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March 10, 2020 9:54 am

Jewish Student Leader’s Past Criticisms of Palestinians Censured at University of Michigan

avatar by Jackson Richman / JNS.org

The University of Michigan. Photo: Dante Chinni.

JNS.org – The student government at the University of Michigan has passed a resolution condemning its president for remarks critical of the Palestinians he made as a high school senior.

The final vote of the Feb. 25 resolution rebuking Central Student Government president Ben Gerstein was 25 in favor, zero against and four abstentions.

“There should be a test for what type of people deserve a state and what type of people don’t. I think the Palestinian people, with rejecting constant peace deals, with their financing of terror, with their raising kids to hate people purely because of their religion,” said Gerstein on the TV show “North Town News Magazine” in 2017. “I don’t think that people deserve a state at this point in time. Until we see a significant change in the Palestinian mentality and a significant change in the Palestinian leadership, I don’t think they deserve a state at this point.”

On Feb. 19, Gerstein apologized in a public Facebook post.

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“In this video as well as an op-ed, I made statements that erase the history of the Palestinian people. I made racist statements, including the denial of the right to self-determination, that were ignorant of Palestinians’ struggle under occupation,” he wrote. “I am sorry beyond words—both for my actions as well as not coming forward with the video sooner and seeking remedy for it. I accept total and complete responsibility for the harmfulness of my language, the offensiveness of my words and the active role I played in the silencing of Palestinian voices.”

“I have grown considerably since I made those statements, and the repulsive views I expressed in the video no longer reflect my current understanding,” he continued. “I am devastated to see them reappear and be defended today. I know an apology is never enough, and I am complicit in the oppression of Palestinians through my past actions.”

Gerstein went on to say that before arriving at the University of Michigan, he had only been exposed to pro-Israel viewpoints, but was “committed” to “learning new perspectives and being empathetic to the Palestinian community.”

“I feel my deeper understanding of history and multiple narratives now allows me to work as a stronger ally to others to dismantle the systems of oppression that perpetuate the suffering of the Palestinian people—but I also know that I have much more learning to do and am committed to continuing that work,” he wrote.

The resolution stated that Gerstein’s 2017 comments are “Islamaphobic and racist, and we formally condemn these comments,” and “we recognize the international plight of the Palestinian people, some of whom are constituents of this government.” It also stated: “We recognize that more work needs to be done to uproot racism and Islamophobia at the University of Michigan.”

Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames told JNS, “We were sorry to see Ben Gerstein, student body president and active Jewish student, condemned in such a public manner. We are supporting him during this difficult time.”

She said that “Michigan Hillel is a leader in working with students to proactively bring Israel to campus and address challenging anti-Israel moments. Whether it’s leading efforts to oppose divestment resolutions, supporting students targeted on campus for their support of Israel, taking diverse student leaders to Israel, or offering opportunities to engage with Israel in positive ways, Hillel is the central address on campus for our students’ Israel needs.”

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