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NJ students at Univ. of Michigan fear backlash after BDS resolution passes
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NJ students at Univ. of Michigan fear backlash after BDS resolution passes

Swastika found on campus one day after vote

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Audience members hold signs that read "Stop Silencing Us!"prior to the University of Michigan student government vote on BDS.
Audience members hold signs that read "Stop Silencing Us!"prior to the University of Michigan student government vote on BDS.

Every day Marissa Levey, a sophomore at the University of Michigan (UM) from North Caldwell, proudly wears two necklaces from Israel: one with her name and the other with a blue hamsa. But in the last week, since her school’s Central Student Government (CSG) passed a resolution in favor of divesting from Israel, she’s started to wonder if she should continue to. 

“Since the vote I hesitate a little before I put them on each morning,” she said.

She is not alone in her trepidation, as she and other students described a palpable rise in anti-Semitism since the vote. They’re not imagining in, either: A swastika was found drawn on a bathroom wall the day after the vote. 

“To me, this timing is absolutely no coincidence,” said Levey.

Jewish students on campus, along with alumni and parents, are reeling after the vote, taken in a secret ballot, at a meeting that started Nov. 14 and lasted into the early hours of Nov. 15. It was the 11th such vote at the Ann Arbor campus, and the first in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The final tally was 23 voting in favor and 17 against, with five abstentions, according to the campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily.

The resolution calls for the university’s board of regents to appoint a committee to investigate the institution’s investments in Boeing, Hewlett Packard, and United Technologies, all of which have operations in Israel. It alleges the companies are involved in human rights violations against the Palestinian people. The resolution was originally brought by the Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), a campus group that advocates for Palestinian self-determination. 

Ari Esrig, a freshman from West Orange, agreed with Levey that the mood on campus among Jewish students has changed since the vote, and, he said, it’s been painful to watch. 

He has heard many Jewish students “talk about how they are afraid to walk around campus now,” he said. “I take great pride in being Jewish and being a Zionist, and this resolution is just another example of society normalizing anti-Semitism.”

In the aftermath of the vote, the university administration met with Jewish students through Hillel to discuss the climate on campus. Hillel also held several meetings about the issue just for its students. 

“Without the support system of Hillel and its incredible staff, I don’t know how I would have handled” the divestment decision, Levey said.

The first U.S. college campus to vote on a BDS measure was Wayne State University in Michigan in 2002. By the 2012-13 academic year, eight campuses had voted on BDS resolutions, a number that rose to 19 just two years later, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Last week, a day after the University of Michigan vote, University of Maryland students defeated a proposal before it came to a scheduled vote on Nov. 16.

Passing the resolution does not mean the university administration must follow its directives. In a statement, Rick Fitzgerald, director of public affairs for the University of Michigan, said the administration would be unlikely to create such a committee or consider the resolution further. “The university’s longstanding policy is to shield the endowment from political pressures and to base our investment decisions solely on financial factors such as risk and return.” 

Nonetheless, alumni have posted relentlessly about the decision on Facebook, urging classmates to write and call the president of the university before Thanksgiving. The University of Michigan has only divested twice, from South Africa in 1978, and in 2000 from the tobacco industry.

For some parents, the news came as a shock, and then a disappointment. Jen Gartenberg of Summit, whose daughter Alana is a freshman, described feeling angry immediately after the vote was taken. “If I were a cartoon character, you would see smoke coming out of my ears and my eyes popping out of my head. That’s how upset I was,” she said. 

“In modern Jewry, we’ve had it pretty good. To know there’s this undercurrent of anti-Semitism simmering on college campus and bubbling up — it makes me nervous,” said Gartenberg. She assumed such concerns were part of a bygone generation — those forced to flee the Nazis. “This was my grandparents’ fight. I’ve never dealt with anti-Semitism,” she said.

Gartenberg said she’s saddened that Jewish students can no longer walk around the Michigan campus feeling as “carefree” as before, and she advised Alana to keep her head up and her ears open. “If someone confronts her [about Israel], we want her to speak her mind, hold her ground, and be respectful.” 

The vote has left Alana scarred, her mother said. “It was like someone pricked a balloon and all the air came out. It crushed her spirit.” 

For many in New Jersey, the decision is disheartening but does not mark the end of their support for the Maize and Blue. (Full disclosure: I am an alum, as are two other members of my immediate family, and this echoes my own position.)

Neal Ashinsky of Livingston, a 2010 graduate, said that he and his two siblings, also UM alumni, were “angry” in the aftermath, and that the vote has left a “sour taste” in their mouths. But while he is concerned about the short-term impact, he doesn’t think there will be a lasting effect. “As the campus community continues to change and evolve as new students come and go, so too will opinions about BDS/divestment change with it.” 

Ashinsky said he and his siblings were heartened by Fitzgerald’s statement, which he called “the breath of fresh air that we needed to hear.” 

“The fact that the governing body of the institution responded in as swift a manner as it did only further proves why the university has continued to sustain a welcoming atmosphere for all students, both near and far,” he said.

One local rabbi, Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit JCC, a UM alumnus, said that based on his own experience and on demographics, he was not surprised by the vote: Michigan has the second-largest Arab-American population in the United States. 

He recalled his own experience with anti-Zionism as an undergraduate. “Thanks to Facebook, I can tell you that my college friends are reminiscing about the anti-Israel bias of the Michigan Daily (the student-run newspaper) during our time on campus.” He takes some solace in the fact that it took so many votes to pass the resolution. “It’s actually a tribute to the pro-Israel students on campus that it took more than 10 votes, the banning of pro-Israel speakers, and a secret ballot for this resolution to finally pass,” he said, referring to the fact that a professor, Victor Lieberman, who teaches the Arab-Israeli conflict, was not approved by the CSG as a speaker at the meeting before the vote. He said, “The good news, of course, is that this resolution has absolutely no power,” he said. 

Another local parent — his daughter is a high school senior waiting to hear from UM, her first choice — said he was initially thrown by the vote, but ultimately views it as an “inconsequential call to arms for BDS” taken by “a few cowardly people voting in secret.” The school remains his daughter’s top choice, he said.

Meanwhile, Marissa Levey expressed her disappointment in the secret ballot. “We elected [the CSG] to represent us, yet they voted on the divestment issue in a silent ballot, so we don’t even know which reps are standing by their promises to best represent the opinions of the student body.” 

Ari Esrig continues to feel frustrated “because a lot of us see this resolution as anti-Semitic, yet the other side keeps telling us that this isn’t anti-Semitism.” He was relieved to hear the administration’s statements, which convinced him that the long-term effects of the resolution will be minimal. But in another sense, he said, the damage is already done. 

“Jewish students are still in the shock phase,” he said, “and are still trying to recover.”

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