| |

Pro-Palestine encampment at UMich: Three perspectives

Editor’s note: When I read Ann Arbor native and University of Michigan alum Jonah Shifrin’s widely shared and engaging Facebook post about his experience with the encampment, I wrote to him to ask if I could publish it in the WJN. I think he speaks for a lot of people. I also wanted to hear directly from Jewish faculty and students who were part of the encampment so I solicited two additional pieces from their perspectives. I asked Alexa Eisenberg and Cameron Kaufman why they were involved in the encampments and what they have learned from them. In the week this WJN went to press, the encampment was forcibly shut down.

When my daughter and I stumbled upon an encampment

By Jonah Shifrin

My daughter looked at me with fear in her eyes and whispered, “Isn’t Ann Arbor a liberal city?”

Back in my hometown of Ann Arbor for Passover, I made the mistake on Monday, April 22, of taking the family to see the University of Michigan’s campus. While I expected we’d encounter some messaging about the war in Gaza, I was unprepared for an encampment that had taken over the center of the diag.

The banner that caught my daughter’s attention read, “Jewish Students Say: Zionism is Racism.”

During my time on campus in the late ’90s/early 2000s, I had several uncomfortable encounters where fellow students, upon learning I was Jewish, pressed me to reveal my stance on the Palestinians. When I refused to agree to a simple good vs evil narrative, they demanded to know how I could turn a blind eye to oppression.

People believing they can openly solicit your opinion on Israel is a unique feature of being Jewish. It’s generally understood that it’s not appropriate to ask any other member of an ethno-religious group where they stand on a conflict half a world away.

My family history is a familiar Jewish tale. Persecution, pogroms, and murder. Pre-World War II, all the branches of my family escaped Eastern Europe and made new lives in the United States.

While I have no direct ties to Israel, because of my religion some feel the need to establish when it comes to Israel whether or not I’m the “good kind” of Jew.

Representative Ilhan Omar summed up this dichotomy with her pseudo-denunciation of antisemitism, “I think it is really unfortunate that people don’t care about the fact that all Jewish kids should be kept safe and that we should not have to tolerate antisemitism or bigotry for all Jewish students, whether they are pro-genocide or anti-genocide.”

You’re either the good kind of anti-Zionist Jew who hates genocide or the wicked kind of Jew.

If you must impose that binary, I guess that makes me the wicked kind.

I believe in the importance of a Jewish state. I believe that Israel would have respected the territorial boundaries assigned to it in 1947 by the United Nations had it not been invaded. I take pride in the story of Jews in the shadow the Holocaust defying the odds and establishing a nation. I believe there’s no greater example of Israel’s importance to the Jewish world than when it absorbed the Jewish communities forcefully expelled by their Arab and Persian neighbors in response to its creation.

I also believe you can’t tell the story of the formation of the state of Israel without the creation of Palestinian refugees in the wake of the War of Independence, a cultural trauma referred to as the Nakba. I believe that the only pragmatic long-term solution is one involving two states for two peoples. I believe there have been so many heartbreaking failures between the Israelis and the Palestinians that the conversation should avoid getting bogged down in grievances and discuss the obstacles standing in the way of peace.

I am a Zionist. That doesn’t mean that I stand blindly with Israel; nor does it mean that I disregard the humanity of Palestinians.

As my wife and I were trying to skirt the family away from the protests, my eight-year-old son put on his kippah. He goes to a Jewish school — so he always has a spare in his coat pocket. It was a sunny day and he was trying to angle the large yarmulke on his forehead so it shaded his eyes.

“Take that off!” I hissed with the urgency I’d use to pull him back from a busy intersection.

It took a moment to process the full implications of what I’d said. One of the unconscious safety alarms I’d developed as a parent had gone off. Not wanting to create a scene, I’d told my son to hide a symbol of our Judaism. Never before had I felt an urgency to keep our religion secret. Our kind of Jews were not welcome.

We witnessed the encampment in the early stages before the giant banner went up that read, “Long live the Intifada.”

My formative years were a time of hope. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat both seemed sincere about the promise of two states for two people, and (naively) it seemed like a matter of time.

Similar to the 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel, it was a chance to put aside grievances and allow statesmanship to prevail.

Alas. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist. Hamas, with the goal of establishing a Caliphate across a Greater Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, began a campaign of suicide bombings.

In 2000, at a peace summit at Camp David, Arafat refused to agree to a two-state solution (I’ve always believed it was because he was worried about being assassinated by his own people the way Rabin and Anwar Sadat were).

Following the failed peace summit, protests and demonstrations turned violent and then all hell broke loose. Suicide bombers began targeting Israeli civilians at large Passover seders, buses, dance clubs, and restaurants. The Israeli army and police became embroiled in active combat with Palestinians. A lot of lives were lost. The left-wing Israeli parties with dreams of a two-state solution effectively disappeared, with security barriers separating Israeli land from Palestinian territories. That was the result of what’s known as the Second Intifada.

