Following a week-long sit-in by the University of Michigan Students Allied For Equality (SAFE), an obstinate Central Student Government (CSG) council agreed to bring the group’s resolution on divesting from corporations involved in human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories to a vote. I appeared as SAFE’s guest speaker for the March 25 debate, addressing as many as 600 students packed into an auditorium while hundreds more waited outside. In an electric atmosphere, SAFE members and supporters rose to defend the resolution against a parade of pro-Israel students and professors rattling off well-worn talking points.
From Suha Najjar’s blistering indictment of institutional anti-Palestinian racism to Angela Folasade’s impassioned repudiation of cynical pro-Israel attempts to co-opt African-American narratives [at 4:30] to Andrew Dallack’s impromptu clinic on international law [at 3:30], SAFE orchestrated one of the most powerful displays of student activism I have witnessed on any American campus. Their work should be a model for all future divestment initiatives.
While in Ann Arbor, I was also able to witness the escalating tactics of pro-Israel forces engaged in a desperate but determined fighting retreat. Under the influence of a zealous cast of communal elders and with a powerful, astroturfed political apparatus at their disposal, pro-Israel forces on campus initiated a campaign of subterfuge and manufactured persecution designed to intimidate and silence students inclined toward Palestine solidarity activism. It was a disturbing spectacle to behold, especially at such an intimate distance.
During SAFE’s week-long sit-in, a close-knit group of pro-Israel students filed a series of incendiary accusations against SAFE members, accusing them in formal reports to university administrators of delivering anti-Semitic tirades laced with antiquated terms like “kike” and “dirty Jew.” At the same time, Facebook profiles belonging to SAFE members were invaded by a mysterious account named “ZPC Viper Matrix.” Personal information of SAFE members, their families, and Palestine rights supporters across the country including American Studies Association President-elect Lisa Duggan have appeared on the Viper Matrix Facebook page, often in distorted form alongside derogatory comments, prompting several students to cancel their accounts.
Among those who told me their profile photos and personal information were uploaded at the Viper Matrix page was Sharifah Abdallah, a Palestinian member of Loyola University’s Student Government Association who has actively supported Loyola SJP’s divestment campaign. “People are scared in my community,” Abdallah remarked to me. “Unlike other Palestinians from the diaspora, we return frequently to our land. So these tactics are designed to silence us by making us afraid that we won’t be allowed back in to Palestine.”
Anti-Arab and Islamophobic incitement directed at SAFE grew so intense its members felt compelled to catalog the unsolicited messages on a Tumblr site called #UMDivest Fan Mail.
“Z Zidan,” a U of Michigan SAFE member who claims to have been targeted with baseless allegations of anti-Semitism, and who would not allow me to identify them by their real name, told me that the intimidation campaign represents a new phase of anti-Palestinian repression. “We know that we will be questioned, deeply scrutinized, and dismissed for the work we do on campus. But this slander, these completely fabricated allegations, are intimidating tactics on a whole different level,” Zidan said. “They are meant to scare us into silence, to serve as a reminder or warning to those who dare think of getting involved in divestment work, that this will be your fate, that this is what’s on the line.”
Pineapples of hate
In one of the most bizarre pro-Israel shaming attempts in recent memory, Adam Kredo of the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon produced an article accusing SAFE divestment chair Yazan Kherallah of posting an “overtly threatening photo” to Facebook. The photo featured Kherallah clad in a kuffiyeh and slicing a pineapple. “The emergence of the photo comes just days after Palestinian activists on the University of Michigan’s campus leveled death threats and racial epithets at pro-Israel students who opposed a resolution to divest from Israel,” wrote Kredo.
As Alex Kane reported here at Mondoweiss, Kredo turned to Kenneth Marcus, the founder of the right-wing Brandeis Center driving the campaign to defund Middle East Studies departments across the country, to link the slicing of a pineapple to neo-Nazism. According to Marcus, the anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonne “had associated the pineapple with Zionists and Holocaust denial.” Marcus went on to speculate that “the pineapple may be the closest one can get in a Michigan grocery store to a Sabra,” a fruit historically associated with early Israeli settler-colonists.
In reality, Kherallah intended the photo as a humorous jibe at Arab friends who had named their rival intramural basketball team after their favorite sandwich shop, Ananas, which also means “pineapples” in Arabic. Since Kherallah never shared the photo outside his private circles, it can be safely assumed that the photo was mined by ZPC Viper Matrix or someone else scouring Kherallah’s Facebook page for ammunition.
Unwilling to let facts obstruct a good smear campaign, pro-Israel operatives from former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block to the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick pointed to Kherallah as a symbol of the violent intentions of “campus Brownshirts.” None of them bothered to contact him, however.
The day after the divestment vote, I met with Kherallah and UM’s SAFE chapter. Not one of the students in the room had ever heard of the French comedian Dieudonne, nor could any of them fathom how a pineapple could be linked to Zionism or Holocaust denial. They reacted with complete befuddlement when I attempted to explain Marcus’ twisted logic, then erupted in laughter when I asked Kherallah why he hated the Hawaiian people.
Unfortunately, the charges that had been fabricated against Kherallah and other SAFE activists could not be dismissed as a tasteless joke. As Kherallah explained in a response to Kredo’s article:
My Twitter account has been flooded with hateful and racist messages. There are photoshopped images of me in which I am called a “Jihadist” and “Infidel slayer.” The emotional shock I have been through is immeasurable. This is something that will negatively affect me for the rest of my life, every time I have to go through an airport (as if I didn’t have to worry about airports already as an Arab male), when I apply for grad school, and every time I interview for a job. It does not matter how inaccurate and libelous Kredo’s article is, the fact is that my reputation has been unfairly tarnished and simple Google searches will always lead to the original false allegation.
Behind the smears, a rising AIPAC acolyte
At the center of the pro-Israel intimidation campaign at the University of Michigan is Bobby Dishell, the Vice President of the Central Student Government and one of the most influential students on campus. Dishell is currently running for the CSG presidency under the “Make Michigan” ticket, however, his ambitions extend well beyond the grassy lawns of Ann Arbor. He was a summer intern at AIPAC who addressed the lobbying organization’s annual policy conference (he recently made the video of his speech private). At U of M, Dishell is the director of expansion for Tamid, an investment group founded by pro-Israel students in 2007 to battle divestment resolutions.
Any expressions of outrage were muted when Dishell campaigned for CSG Vice President on a widely viewed minstrel show-style YouTube video. In the video, a white student comedian portraying a black stereotype known as “Da’Quan” shucked and jived around campus urging random students to vote for Dishell and his running mate, Mike Proppe. The final scene of the campaign ad — which was formally approved by Dishell and Proppe — featured an African-American homeless man proclaiming at the prompting of “Da’Quan,” “Vote for Mike and Bobby!”
During the CSG debate on March 25, Dishell delivered a prepared statement against the divestment resolution, calling the proposal part of a series of “attacks on my identity. He went on to claim that he had been targeted with “threats of violence” and anti-Semitic invective: “Disgusting, filthy, shameful, dirty Jew, kike — these derogatory terms harken back to the 1930’s and 40’s in a time when the Jewish people were targeted for extermination, which was largely successful,” Dishell declared.
Dishell’s allegations trace back to a bias report he filed against the student who identified themselves to me as “Z Zidan.” Dishell accused the student of harassing him in class, claiming they called him a “dirty Jew.” Zidan insisted to me that Dishell’s charge was completely fabricated — the student said such a term was completely foreign to them. In my conversations with SAFE members, who are among the most sophisticated student activists I have ever met, none was familiar with the term “kike,” which, as Dishell explained, was a relic of the 1930’s and 40’s. (In fact, the term was mainly a feature of Jewish-American life, and was most common in New York City, where more assimilated Jews employed it to denigrate the poorer, Yiddish-speaking immigrants of the Lower East Side).
