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The Strength of Words Amid Conflict

By Sydney Lesnick


In recent months, campus tensions have been running high as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues to escalate in the Middle East. The loss of civilian life has been horrific, and the violence seems never ending. Innocent Israelis remain hostage in Gaza with their fates unknown, facing deplorable conditions, while innocent Palestinians are starving to death.


The campus rhetoric surrounding this heated conflict has been problematic. It is not inherently antisemitic to criticize the Israeli government. In fact, criticizing any nation is an important step to protect human rights and develop democratic processes. However, to denounce Zionists, people who support the existence of a Jewish state, often crosses the line into antisemitism. ​​In multiple instances, my friends and I have been flipped off and accused of "causing a genocide" while walking to class simply for wearing jewelry with the star of David, a universal symbol of Judaism. In instances where Jewish students are blamed for the actions of the Israeli state, antisemitism is a clear byproduct of anti zionism.


Part of the 80-organization-wide TAHRIR coalition, the student organization Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) is one of the most vocal and far-reaching anti-Israel groups on U-M’s campus. With an Instagram following of 11.1k that continues to grow, its messages reach a large audience, and its demonstrations in the Diag often garner hundreds of participants. SAFE has staged numerous disruptions of campus activities in support of its cause, one of the most recent taking place at the University’s Honors Convocation.


Regardless of one’s views about the historically complex region, it seemed like everyone agreed that innocent civilians should not suffer. Or so I thought. On March 22, the president of SAFE posted a story on her personal Instagram account, stating “Until my last breath I will utter death to every single individual who supports the Zionist state. Death and more. Death and worse.”


As a Jewish student, seeing a message like this from a campus figure who is a role model to so many is extremely alarming. Wishing “death and worse” on any group of people is a despicable act, and to do so fuels the very hatred and violence that SAFE claims to denounce. 


One can support Israel’s right to exist whilst simultaneously advocating for the safety of Palestinian and Israeli civilians alike, as well as for an end to violence in Gaza. I certainly do. I empathize with the frustration and grief over the situation that continues to unfold in Gaza. It pains me to see the fear and suffering that people in the region on both sides of the conflict are continuously enduring. Each day that goes by where more Israelis and Palestinians are caught in the midst of unrelenting warfare and forced to endure extreme suffering is gut wrenching. With that being said, there is a huge difference between advocating for peace and inciting more violent rhetoric in our campus community, and the Instagram post by SAFE’s president contributes to the latter.


SAFE, contrary to its name, is not creating a welcoming environment for all students. Instead, it’s fostering a dialogue that further divides the student body, creating an “us vs. them” mentality. Chants such as “globalize the intifada,” and insinuating that Palestine will be free “by any means necessary” creates a climate chock-full of hostility and division on campus. 


On March 24, U-M’s Vice President for Student Life, Martino Harmon, emailed the campus community in response to the SAFE president’s post, stating that “the university denounces all calls for violence in the strongest possible terms.” While this email is a step in the right direction, it was met with pushback from students on both sides of the conflict. Many Jewish students appreciated the email, but questioned its genuinity. Just weeks earlier, the university supported SAFE’s president by granting her the MLK Spirit Award for her advocacy efforts. A lot of anti-Israel students were equally dissatisfied. Instead of apologizing for the inflammatory post, SAFE doubled-down in support of it. On March 25, it released a statement on Instagram criticizing U-M and Harmon’s email, arguing that it “unjustly targeted the student” and “tarnished her character.” 


By refusing to take accountability for this harmful message, SAFE is complicit in perpetuating hate speech. On March 28, SAFE supporters staged another demonstration, marching through Ross, the Diag, and across campus to advocate for their cause. Knowing this organization not only supports, but rewards such hateful ideals towards my community is terrifying. Hearing divestment chants during lectures such as “Ono Ono you can’t hide, you are funding genocide” and passing anti-Israel protests on my way to study for exams, especially after seeing that post, has put these demonstrations in a whole new light. It feels as though I can’t walk on campus without the constant presence of people who I now know wish death upon myself and my community. 


These are far from the only antisemitic incidents to occur on campus this semester. On April 2nd, the benches outside of Hillel, an organization dedicated to supporting Jewish students, were vandalized. The graffiti was a Star of David with an equals sign and a Nazi swastika. This blatantly antisemitic act occurred just a day after similar graffiti was found on a telephone pole next to the building. Even the places meant to be safe havens for Jewish students on campus have turned into sites for antisemitism.


The bottom line is that words matter. The way we talk about all issues, especially ones as emotionally-charged as this one, matters. Our collective priority as Michigan students should be peace, not division. All Wolverines deserve to feel safe on campus. Regardless of one’s beliefs or religion, a member of our campus community must never get away with wishing death upon a fellow student.


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