoint: Taking a Look At the Bigger Picture
Viewpoint: Collaboration For the Pursuit of Justice

Student Representative Chris Mays on How BDS is Not Non-Violent: