University of Michigan officials are asking that the Washington Free Beacon remove from its website an article that reported on a pro-Palestinian student leader who posted a photo of himself on Facebook wearing a traditional Arab headscarf and inserting a knife into a pineapple.
Kelly Cunningham, director of the university’s Office of Public Affairs and Internal Communications, contacted the Free Beacon Wednesday evening to convey the university’s desire for the article to be removed, saying that the photo had been viewed out of context.
The report focused on a January photo of anti-Israel student activist Yazan Kherallah wearing a keffiyeh and poking a knife into a pineapple. The words, "it’s on" accompanied the photo.
Civil rights leaders expressed alarm over the photograph’s tone and said the image might contribute to an atmosphere of intimidation on campus among pro-Israel students, who in recent weeks had been working to oppose a student government resolution to divest from Israel.
One university student had contacted police two weeks ago after supporters of the resolution shouted death threats at him. Others have reportedly been subjected to anti-Semitic epithets.
Michigan's Cunningham said that the photo—which has since been removed from Facebook—was posted "as part of a basketball rivalry among friends" and was not related to politics. The opposing team in the match was named the Pineapples, she said.
"We ask that you please remove the photo and story from your website because it is based on a totally erroneous assumption," Cunningham wrote in an email. "Your unfortunate use of this image in the context of the article has completely distorted the reality in which the photo was taken."
Asked by phone to provide more information, Cunningham said the image was part of "a basketball rivalry."
"It’s sort of a basketball game amongst friends," she said, explaining that it is not affiliated with the university’s basketball team in any way.
"I believe it’s a club, but don’t know if the club is associated with the university or not," she said. "When you think about University of Michigan basketball that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s more, you know, college kids playing."
Cunningham said this type of sporting event is common among students, but could not ascertain exactly how long that specific rivalry had existed.
Cunningham said that she became aware of the Free Beacon article after administrators in the student affairs office contacted her about it.
"I read the story … and then I was informed that the image was taken out of context," she said. "I saw there were other people in the article speculating on the image without a full understanding of what it was actually about."
Asked if this type of imagery was typical of sporting rivalries, Cunningham responded, "I don’t know. It’s kids just having rivalries with other sport teams."
Cunningham said that the university does not have a position on the photo itself and declined to explain her personal reaction to it.
"I’d say it was explained to me it was a rivalry where the opposing team’s name was the pineapples," she said when pressed on the issue. "I wouldn’t speculate [further] on this because I just take him [the student] for his word. Absolutely."
"If the student chose to make that a public photo, it was public," she later added.
Reached for comment via email, Kherallah told the Free Beacon that "the picture was posted on my Facebook profile back in January, before there was any talk of a divestment resolution on campus. I was playing an intramural basketball game against a team called ‘Team Ananas.’"
"Ananas is the Arabic word for pineapple," said Kherallah, who is active in the campus movement to divest from Israel and serves as divestment chair of the pro-Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE).
His current Facebook profile photo reads, "#UMDivest." Talk of divesting from Israel by Kerhallah and others began on the campus as early as Jan. 10 when SAFE sponsored a talk by Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
"The photo was simply a joke between friends that engages in a longstanding basketball rivalry dating back to when I was a freshman," Kherallah wrote, adding that he felt the image had been viewed "completely out of context."
Kherallah claimed that the Free Beacon did not reach out for comment on the initial piece, but an email and Facebook message sent in advance of the article requested that he explain the meaning and context of the photograph. Kherallah later acknowledged receiving an email from a reporter prior to publication of the original report.
When the divestment resolution was put on ice several weeks ago, SAFE members and others held "sit ins" and demonstrations to force a vote of the measure, which was then overwhelmingly rejected during a secret ballot vote on Tuesday night.
Kenneth Marcus, a civil rights leader who had expressed concern about the Facebook photo, said students understood that the picture cast Kherallah "in a bad light."
"Now that Michigan’s hurtful BDS campaign is over, I hope that the students can begin a healing process at Ann Arbor, and I also hope that the administration can play a role in facilitating this," said Marcus, former staff director at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "I have been impressed with the number of Jewish pro-Israel Michigan students who have expressed concerns about the reputation of the pro-Palestinian student who posted the picture."
"They realize that this picture, which he publicly posted to Facebook, will cast him in a bad light, and they feel bad for him, even if he brought this upon himself," Marcus said. "The bottom line is that they respect him as a fellow Wolverine. If these sympathies are reciprocated, perhaps they can be the basis for a healthier dialogue and perhaps ultimately for a rapprochement on that campus."
University of Michigan spokeswoman Cunningham said that there have been several reports of students being intimidated on campus over the divestment resolution.
"I think that we would take every threat, intimidation, anything that would make any of studs feel uncomfortable incredibly seriously and that our [police force] would investigate it immediately," Cunningham said, though she did not address specifically the instance in which an opponent of the resolution had been violently threatened.
"I believe that our bias response team has received information … has received complaints from students on all sides," she said, adding that she was not aware of instances where students were called "kike" and "dirty Jew."
Cunningham did not believe that last week’s divestment resolution was necessarily a part of the larger BDS campaign that has been taking place on the university’s campus since last year, when SAFE sent mock eviction notices to students.
"This particular issue that was a week ago had to do with the central student government," Cunningham said. "It wasn’t specifically BDS. It was a central student government issue. It was a resolution put forth, that the issue was they were talking to the student government about [was] whether they could continue with the resolution."