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November 15, 2017 6:15 pm

After 10 Defeats, Divestment Resolution Targeting Israel Passes at University of Michigan

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Logo for the #UMDivest campaign launched by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Photo: SAFE / Facebook.

Students at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (U-M) called on university leaders to look into divesting from companies that do business with Israel early Wednesday morning — endorsing a campaign that was previously rejected at the school at least ten times.

After an unprecedented eight hour debate in a crowded lecture hall, representatives with the Central Student Government (CSG) voted 23 to 17 — with five abstentions — to recommend the Board of Regents to form a committee to investigate the university’s investments in companies including Boeing, Hewlett-Packard and United Technologies over alleged human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The vote took place through a secret ballot, after some argued that publicizing the representatives’ position on divestment from Israel could be detrimental to them in the future.

The resolution — brought forth by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), which spearheaded similar efforts since 2002 — was quickly shot down by administrators, with U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald saying in a statement on Wednesday, “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.”

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“We do not anticipate a change in this approach or the creation of a committee,” Fitzgerald added.

While supporters of the resolution framed it as a call to divest from several companies doing business in Israel — not a wholesale endorsement of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, whose leaders have publicly called for Israel’s destruction — some warned that the U-M resolution was rooted in the same foundation.

Former CSG representative Gaby Roth, a senior at U-M, said in the lead up to Tuesday’s divestment vote, “It is crucial as leaders of this campus you understand that #UMDivest is part of a larger, boycott divestment (and is) telling of the questionable, inappropriate implications of this resolution.”

Concerns were also raised following the vote about the presence of a non-student, non-alumnus speaker who favored divestment — a self-described “community member” who was involved in multiple efforts to divest from Israel on several campuses, including last year’s failed divestment resolution at U-M.

In contrast, U-M history professor Victor Lieberman — who published works on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and spoke against divestment in previous years — was barred from joining the list of approved speakers following opposition from CSG representatives.

“The argument against my speaking was that ‘a structural power imbalance within the university favors pro-Israel views’ and could only be rectified by removing me, as a senior professor, from the discussion,” Lieberman told The Algemeiner. He criticized this rationale, pointing out that “BDS could easily have engaged senior faculty to speak on their behalf. In my department alone there are 6 pro-BDS senior professors.”

He noted that pro-divestment students “could also have enlisted outside academics or experts, as they have in past years. In fact, this year and last they engaged a Black Lives Matter activist from Detroit … who spoke for a half hour.”

“Of course, the real motive for preventing me from speaking was a fear that I ‘know too much,’ that I might sway the vote,” Lieberman observed. “Rather than enlist faculty or outside experts to engage in rational debate, BDS’ response was to foreclose discussion, to silence me, to censor me.”

He criticized this as “the instinctive position of ‘single-truth’ authoritarians, albeit in different cultural contexts, from the Inquisition, through the Salem witch trials, to Stalin, Goebbels, and Joe McCarthy.”

“It is a position totally unworthy of a university committed to the unfettered flow of ideas,” the professor continued. “Of course, this is part of a wider climate of political intolerance, largely a reaction to Trump’s election, which has led to the shutting down on college campuses across the country, often by physical intimidation, of speakers from a variety of political standpoints.”

Anti-Israel divestment resolutions have been frequently criticized for fomenting intolerance and deepening divisions on campuses where they are debated.

Tilly Shames, director of U-M’s Hillel chapter, comforted Jewish students on the outskirts of the lecture hall following the conclusion of the debate, Michigan Radio reported.

“This resolution was not simply about Palestinian human rights,” Shames said. “It was about singling out Israel as the sole entity responsible for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And that’s an oversimplification, overgeneralization of an historically complex conflict that really can’t be attributed to one side or the other.”

Before the passage of the resolution on Wednesday, Shames cautioned against equating the defeat of divestment initiatives with victory, telling The Algemeiner that “when these resolutions appear, nobody wins, as all students feel a deep divide and hurt by their peers.”

In 2014 — one of the multiple years that SAFE called on CSG to debate divestment — then-representative Chris Mays said that he would “seriously disagree” with calling the anti-Israel movement either nonviolent or peaceful, “especially with the number of emails, and harassing texts, and harassing voicemails, and harassing calls that have caused me to miss class for a week.”

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