It’s hard to read “Long Live the Intifada” without seeing it as a celebration of violence.

A lot of the problematic language in these protests isn’t about October 7 or the war in Gaza. They are directed towards any of the “bad kind” of Jews who support Israel using language that romanticizes horrific violence against civilians.

Complaints about the language in the protests aren’t being taken seriously from the far left. Representative Omar defended her remark about pro-genocide and anti-genocide Jews by posting an article about a student who chanted, “Kill All Arabs” at UMass Amherst. Even if the unnamed student was Jewish, Omar’s claim that her comments were referring to this incident is misleading. “Pro-genocide” is directed at Jews who have any level of support for Israel.

Senator Bernie Sanders, when asked about Omar’s comments, defended them with a deflection of his own, “The essential point that Ilhan made is that we do not want to see antisemitism in this country.”

Whatever one may think about the belief that Israel needs to terminate its military campaign in Gaza immediately, there’s nothing inherently antisemitic or hateful about that opinion. Why can’t the far-left politicians who have praised and encouraged the protests acknowledge that some of the messaging is hateful and redirect it?

This is a movement that has galvanized young voters and brought their wing of the Democratic Party into the spotlight. It seems no far-left politician wants to risk disapproval by suggesting the protestors tone down the antisemitic and violent language. Politically, it’s easier to gaslight the Jews and claim they’re being hysterical because some protestors have Jewish friends standing with them.

I still worry I’ll have nightmares about the horrors I read about October 7. While I strongly believe Israel needed to respond, I have grave concerns about the humanitarian toll in Gaza and whether Israel’s long-term goal of wiping out Hamas is achievable. Whatever one thinks of this take, on college campuses, I’d be labeled as a pro-genocide Zionist.

My daughter was spot on with her comment that the sign calling her a racist for being a Jew who supports Israel didn’t jive with what it means to be liberal.

I hope I’ve managed to outline how complicated and tangled it all is and why the messaging is so hurtful. I can confidently say I know I don’t have it right. With each brief historical summary I gave, I see so many ways to find flaws in so many sentences and what I left in or out. I’m a far, far cry from an expert. If you’re looking for a simple history with a clear and obvious answers, I recommend you consider another region of the world.

The reality is, the United States of America is not a great place to be Jewish today. That’s not something I would’ve imagined thinking a decade ago. Between Jewish schools and our synagogue, I pay a significant amount of money each year to fund our security. A tax on being a practicing Jew in America.

In the past year, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish schools in this country were targeted with fake bomb threats or “swatted.” I worry in ways I haven’t before about a hateful incident when I’m inside a Jewish space.

My daughter frets about whether she’ll have the grades to get into the University of Michigan, much the same as I did when I was her age. I fret about whether eight years from now Michigan will be a place for Jews like us.

In the early part of the 20th century, my family made a brave and desperate bet on a foreign land an ocean away. While we have a comfortable life here today, at what point does it get too hard to live our lives as Jews in America?

I don’t know the answer to that — and I hope it’s not a question I have to seriously ponder. But if it comes to it, I’m grateful for the land of Zion, where all Jews are welcome.

Jewish values lead me to support students in the encampment

By Alexa Eisenberg, UM lecturer and organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace Detroit

I participate in the protests because I am committed to equity, education, and justice. These commitments are grounded in Jewish justice lineages and values like pikuach nefesh, the imperative to save every life. At its core, this is a movement to save as many lives as possible.

I participate because, as a person of conscience and a descendent of survivors of genocide, I cannot remain neutral or stay silent while 35,000 Palestinians have been slaughtered, as entire communities are decimated, and blood lines are ended by Israeli bombs. I participate because I cannot continue business as usual as a faculty member at the University of Michigan, a public institution that preaches commitments to equity and the common good, when in reality it is funding and enabling the genocide of the Palestinian people.

I participate to act in solidarity with Palestinians, and because I love Jews and I care deeply about the safety of our people. I know Jewish safety is bound up with Palestinian safety and freedom. We are living at a historic junction point in Palestinian history, U.S. history, and Jewish history. While the Israeli government wages genocidal war in the supposed name of protecting Jews, dozens of hostages have been killed by Israeli air raids, and the Israeli government rejects a ceasefire that would bring them home. There is zero doubt in my mind that the State of Israel committing war crimes and upholding apartheid is fueling antisemitism, which makes Jews less safe around the world.

