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University of Michigan Administration Caves to Zionist Pressure, Students Fight Back

University of Michigan caved to pressure from off-campus Zionist groups and canceled a vote by the student body on a referendum to investigate the institution’s investments in Israel.

Brian H. Silverstein

December 8, 2023
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Photo: Jon King

Last week, the University of Michigan student body was set to vote on a resolution calling for the university to recognize the genocide in Gaza and to assess the ethics of the institution’s investments, including investments in the State of Israel. The campaign has been led by the Tahrir Coalition, a broad and diverse group of over 60 student organizations. As the vote was underway, the university administration buckled to pressure from a coalition of off-campus Zionist organizations and canceled the vote, citing improper use of a university listserv to promote the vote.

Michigan Hillel, with the support of an off-campus Zionist coalition including Maccabee Task Force, the Anti-Defamation League, Stand With Us, The iCenter, and the Israel Forever Foundation, raised $46,000 to influence the student vote and promote their own pro-Zionist resolution. The group also took direct action against students by doxxing two Muslim students, exposing them to death threats and stalking. Several weeks ago, in response to a sit-in organized by students with Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) and Students Allied for Safety and Freedom (SAFE), the University called in police from 10 jurisdictions, including nearby Eastern Michigan University police, resulting in 40 arrests. The university administration has repeatedly sided with Zionist reactionaries by, for example, refusing to discipline a School of Information Advisory Board member and donor that shouted racist slurs at Palestinian students during an October protest.

Meanwhile in Detroit, Wayne State University has also been working to keep a lid on pro-Palestinian voices. Last month the Wayne State Student Senate passed a resolution calling for the university to support a ceasefire and divest from Israel. Wayne State University Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Black Student Association attempted to hold a sit-in at the administrative building calling on the University to support a ceasefire and respond to a Student Senate resolution supporting divestment from the State of Israel. The students gathered outside the Administrative Building but were locked out by campus security. When SJP followed-up with public comment at a Board of Governors meeting on December 7, the Board refused to acknowledge the students.

“It Has To Stop”: Protecting Investments At All Costs

In a recent campus-wide email, University of Michigan President Ono expressed dismay over the tensions present on campus, urging repeatedly that “It has to stop.” But while Ono doubled-down on suppressing the vote, he did not say that the bombing of Palestine needs to stop. For Ono, what “has to stop” is simply the disruption to business as usual on University of Michigan’s campus and the fight for Palestinian liberation.

But where does Ono’s resistance come from? Universities are materially and ideologically important for maintaining the State of Israel in particular, and imperialism in general. The university has $36 million invested in Israeli shekel futures and thereby materially benefits from and supports the genocidal actions of the State of Israel. Due to state and federal disinvestment in public universities, the University of Michigan is also dependent on large donations from billionaires who, in turn, manage the hedge funds that invest the University’s endowment.

Zionism is a nationalist, settler colonial project which does not represent Judaism, but rather uses Judaism as a mask and the existence of antisemitism as a source of legitimation for its apartheid policies. Jews across the U.S. and in Israel have spoken out against the occupation of Gaza, calling for a ceasefire and the end of US military aid for Israel. The referendum to call for an assessment of the university’s investments in the State of Israel does not constitute a radical demand or even a binding obligation on the University. It’s call to recognize that Palestinians are suffering from Israel’s assault on Gaza is far from antisemitic.  

Rather than combating actual antisemitism, the Zionist coalition fighting the student resolution has exposed its real concerns: protecting financial investments in Israel and insulating the Zionist regime from any critique. It is particularly important for Zionists to maintain this airtight barrier against criticism: without the assertion that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, it opens up space for clear-eyed assessment of the State of Israel’s actions towards Palestine. No sober evaluation of the University of Michigan’s investments can conclude that funding apartheid and genocidal policies meets any kind of “ethical standards.”

A Pattern of Suppression across Campuses

The efforts to suppress the referendum vote at University of Michigan and the attempt to marginalize SJP at Wayne State are the latest steps in the increasing suppression of student activism across the country. Columbia University disbanded the SJP and JVP chapters on their campus for staging protests calling for a ceasefire in Israel. SJP has been banned in Florida. The House of Represenatives passed a resolution defining anti-Zionism as antisemitism, Congress passed a resolution denouncing anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian protests as antisemitic, and the Biden Administration has tapped Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to step up surveillance of pro-Palestinian activity on college campuses.

For the United States, the State of Israel plays a pivotal role in maintaining influence in the most oil-rich region of the world. Natural gas production has increased dramatically in Israel, turning the country into a net-exporter at a time when Western Europe is seeking to reduce its reliance on Russian fuel. The Biden administration is already pushing for Israel to open up extraction, cynically framing it as a boon for Palestinians.

The mounting efforts to suppress student activism and political discourse on college campuses reflects the growing opposition to the State of Israel and the U.S. backing which makes it possible. The Biden administration cannot count on popular support and so it must resort to suppression to maintain an atmosphere of political support for Zionism.

It is important for the legitimacy of Zionism to maintain the appearance of a liberal ideology supposedly protecting the “only democracy in the Middle East” and the safety of Jews globally, and supported by liberal institutions such as universities. In reality, it is only university administrators that broadly support the State of Israel, whereas young people on and off campus overwhelmingly oppose the assault on Gaza, reflected in the large coalitions supporting divestment and ceasefire resolutions. In the face of this contradiction, universities, with the backing of the State, are attempting to suppress the student movement, isolate them, and paint them as radicals.

Fighting Back against Repression

In the face of mounting attempts to suppress the Palestinian liberation movement on college campuses, courageous students, staff, and faculty are continuing the struggle. Following the vote suppression at University of Michigan, over 60 student groups signed on to a statement condemning the move, held a rally at University President Ono’s residence, and are continuing to mobilize on campus. Columbia’s SJP and JVP chapters have continued to organize despite being officially disbanded. A growing list of campus-based groups representing students and faculty, Palestinians and allies, have signed onto a pledge calling for the defense of the movement. At Columbia and Barnard, a tuition strike is taking shape. These groups and individuals deserve our full support and solidarity in the fight for Palestinian liberation. 

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