The auditorium overflowed with students proudly wearing Palestinian kuffiyehs and holding “stop silencing us” signs high. By the end of the night, Palestinians on campus were finally given a voice for the first time in University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s history.
On Nov. 15th, U of M passed divestment in Central Student Government (CSG), marking a historical moment in a 14-year-long struggle for justice on campus. Year after year, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) proposed divestment, asking CSG to divest from companies involved in human rights violations against Palestinians. Companies that are in fact, profiting by supplying weapons and equipment to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinians. Palestinian students voiced how these companies contribute to jeopardizing the safety of their families living under Israeli occupation and apartheid.
For over a decade, these student voices were repeatedly silenced.
Palestinian students, activists and allies of #UMDIVEST shared their personal narratives once again, urging CSG to vote yes to divest. After the decision to implement a secret ballot, divestment supporters were met with an overwhelming vote of 23 in favor, 17 opposed and 5 abstentions.
CSG President Anushka Sarkar presented the resolution to the Board of Regents on Dec. 7, to propose implementing an ad-hoc committee to investigate university funds in companies with human rights violations.
On Thursday, Dec. 14 six of the eight Board of Regents signed a joint statement denying CSG’s resolution. The only two People of Color on the board did not sign the statement.
The vote to divest:
It was just past 3 a.m., nearly 8 hours after the start of the hearing.
“We were all holding hands, sitting there and looking down. She said the numbers and I genuinely expected to be bursting from joy, but instead I broke into tears just because it was almost like I had been holding my breath for so long,” says Arwa, a SAFE representative who describes her feeling as a sense of relief. “This was never something I ever thought I would hear.”
Palestinian students, alumni and allies cheered and cried. Some, fell to the floor.
“We’ll be celebrating when Palestinians are given real human rights,” said a SAFE representative, as she clung to the microphone, fighting back tears after the final count. “And this is the first step that we can take.”
Arwa says that immediately after the hearing, SAFE received countless emails of support from fellow students, faculty and alumni across the country and across the world– from Detroit to Palestine. “People in Palestine email us and tell us that they feel like the world has forgotten about us and their struggle.”
“This means so much for our community,” says Arwa. “Although it was a victory for us, it was a very small step. We finally jumped through the first loop.”
“Hours of our lives were put into this,” she says, describing the countless hours, sleepless nights, meetings, and the mental and physical toll it took on students who have been ever so resilient for the Palestinian cause. “Though it’s so small, the fact that it took so long and we finally overcame it is testament to that these things can be done.”
This year’s divestment climate stood out from past years, especially because of the diverse representation in CSG and unwavering support from other movements of marginalized peoples on campus. “Students worked hard to get representation in something as small as their student government,” Arwa explains.
“This took years and years of effort to pass just through CSG and that’s also because we had so many People of Color on CSG this year, it was unprecedented,” she says, referring to the president and vice president of CSG.
CSG’s diversity and minority representation, however, is not represented in the Board of Regents, a board primarily white. History has shown that when institutions are predominantly white, People of Color’s voices are overlooked and marginalized.
Palestinians and allies at U of M and across the nation pushing for divestment know all too well what it feels like to be repeatedly told their voices don’t matter. “For 15 years we’ve sat at these CSG meetings and have left it heartbroken and once again losing all hope,” Arwa says.
However, SAFE representatives and advocates for UM Divest have no delusion that the university will divest from Israeli companies complicit with human rights violations any time soon. Divestment or not, Palestinians were given a platform for their voice to finally be recognized.
Kristian Bailey, Detroit activist and leader of the “Ferguson to Palestine” movement, echoed this voice as he addressed the audience the night of the hearing.
“It gets tiring to time and time again have to exert our humanity to institutions that do not listen to our pain and our suffering,” the Stanford graduate said to students. “And so the room that you see here, full of people from across campus that support this resolution are all here to say that we are tired of having to exert our humanity. And tonight is the night that we hope that you, as CSG, acknowledge us and the pain Palestinians experience. U of M does not need to be invested in their suffering.”