After I delivered my comments during the March 25 debate over the divestment resolution, I was followed into the bathroom by a U of Michigan student named Ben Meisel. Meisel cornered me by a sink and launched into a rant about having been called a “kike” and “dirty Jew” by various students affiliated with SAFE. When I asked him which students were responsible, he would not say. Like nearly everyone else leveling claims of anti-Semitic abuse against SAFE, Meisel was a Dishell underling — he was running on the Make Michigan ticket and serves on the board of his school’s College Republicans chapter.
According to several SAFE members, a member of Tamid who serves as Dishell’s campaign strategy director, Gurdit Singh, also accused SAFE of threatening him with violence during their sit-in.
How many students had been targeted with anti-Semitic abuse and threats? Which ones had been called “dirty Jew” and “kike,” who was responsible, and why couldn’t the alleged victims get their stories straight? Was it really possible, as an anonymous “senior pro-Israel leader” in Washington DC told the Free Beacon’s Kredo, that “the University of Michigan has allowed known pro-Hamas activists to openly organize riots on their campus”?
Or could the torrent of increasingly outrageous claims have been largely the invention of a small group of extremely ambitious, exceptionally malleable pro-Israel students eager for the approval of powerful communal elders exploiting them as pawns in a sectarian zero-sum game?
After a meeting with SAFE, Vice President for Student Life at U of Michigan E. Royster Harper remarked that she was “a little surprised that people have been talking about this as a violent movement; it’s just not the case. It has been just what you would expect from smart U of M students that are passionate about an important issue.”
Although the administration has not validated any of the allegations of abuse filed against SAFE, the damage has been done.
As Zidan told me, “I do not want my name associated with these false allegations at all, especially in print or beyond campus circles. I fear prospective graduate schools or employees looking at this information and dismissing me — even if it isn’t true — because at the end of the day, I am the one responding to and countering Dishell’s abuse. He holds more power in this situation by virtue of who he is and because he started this nasty slanderous campaign. I am left merely reacting to his false accusations. I also worried that there would be backlash because of the powerful networks he’s part of that would come after me or target me, especially since this would affect his election campaign.”
More calls for repression
The suppression campaign against the students leading the divestment resolution at U of Michigan is part of the escalating war on Palestine solidarity activism on campus.
Following sustained pressure from outside pro-Israel organizations, Northeastern University’s SJP chapter was suspended, and two of its members now face expulsion for the crime of leafleting on campus. Its members have since been tarred as “terrorist groupies” and falsely accused of training with military-grade weaponry in the West Bank.
Last week, after Loyola University’s Student Government Association passed a resolution calling for the divestment from companies involved in human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, the Islamophobic blogger and activist Pamela Geller accused the university of “serv[ing] themselves up as a willing sacrifice to Islamic supremacism.” Days later, the resolution was vetoed by SGA President Pedro Guerrero after intense pressure from outside pro-Israel groups and a closed-door meeting between Guerrero and Jewish Federations representatives.
As divestment resolutions are introduced at new campuses each month, pro-Israel partisans appear determined to introduce more counter-measures. In a recent editorial for the Jerusalem Post, former advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Caroline Glick demanded that universities that allow Palestine solidarity activism on campus “pay a painful price.”
“Only the threat of civil lawsuits, federal investigations of civil rights violations, and alumni threats to withhold gifts will force university administrations to take action against the anti-Semitic thugs that are instituting a reign of terror at university after university,” Glick wrote.
Declaring Northeastern’s suspension of its SJP chapter to be “minimal,” she called for the mass firing of campus police officers who enforce university rules around Palestine-related events. Finally, Glick demanded that Students for Justice in Palestine be “permanently barred from operating on campus.”
Though they are far from realizing their draconian goals, Glick and her allies are setting a clear precedent at Northeastern, Michigan, and beyond.