I participate to support academic freedom, free speech, and freedom of assembly. I have been horrified by the culture of repression taking place on university campuses across the county, and have seen my own university censor, suppress, and aggressively police the speech and advocacy of Palestine liberation student activists. I have seen the university deliberately mischaracterize and weaponize fears about Jewish safety to justify illiberal and dangerous policies. Across the country, universities are using violent and punitive approaches to attack one of the largest and most significant student and social movements of the last half century — I reject the claim that this violent suppression serves the cause of Jewish safety.

Finally, I participate to embody the distinction between anti-Zionist politics and antisemitism. I acknowledge that there have been instances of antisemitism at pro-Palestinian demonstrations and solidarity encampments, but they do not define the protests, nor campus life (we must also acknowledge that a few years ago our students were kids, and we are all still learning). The conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is dangerous and undermines our ability to detect and oppose antisemitism when it occurs. I participate in part to offer education about what antisemitism is (re: hatred against Jews, not criticism of Israel) and how to fight against it, along with all interlocking forms of oppression, including Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.

As faculty (and a member of Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine), my role is to support student leadership in the encampment. History has shown us time and time again to follow the lead of young people. Young people were right in demanding an end to the brutal war on Vietnam. Young people were right to pressure their universities to divest from South African apartheid. And history will show that young people were right to fight against the Israeli government’s genocide of Palestinians and apartheid regime.

I support by being physically present at the camp — whenever I am able, I spend time working, grading, or reading at the encampment (the nice weather has been lovely in that regard). I have participated in Jewish rituals and attended teach-ins. I have felt nothing but safe, welcome, and inspired by the solidarity, good will, and unity of purpose that have brought Palestinian and Jewish students and faculty together (aside from one parent calling me a “loser” and telling me to “get a job”). Another way I participate is by staying alert to any attempt by the University to invoke a militarized police response against students or the camp. I am horrified by the University’s decision to call the police on nonviolent student protesters last week, who were attacked with pepper spray and assaulted with bikes and batons.

Like many American Jews, I was brought up in a congregation where I was taught that Jewish identity and Israeli nationalism were inextricable. I visited Israel as a kid on a “teen mission,” and fell in love with the place, and deeper in love with Judaism. Of course I was taught nothing about Palestinians, their dispossession, or the occupation. It was not until college when I learned about the complex history of the land, about the Nakba, and about apartheid conditions. Naturally, I was horrified and indignant about the propaganda and one-sided information I was given as a kid and felt horribly guilty and betrayed. It impacted my relationship to Judaism and Jewish community for years. Now, after being introduced to Jewish community, ritual, and practice separate from Zionism, Jewish faith and practice has again become central to my life. I see organizing for justice in the U.S. and in Palestine/Israel as an embodiment of my Judaism.

The UM encampment was not established out of the blue — rather, it was an escalation of strategic, principled organizing by the TAHRIR Coalition, whose members have faced censorship, repression, and policing by the University since October 7. [TAHRIR is an acronym for Transparency – Accountability – Humanity – Reparations – Investment – Resistance, a coalition of more than 80 UM campus groups.]

I have learned a lot about the University’s investments from UM graduate students involved in the TAHRIR Coalition who have done incredible investigative research, despite the University’s opacity with respect to its endowment (see bit.ly/UMEndowmentGuide). I have learned that UM’s $17.9B endowment dwarfs the costs of its academic operations, which in 2024 were budgeted at roughly $5.4B. I have learned that our public university’s tax-exempt status makes it ripe for high-risk investment strategies, aka “nonmarketable alternative investments,” which have ballooned since the early 2000s when UM successfully lobbied the state for its investments to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Importantly, I’ve learned that over $6B of the University’s endowment is invested in companies that profit from the sale of weapons and other repressive tools to Israel, including drones and spyware used by the IDF to kill children in Gaza. I have learned that there are students, faculty, and staff in every corner of the University who refuse to stand for our tax dollars and our university’s investments being used to fuel endless war and Palestinian oppression.

The encampment gives me hope

By Cameron Kaufman, UMich student

Growing up a fairly secular Ashkenazi Jew in Southeastern Michigan, I read a lot of books about the Holocaust. I grew up with it ingrained in me that Israel and Zionism were necessary to be safe as a Jew in the world to protect us from genocide, and I believed Israel could do no wrong. The Jewish summer camp and the temple I went to for High Holiday services reinforced those beliefs. But as I grew older, I met more Palestinians, and I watched in 2021 as Palestinians protested the eviction of six families in Sheikh Jarrah and ensuing Israeli air raids flattened apartments and news offices.

Watching the brutality and sheer violence that Israel continually perpetrated against Palestinians and hearing the stories of my classmates entirely shook my outlook on the world. I realized that the entire idea behind Zionism and the foundation of Israel was contradictory to the principles that I had learned from Judaism. Zionism is built on the idea that we as Jews are unsafe everywhere, which then ostensibly gives Jewish people the right to take Palestinian land and commit an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Palestinians to obtain more land that can become Jewish-only.