In the Board of Regents’ statement, they announced that after “careful consideration” they decline any action involving the boycott, divestment or sanction of Israel. “We remain committed to the university’s longstanding policy to shield the endowment from political pressures.”
However, U of M has indeed divested before, from the South African Apartheid in 1978, tobacco-related companies in 2000 and from Coca-Cola due to human rights and environmental allegations in 2005.
The university’s investments in Boeing, Hewlett-Packard and United Technologies are valued at approximately $14.8 million in total, noted in SAFE’s resolution.
Arwa explains that even though the Board of Regents decided to deny the implementation of the investigation committee, UM divest will not end there. There are smaller steps SAFE and student allies can take– petitioning, negotiating and doing further research to find routes to further the cause.
“Other ways we can put pressure on these companies are asking the university to send letters to these companies to explain their actions. Notifying them that this is a concern on campus,” she explains.
According to SAFE’s resolution, over 30 universities across the country, such as Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern University, and University of Chicago, have passed resolutions to divest. These divestments are “from companies that profit from the abuse of Palestinian human rights in Israel and its illegal settlements and that help to facilitate the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
Canary Mission, a blacklist for Palestinian human rights activists:
“@CanaryMission is watching @UMich whose divisive Divestment vote is TOMORROW,” Canary mission tweeted out the morning of the hearing. “We’ll be exposing the students who are involved in #BDS… Welcome to #CanaryMission @SAFEumich.”
“It was really intimidating and it’s another form of silencing students,” says CSG representative Hafsa Tout, in response to the tweet.
Canary’s posts and tweets encouraged an atmosphere of intimidation and fear mongering around the vote in CSG. Hafsa says the secret ballot was really important in protecting the privacy of individual CSG representatives. In past years, Hafsa recalled that those who voted in favor of divestment received death threats, a fear tactic that Canary also practices.
Canary Mission has a very clear agenda: blacklisting and demonizing students, activists, professors– or just about anyone who stand for the justice for Palestinians. The organization’s website and Twitter account are not just about silencing proponents for the Palestinian cause, but it is also an effort to harm career and education prospects for students by falsely accusing them of anti-semitism and supporters of terrorism.
Canary acts as a watchdog, targeting members of non-violent resistance groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and even religious organizations like Muslim Students Association (MSA). Canary slanders sometimes several student per day, with misinterpreted, false accusations and including personal information of their victims.
In an ‘It’s time to divest’ Op-Ed statement published in the Michigan Daily, SAFE leaders wrote that activists of their cause over time have faced harassment, slander and blacklisting as a result of their activism. “Despite this, we refuse to be silenced — and our movement continues to grow.”
Hafsa is a victim of Canary Mission’s intimidation and fear-mongering tactics. The day before the UM Divest hearing, she was blacklisted for her advocacy for the Palestinian cause and because of her Muslim identity.
As a co-author of the divestment resolution, Hafsa said she submitted the resolution on a Sunday night and when she woke up Monday morning, she was already blacklisted by Canary Mission. “I give people the benefit of the doubt, I guess, but it was just kind of like an extra element of shock, because nobody should have access to it, except people within CSG,” she explains.
In a series of four tweets and a website link to a post slandering her, she is called the “face of marginalization on campus” and a supporter of terrorists, with a mention of her membership roles in MSA and SAFE.
“If you say what they don’t want you to say, then they publish it, [and] they call you a terrorist,” Hafsa says. “As someone who wears hijab, that is not a light accusation at all. [They’re] just really horrible things that are tied to stereotypes and assumptions made when people speak out for Palestine.”
If it weren’t for her co-authoring the UM Divest resolution, Hafsa says she believes she would not be on the account’s page.
Hafsa notes that her, like many others, are careful about being vocal on social media because of slanderous accounts like Canary Mission that misconstrue their words. She explains that this is one of the many obstacles to speaking out for Palestinian human rights. “You can’t say whatever you want and can’t speak about all your beliefs.”
