Thursday, May 21, 2015

StandwithUs

Last evening we hosted a program with StandwithUs, an educational organization deeply involved in combating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and antisemitism on the college campus.  Shahar Azani, Rabbi David Siegel and Professor Robin Charlow were incredible, outstanding speakers.  They contributed a great deal to our understanding of the issues as well as sharing their personal experiences.  I do however remain biased.  My favorite speaker was none other than Shira Moskowitz! Below is the text of her prepared remarks.  I hope that many find her words equally inspiring.  I hope my young students hear as well her call to action.

It had been a month since resolution AR 3-050 had been brought before our Central Student Government (CSG). The resolution called for the University of Michigan to create a committee that would look into the ethics of the university’s investments. However, this resolution was inextricably tied to the BDS movement because the only companies it singled out were ones that had operations in the West Bank.

I was working the Hillel booth at Springfest, a campus wide fair. We asked students to draw a representation of their core values on quilt to be displayed alongside the winning art from the Hillel art competition based on the same theme. One Hillel student had incorporated Nelson Mandela into her piece which was on display at Springfest. When I was left alone at the booth, students from SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality), the group that had created the BDS related resolution, approached me. They asked how we could incorporate Nelson Mandela into our art since Israel is an apartheid state. I calmly replied that this was a student’s personal representation and that students in Hillel have a wide rang of views about Israel, social justice, and all other issues. Then the student began to yell at me while her friend videotaped. I said nothing, afraid of where this video would end up and how it could be taken out of context and used against me personally and Hillel. When they walked away I burst into tears. I had never felt so belittled and dehumanized. My privacy had been invaded and I had been attacked.

Unfortunately over the course of that semester, Winter 2014, these were feelings that I and my fellow classmates had become accustomed to. This resolution had divided our campus. You were either for it or against it. There was no room to fall into the gray areas that have shaped the Israel-Palestinian conflict for the past 2,000 years. Many Jewish students felt they could only voice their positive feelings for Israel because they worried that challenging their own beliefs could be misconstrued as weakness or used as ammunition by the other side. As such, it became impossible for students to learn from one another and to share their stories on a campus rife with such hostility and tension.

When students are unable to question and challenge their own beliefs and those of other members of their campus community, the beauty of a college education is lost and the likelihood that something meaningful will occur and that ideas can flow freely becomes less and less.

Although tension had been rising since early December when students from SAFE slipped eviction notices under the doors of dorm rooms to simulate the experience of Palestinians living in the West Bank, it was not until CSG decided to table the resolution that this tension bubbled over.

Students from SAFE hosted sit-ins at the student government offices. CSG representatives received death threats for speaking out against the resolution and some were even walked to class by university police officers. A Jewish friend of mine felt uncomfortable sharing her opinions in class because her professor had expressed his support for the resolution and the BDS movement. Students were called Anti-Semitic slurs for wearing IDF t-shirts, Jewish star necklaces, and other symbols of their pride for Israel and Judaism. Michigan no longer felt like the warm and friendly campus community I had grown to love.

In the end, the resolution was voted down but a statement had been made. Divestment was here to stay at the University of Michigan. This past year, a new but extremely similar resolution was brought in front of CSG. This resolution failed to pass by only a small margin but created much less tension because of the student government’s decision to vote immediately.

While this experience was both eye opening and important for me, what left me frustrated was its lack of constructive outcomes. What had we achieved besides pushing people further apart? Although we are just one college campus, this matters. The students organizing both in favor of and against this resolution are the future leaders of our world. Our college campuses are a microcosm of our society and so it is our responsibility to continue educating, engaging, and debating, three things that are unattainable when polarizing movements infiltrate campuses.

I do not support BDS. I do however support peace, human rights, and a two-state solution. I hope that students on college campuses will not let internationally divisive movements prevent them from having meaningful dialogues that will one day allow them to reshape the society we live in.

And for those who have not yet had a chance to watch the thirty minute film about BDS, "Crossing the Line 2," I urge you again to watch it.

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