Students at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (UM) have attributed the first-ever passage of an anti-Israel divestment resolution through the central student government (CSG) to a changed political environment on campus in the year since the presidential elections.
"Since Trump, students are more politically aware than ever, and they are more willing to be active in situations where they are not personally affected. They are rooting for the underdog and don't want to be seen as the bad guys who are impeding progress on very real issues of racism, bigotry, violence, oppression, and abuse," said Allison Taylor, a culture writer for the student newspaper the Michigan Daily and a fellow with the Committee for Accuracy on Middle East Reporting in America on Campus, about how a coalition dubbed UM Divest finally succeeded in its 15-year effort to get a favorable vote on a divestment motion.
Recent Stories in Culture
The vote of 23 for, 17 against with five abstentions came after an eight-hour meeting that ran until 3 a.m. local time Wednesday, the longest ever meeting of the CSG.
Multiple speakers debated whether to recommend the Board of Regents create an ad hoc committee to "investigate the ethical and moral implications of our investments in the corporations Boeing, HP, and United Technologies, which are involved in humans rights violations against the Palestinian people according to international law," as the resolution demands.
This was the first of 11 divestment campaigns led by the pro-Palestinian group Students Allied for Freedom and Safety (SAFE) since 2002 to succeed. Unlike years past, this time the vote was taken by a secret ballot.
Talia Katz, co-founder of Think-M: The Israel Network at Michigan, the school's independent Zionist club, said the divestment coalition won because they "changed up their tactics."
"They painted it as a referendum on whether Palestinian lives matter," Katz said. "They said if you don't vote in favor, you are silencing Palestinians and marginalizing a whole group of oppressed people. They didn't make the distinction between marginalizing and disagreeing."
Katz added that white supremacist Richard Spencer's recent announcement that he wants to speak at UM fomented racial anxieties on campus that were already high.
"Divestment this year really emphasized identity politics, especially skin color. With most of the Jewish students on campus being white European, the optics you get are of a room of white people against a coalition of people of color," said Katz, one of about 4,500 Jewish students at Ann Arbor. "That rings a bell in minds of millennials, especially those at the extremely liberal UM."
Pro-Israel students didn't come up with an answer compelling enough, and equivocated in voicing their support for Israel, said Katz.
Taylor, the Michigan Daily writer, said that it is "hard to compete with the emotional manipulation of [divestment]."
"They say if you believe in equality, then you cannot be opposed to their movement," Taylor wrote. "At Michigan, buzzwords like ‘oppression' have a huge impact on the way people see things."
None of the students who spoke with the Washington Free Beacon believed the resolution would impact UM's financial realities, or that students will start giving up their Hewlett-Packard laptops, but some said it might still do serious damage to the university's climate.
"I'm worried about students recovering from this," Katz said. "Last year, I had a friend who was afraid to wear his kippah [a skullcap] on campus, and that was when BDS lost. I don't know what happens now that it's won."
UM student Sarit Mafouda, an intern with pro-Israel organization, the David Project, called the resolution anti-Semitic, citing its connections to the "broader BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement."
"There are numerous instances in which BDS leaders have called for the demolition of Israel and the end goal to replace Israel with a Palestinian state," said Mafouda.
In one popular example, BDS activists often chant, "From the [Jordan] river, to the [Mediterranean] sea, Palestine will be free."
Mafouda also rejected SAFE's contention that the resolution does not call to "divest from Israel," noting that Israel is mentioned 18 times in the document.
SAFE told the Free Beacon, "we fully reject" any argument that frames the resolution as anti-Semitic.
"Highlighting ones struggle is not an attack on an identity, and is offensive to be framed in such a way," said SAFE, which insisted on speaking anonymously and as a group, because of "real safety concerns."
Kim Broekhuizen, a UM spokesperson, told the Free Beacon that "the university's longstanding policy is to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base our investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return."
"We do not anticipate a change in this approach or the creation of a committee," Broekhuizen said.
Update 12:49 p.m.: This post has been updated with further information.