The campus battle over Israel and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement made a splash in Ann Arbor Tuesday night, as hundreds of students came out to call for the University of Michigan to divest from corporations profiting off the Israeli occupation. But no vote was held, with the student government voting to indefinitely table the divestment resolution.
In response, over 100 students declared an indefinite sit-in at the student government’s building, calling for a vote on the bill. Student activists are chronicling the protest action on Twitter with the hashtag #UMDivestSitIn.
— TeamSAFE (@SAFEumich) March 19, 2014
The divestment resolution, backed by the group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), calls on their school to divest from companies like Caterpillar, which makes bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes, and United Technologies, which produces Blackhawk helicopters for the Israeli army. As the Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, who witnessed the vote, reported, the discussion on the divestment resolution featured a student named Nicole Khamis. She “recounted movingly the story of her cousin who died because Israel delayed granting a permit that would have allowed her to seek medical care on the other side of a checkpoint,” Abunimah wrote.
Despite the wide swath of support the resolution garnered–37 student groups endorsed the call–the Central Student Government decided to indefinitely postpone voting on the resolution. The vote to table the divestment bill was 21-15.
That move sparked an uproar, with hundreds of students holding a rally outside, chanting, “divest!” Abunimah captured the scene on video:
“Time and time again I have been silenced,” said SAFE member Suha Najjar, according to the Michigan Daily‘s Giacamo Bologna. “We are supposed to be given a platform in this room and doors are being shut in our face.”
John Lin, the chair of the resolutions committee for the student government, told me that he had told student activists he would allow the bill to be placed on the agenda, though he emphasized he did not promise a vote would be held. It was Lin who made the motion to table the resolution. That move “broke the trust between students on this campus and the assembly,” Yazan Kherallah, the lead divestment organizer for SAFE, said in an interview.
While supporters of divestment were angry at the action by the student government, the rally invigorated them. “It was really a beautiful moment,” Andrew Dalack, a law student and member of SAFE, told me. “A lot of students spoke up and talked about personal stories of struggle, both at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, and how close they felt to the Palestinians as a result.”
Opponents of the resolution said that tensions would soar on campus if it passed. “I want multiple and diverse narratives to come together in peaceful and safe spaces on campus,” said Hillel chair Michele Freed, according to the Michigan Daily. “Where all voices have a space and are respected. This polarizing resolution is bringing about just the opposite.”
In an interview, SAFE’s Yazan Kherallah said that the opposition’s arguments were about derailing the conversation. “When we were talking about our university’s investments, and how we should be investing responsibly, they tried to make this into an issue that shouldn’t be debated at the Central Student Government,” he said. They claimed “we were trying to figure out a solution to Israel/Palestine, which wasn’t the resolution at all. It was about how the university invests our money.”
Since the beginning of the school year, SAFE has worked to garner support for divestment from campus groups and raise their profile through actions like handing out mock eviction notices. Now, with student government elections next week, they plan to push to elect representatives more sympathetic to their cause.
The student sit-in at the Central Student Government building continues, though they had to leave last night under threat of arrest. The students have vowed to return to continue their protest until their demands are met.