Hafsa explains that what is truly disheartening, is that U of M classmates are reporting fellow classmates who are a part of SAFE with a desire to shut down the Palestinian cause. “It’s probably someone that goes to school with us and will smile in my face. But I also don’t want to demonize that person for reporting me because that’s just another added obstacle to activism for the Palestinian cause.”
During the hearing on Nov. 15, Hafsa spoke about her experience and brought up the issue to the audience– she says that until that day, most students and faculty on campus did not know about the blacklist. Several Zionist and anti-divestment students who spoke at the hearing responded to Hafsa’s shared experience by condemning the blacklist. Hafsa says that members of CSG who were against divestment have also condemned the blacklist wholeheartedly and have called the posts Islamophobic.
Hafsa says that the very mentioning of the blacklist to others, creates a problem by bringing awareness to it, because students search their classmates. A representative from SAFE’s blacklist page even went from a fourth to a third result on Google after the divestment hearing because students have become aware of the issue.
“I had known what a risk it was to bring up the name Canary,” she explains. “But I really wanted to shed light on the issue.
Although it’s easy to get on the blacklist, getting a name off the blacklist is close to impossible.
In an attempt to look into how to remove her name from the list, Hafsa seeked student legal services for help, but not much could be done. After talking to other activists in the same situation, Hafsa says the only possible solution is to shut the site and account down. Even though similar sites with similar agendas will most likely pop up, she says “It would be the symbolic de-symbolism of getting it shut down.”
The global solidarity and resistance movement, marginalized people unite:
“I recognize that their suffering is my suffering,” said Dana Greene Jr., a first-year master’s student, who spoke at the hearing. “To not support this resolution is to be disingenuous of not only myself, but to all people who seek equality and justice.”
On September 25th, Dana took a knee on U of M’s campus diag, protesting America’s race issue and racist vandalism on campus targeting black students. For over 20 hours, he knelt there in pain as he watched thousands of students walk past him.
“I ask you to not be one of those people that walk past– do not walk past suffering. But instead, act for justice by recognizing the Palestinian people,” said Dana.
Alongside Dana, many other students of color have vocalized their support for the cause, including groups on campus. The solidarity movement on U of M’s campus speaks for itself. Over 40 student organizations on campus have endorsed SAFE’s resolution, including La Casa, Jewish Voice for Peace, Black Student Union and Muslim Students’ Association.
Black Student Union was one of the many student organizations voicing their support on social media, “We, The Black Student Union, supports #UMDivest,” the organization tweeted the morning of the CSG hearing.
“Our liberation is bound together with all the oppressed people of the world,” said a La Casa representative, on behalf of the U of M Latinx community.
“What other resolution has 40 student groups on campus that endorse it? This is an example of unity against injustice like never before— not divisiveness,” SAFE posted on their Facebook page.
Rami Ebrahim, a SAFE representative says that SAFE found that the more they educated people, the more others found similarities in their own struggle as marginalized people.
“This year we really focused on building solidarity with other organizations and I think that came into play, because usually the narrative is Arabs vs. Jewish students. Which isn’t actually the case, because [Palestine] is more of a humanitarian cause and it has wide ranging impact and its very intersectional,” he explains.
He also points to the diverse representation at the CSG assembly from those who supported SAFE’s divestment resolution. “Especially when you compare it to the lack of diversity that the opposition was showing. They didn’t have any students of color.”
He says that in light of the political divide in Trump’s America, people have “woken up” and have become more politically active.
“Even if they try to ignore it, it’s still going to affect them,” he says.
He describes the movement for advocating Palestinian human rights, freedom and self-determination as a collective resistance, connecting groups together who are targeted in different aspects.
Arwa explains that this year was by far the most diverse representation in UM Divest’s history. She says when she saw the support in the room, she thought, “After this, it might not be like this for a while, so this is our chance. It’s this or nothing.”
As a driving force of the student movement for justice, Palestinian leaders and allies continue to show resilience, persistence and solidarity, despite the setbacks and backlash.