The belief that Jews need a militarized, nationalistic, segregated state built upon the racist destruction of millions of Palestinian lives and homes to be safe is directly at odds with so many Jewish values: Tikkun Olam, Pikuach Nefesh, pursuit of justice, and resistance against oppression. The conflation of Judaism and Zionism supported by Israeli hasbara initiatives also entirely ignores the long Jewish history of valuing doikayt — fighting antisemitism wherever we find it, in all the places that Jewish people currently live.

My beliefs, shaped by my Jewish experiences growing up, require me to speak out, to do something, anything, to resist what Israel is doing and reject the premise that to be Jewish is to support Zionism. Watching the backlash against student protests, I ask — why do so many people care more about people protesting Israel than what Israel is actually doing? How can I sit back as Israel continues a campaign of relentless, indiscriminate bombing and destruction on Gaza while severely restricting humanitarian aid that would provide medicine, fuel, and food to two million starving Gazans? How can I ignore that Israel has murdered at least 35,000 Palestinians, including 14,500 children, all paid for by my tax dollars and the investments of my university? Why are so many silent, or even worse, justify it when there is a genocide against Palestinians in our name, and Israel began an assault on the last “safe” city in Gaza on Yom HaShoah? What happened to Never Again? Now, more than ever, as attacks against the pro-Palestine movement, freedom of protest, and Palestinian people worsen, I refuse to be complicit, and I refuse to be neutral. My Judaism compels me to fight for divestment from Israel and war profiteers everywhere, important for all struggles for liberation and peace.

It’s hard to be Jewish, and antisemitism is bad right now, worsening every time Israel escalates their campaign of mass murder. To claim that to be Jewish is to unconditionally support Israel and Zionism is not only heartbreaking and infuriating, but also frequently leads to spikes in antisemitism as many people who know nothing about the richness and diversity of Jewish culture, history, and traditions come to exclusively associate Jewishness with the murderous state of Israel.

The conflation between Judaism and Zionism also leads to mischaracterization of anti-Zionist pro-Palestine protests as virulent antisemitism. Antisemitism is not rampant at the encampment at Michigan, regardless of what most media outlets will tell you. The word intifada and the phrase “from the river to the sea” are not inherently antisemitic or violent, and largely are only seen as such because of racist and Islamophobic stereotypes of Palestinians. The word intifada is a call for justice and liberation from occupation, and “from the river to the sea” originated as a call for a secular, multicultural democratic state in all of historic Palestine free from all forms of oppression.

Jewish people make up a significant amount of the pro-Palestine movement on campus and are welcomed to the movement into the open arms of proud Jews and goyim alike. This current fixation on supposed widespread antisemitism at encampments has been repeatedly used as a political tool to try to derail the movement for divestment and justify immense surveillance, repression, and police violence. The sheer number of unsubstantiated claims of antisemitism also makes it increasingly difficult to identify acts of antisemitism, and could even cause dismissive attitudes towards antisemitism and threats to Jewish safety.

History did not begin on October 7, and neither did the movement for Palestine. I’ve attended protests organized by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Michigan, since I first started my undergraduate college degree in fall 2022, but the collective punishment of Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 attack by Hamas pushed me to have greater involvement with our newly formed Jewish Voice for Peace chapter in particular. Throughout the past seven months of sheer horror in Gaza, I have felt an obligation to do as much as possible to stop the genocide, but everything I do still feels insufficient. I’ve helped plan events, including Shabbat, Chanukah, teach-ins, and protests. For the encampment, I and several other organizers put many hours (and days) of effort towards planning and scheduling a variety of programming including a Seder, teach-ins, Palestine-focused art, Havdalah services, Jummah services, and rallies. It was an immense amount of work, but played an important role in fostering the flourishing, compassionate, multicultural community that was entirely unlike any other community I have ever experienced.

The encampment was a welcoming, intersectional community that instilled a sense of hope in me and allowed everyone involved to respectfully experience new cultures and traditions. Being at the encampment restored my hope in humanity and in Judaism, and honestly part of the reason I still have any hope at all is due to the community and communal organizing efforts, particularly with regards to the encampment. Having the community and meeting so many wonderful people, particularly elders and fellow anti-Zionist Jews, has been one of the main ways I’ve managed to remain somewhat hopeful in the face of horror. Having the support of a community of Jews who are all wrestling with the conflation of Judaism and Zionism and the experience of having a genocide perpetrated in our name has been immensely healing. My experiences spending so much time at the encampment for the first eight days emphasized to me that building connections, bringing community in, centering intersectionality, and learning to work together is necessary to build any movement that seeks to create change in the world, and we must not forget that.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *