Yesterday, the battle for hearts and minds on campus took several steps forward.
Last night the student assembly at Loyola University in Chicago passed a resolution supporting divestment from companies profiting from Israeli occupation by 26-0.
And at the University of the West of England, in the United Kingdom, a student union referendum calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) was approved by 650-429.
I was witness to the most dramatic battle, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Last night, the assembly of the Central Student Government (CSG) had on its agenda a resolution supporting divestment from companies profiting from Israeli occupation.
There is no doubt that Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) had done the groundwork, gathering the public support of 36 other student organizations who signed on to an op-ed in The Michigan Daily setting out the case for the divestment bill.
And the number of students who turned out to watch last night’s debate was so large that the assembly meeting had to be moved from its usual venue to an enormous ballroom in the Michigan Union building.
Several CSG representatives repeatedly noted that it was the largest turnout for a student assembly meeting they had ever seen. The Michigan Daily put the number – quite credibly – at “hundreds.” What happened was extraordinary.
During the “community concerns” part of the agenda, ten students who were not assembly members, five supporting and five opposing the resolution, were allowed to address the representatives.
Nicole Khamis, for instance, speaking for the resolution, recounted movingly the story of her cousin who died because Israel delayed granting a permit that would have allowed her to seek medical care on the other side of a checkpoint.
Sami Shalabi informed the assembly of the vote at Loyola approving a bill that was almost identical to the one in Michigan.
Each of the students supporting divestment spoke passionately and eloquently.
Meanwhile many of those present tweeted their observations and images using the #UMDivest hashtag.
Zionist talking points
But the anti-divestment speakers appeared to me to be well coached and on message.
They did not focus on the substantive issues related to divestment, but consistently pushed a number of talking points and claims of the kind we regularly hear from the likes of the Israel lobby groups J Street and Hillel:
- Divestment and BDS generally are “divisive,” and don’t foster people feeling “safe” on campus;
- The best way toward peace is to support US Secretary of State John Kerry’s current negotiation process and to have dialogue;
- There are “two sides” and BDS only supports one side;
- We support both “Israel and Palestine” and believe in “two states” and “self-determination” for “both peoples”;
- Israel isn’t perfect but it’s so much better than countries like Syria and Mali.
And so on. I lost count of the number of times the anti-divestment speakers used the terms “peace” and “both sides.”
These points were well-calculated to appeal to liberal sensitivies about “dialogue” and fear of confrontation.
The speakers consistently urged placing all faith and support for the “peace process,” now shepherded by Kerry, that began before most of the people in the room were born.
Another explicit message was that the issue is too “complicated” for student government and in any case, student government shouldn’t concern itself with off-campus issues.
Put another way: your’re not smart enough to understand this and your voice doesn’t matter outside the confines of this university.
No chance for debate
I’m certain that many of the assembly members who supported divestment would have been ready to counter these arguments, but sadly they did not get the chance.
Immediately after the divestment bill was read, a motion was introduced to “postpone” it “indefinitely.”
The motion passed by a show of hands and then the chair called for a debate before holding a roll call vote.
The representatives who urged postponement had clearly come in already agreeing with – or had been affected by – the Zionist students’ arguments, echoing fears about being “divisive” and unqualified to understand the “complex” issues at stake.
A representative expressed frustration that divestment kept coming up. “This is an issue we need to toss out permanently,” he argued.
Another representative who said he hadn’t made up his mind countered that it would be divisive not to hear the concerns of the hundreds of students who had gathered and the assembly has a responsibility to act.
“This issue has been brought to us so we can discuss it. To say we’re not going to discuss it is inappropriate,” he said. “We need to vote.”
As the discussion about discussion went on, the tension in the room rose. The chair had ordered the audience to remain silent throughout, but the proceedings were often interrupted by applause, snapping and occasional calls that resulted in her ordering at least one student out of the hall.
It was electrifying when one representative asked everyone in the room who supported divestment to stand up. As the photo above shows, almost everyone did.
SAFE had the numbers in the room last night, but they did not have the votes. Once the roll was called the assembly voted 21-15-1 to postpone consideration of the divestment bill indefinitely.
(Also last night, something similar happened at Arizona State University where the student government tabled a divestment proposal. Students there have vowed to bring it back.)
“Divest, divest, divest!”
Was the Michigan decision not to talk about Palestine “divisive”? No doubt it was. Immediately, loud calls of “divest, divest, divest” broke out and continued as the assembly was adjourned. I captured the brief video above of the scene.
Then, scores of students moved outside the Michigan Union and held an impromptu rally on the front steps. These clips just give a flavor. Undoubtedly there was a lot of anger, as one person put it, that “the doors have been shut in our face.”
There was a sense that what happened reflected a consistent pattern where the voices of people of color are marginalized on campus.
There was determination and there was solidarity from students who identified themselves African, African American, West Indian and an undocumented migrant from Honduras.
‘We know how you feel to be marginalized, maligned and shut out,’ was their message.
I have seen this kind of passion and commitment on campus before, but too often it has come in flashes – during the second intifada in the early 2000s, during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” massacre in Gaza in 2008-2009.
But when the bombs stopped, so often the activism faded into the background. What is different now is that the the commitment, the sweat and the tears – and there were some tears last night in Ann Arbor – that these students brought are part of a sustained campaign.
The University of Michigan’s Consolidated Student Government ducked the issue. Perhaps it is a silver lining that they did not have the courage or conviction to vote outright against a divestment bill.
Twenty-one representatives voted to “postpone indefinitely,” but the message from the students was clear: Palestine can’t wait any longer.