How BDS at the University of Michigan Sparked a Free Speech Debate

By | Feb 13, 2018

Three years ago, University of Michigan history professor Victor Lieberman—an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—was invited to provide a neutral overview of the subject at a student government meeting. The meeting featured a debate and vote on the issue of divestment from Israel—a motion to encourage university officials to cut investments from companies with ties to the state on the basis of the country’s alleged human rights violations. Lieberman prides himself on what he considers a balanced approach to presenting both sides of the conflict within the classroom—an approach he says has drawn criticism among those who believe there are not two sides. For the next two years, Lieberman spoke in opposition to divestment after Hillel extended an invitation to him. Each year, the resolution was defeated.

That is, until this year. At a meeting that ran into the early hours of Wednesday, November 15, student representatives voted in favor of a resolution brought forward by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), a Palestinian solidarity student organization. The resolution calls for the University’s Board of Regents to create a committee to investigate three companies that supply weapons and equipment to the Israeli Defense Forces on the basis of Israel’s alleged human rights and international human rights law violations against the Palestinian people. Boeing, Hewlett Packard and United Technologies are named among aids in Israel’s occupation.

“Ten years ago, we would see divestment votes come up periodically from SAFE,” says Tilly Shames, the University of Michigan’s Hillel director. “There would be a few students speaking for and a few speaking against. It barely made The Michigan Daily, let alone the national news.” The climate has since shifted, with a resolution brought to Central Student Government (CSG) almost every year for the past four or five and news of the recent vote gaining the attention of Jewish news outlets across the country. Now, the University of Michigan’s CSG joins student governing bodies from Northwestern, Stanford, the University of Wisconsin and UCLA, among other universities to publically support divestment from Israel. No university has taken measures to divest from Israel, and the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents does not intend to, either. In a statement released just after the vote, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald confirmed Michigan’s Board of Regents did not plan to create a committee to investigate.

While the November meeting marked the first time any motion to divest from Israel passed in Michigan’s student government, it also marked the first time a professor—or a speaker of any kind—was barred from addressing the student government: Professor Victor Lieberman was not allowed to give his usual address. Student representatives instead heard from their peers.

“They thought that it was not a level playing field and that my speaking would prejudice the outcome in a way that was unfair to BDS because I’m a professor and I’m speaking to students,” Lieberman says. “So there’s an inequality there—a kind of structural inequality.” SAFE activists argued Lieberman’s voice at the meeting was unfair because more junior faculty members were afraid to speak out in favor of BDS for fear they might be punished by the administration. But Lieberman finds fault in this, arguing that legal and structural procedures prevent the university from penalizing any professor for expressing his or her political views. “In fact, the climate on campus is by and large anti-Israel, so I would actually think that that would help in so far as politics did influence someone’s career,” he says. Lieberman also argues SAFE could have invited more senior faculty members to speak on their behalf as well. “There were 19-20 professors, most of them tenured and some very senior who signed the petition of support—and within the history department alone.”

But ultimately, he believes the issue of structural inequality wasn’t the motivation behind his silencing. “The real reason they didn’t want me to speak was because they were afraid my arguments would sway the vote, and they had no effective counterarguments,” he says. “So rather than engage in free-discussion, they decided debate was too dangerous.” Lieberman sees this event as part of a larger national trend of silencing those with political opinions one finds unacceptable—a trend he finds worrisome and threatening to the university, traditionally a place for fostering free exchange of ideas.

At the meeting, students affiliated with SAFE emphasized the importance of elevating the voices of Palestinian students during the debate. “I understand the very deep connection many, many students have with Israel,” senior representative Hafsa Tout said, according to The Michigan Daily. “I want to emphasize over and over again that this resolution emphasizes the voices of Palestinian students…and to give this community a voice for the first time in CSG history is to not take away from any other community.”

Former student representative and university alum Farah Erzouki echoed Tout’s emphasis on elevating the voices of students involved in SAFE. “As a former member of student government and as someone who has been on our campus community since 2010, this is by far the concern that brings the highest number of students attending these meetings time and time again and every single year,” she said. “It’s important for representatives to really grasp what they’re deciding—whether they’re deciding to amplify the voices of the students coming back time and time again.”

The debate over free speech—and which voices should be given a platform—is also at the center of a second recent controversy at the university: In late October, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer requested to speak on campus. The administration accepted this request under the condition that it could ensure a safe setting for the event. Deliberations between the university and Spencer’s team concerning the time, place and nature of the event are still ongoing.

It appears a vast majority of students at the university disagree with the administration. Some find hate speech indefensible; others worry about security on campus and in Ann Arbor were a major white supremacist figure to speak. In October, white nationalists shot at a crowd of student protesters following a Richard Spencer speech at the University of Florida. Hundreds of students walked out of class on at Michigan on November 29 in response to the administration’s decision to allow Spencer a platform. A rally formed around noon the same day in the Diag, a central campus location that sits between major academic buildings.

In response to Spencer’s request, Hillel at Michigan shared a public letter of concern, asking the university to deny Spencer’s request out of consideration for the security of Jewish and other vulnerable communities on campus. “Allowing this rhetoric and hatred on our campus poses a threat to all Jewish and other minority students. Providing him a platform sends the message to our entire community that his views have a place on this campus, which they do not,” reads the letter, signed by the president of Hillel, the director and the board of trustees chair.

Shames says Hillel on campus has since shifted its own priorities. “Once it became clear that the university was going to negotiate a date for Spencer, we shifted gears to focus on what we would do if he came,” she says. Hillel student leaders have been meeting with leaders of other student organizations and members of student government to discuss their needs, collaborate and strategize moving forward, according to Shames. The university announced in early February that Spencer would not be coming to campus before the end of the academic year on April 28.

In the meantime, Lieberman acknowledges Spencer is a reported Nazi sympathizer, emphasizing his hateful intentions yet arguing his right to speak should be protected. “That’s the point of the first amendment,” he says.

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