A Philly native studying in Michigan recalls her experience at a tense student government vote related to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement inspired by an aggresive pro-Palestinian student group.
My formative years were spent immersed in Jewish tradition, reinforced by a Jewish day school education and summer camp at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. The Jewish ethics of justice and kindness have been part of me for as long as I can remember.
I was taught that we are all created in G-d’s image, and that if you destroyed one soul, you destroyed a world. I believe that a commitment to social justice and world repair is integral to being a good Jew, and these deeply rooted values have guided my life.
That’s why it was such an assault to find myself being called a racist because I stand in support of Israel.
My passion for Israel was stoked at an early age by frequent trips to see family there. It grew into a more nuanced understanding of the history and politics of the country, thanks in large part to studying at the Alexander Muss High School in the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod HaSharon and spending a year in Israel before starting college. When I arrived at the University of Michigan last fall, I was proud to be a Jew and to be a Zionist. So it was only natural that along with learning to love football and rushing a sorority, I joined the boards of two pro-Israel groups on campus.
When I applied for these positions, I didn’t anticipate that the campus would soon be so badly in need of pro-Israel advocacy. In the midst of exams and on the brink of winter break last December, students in dorms across campus awoke to mock eviction notices that had been slipped under their doors overnight by a pro-Palestinian student group known as SAFE — Students Allied for Freedom and Equality. The seemingly benevolent acronym masked the anti-Zionist objectives of the organization.
SAFE’s dramatic action sparked a commotion on campus. I was struck by the language of the notice, which read in part: “Eviction notices are routinely given to Palestinian families living under oppressive Israeli occupation for no reason other than their ethnic background … Palestinian homes are destroyed to cleanse the region of its Arab population.”
The irony that Jews would be accused of ethnic cleansing was not lost on me. SAFE followed this campaign with pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions articles in the school’s newspaper, the Michigan Daily. Most recently, the group made a BDS-inspired move in our Central Student Government, known as CSG, to pass a resolution of divestment.
SAFE proposed a resolution that called on CSG to approve the appointment of an ad hoc committee “to investigate the ethical and moral implications of our investments in the corporations Caterpillar, General Electric, Heidelberg Cement, United Technologies, and all other companies that explicitly profit from and facilitate the Israeli occupation and siege of Palestinian land in violation of international law and human rights.”
An initial meeting on March 18 to present this proposal was attended by approximately 250 pro-Palestinian students and barely 50 pro-Israel students. Our contingent regrettably thought it wise not to organize a large demonstration in the naive belief that we were better served by lessening attention around the meeting. We never anticipated such an overwhelming pro-Palestinian presence.
Amid impassioned chanting of “Divest! Divest!” and emotional testimony by members of SAFE, the CSG representatives decided to indefinitely postpone the decision. Outraged, SAFE wasted little time in taking action to push for an actual vote on the proposal. They staged a sit-in at the Student Union in protest. Ultimately, a re-vote was scheduled for the following week.
This time, we came prepared. The pro-Israel community mobilized by the hundreds in an overwhelmingly supportive response. Students flooded the building in lines that filled the facility, with swarming crowds extending into the street. The intensely emotional debate went on for six long hours. During that time, my identity was savaged.
If you identified as a Jew, you were framed as a privileged, white oppressor. If you identified as a Zionist, you were marked as a racist, complicit in infringements on human rights. My heart beat quickly in my chest and my mind raced against these claims. I wanted them to know that I wanted peace for my family and theirs. How is that compatible with the labels they assign to me of racist, oppressor, complicit? While I was among a small group of students prepared to speak, CSG decided that lottery would determine who would share their thoughts in this venue so I relied upon my peers to verbalize these sentiments, and my own response remained internal.
Finally, at nearly 2 a.m., the votes were cast. The resolution was denied. Exhausted and saddened by the painful process, the victory was dampened for me. I knew all too well that even though the resolution had not passed, we were far from done. We must continue to wrestle with the elusive balance of self-determination and security. I am committed to continuing this dialogue. And I will continue to stand up proudly as a Zionist, confident that doing so is fully compatible with the ethics and values with which I was raised.
Zara Mellits, of Bala Cynwyd, attended Perelman Jewish Day School and Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.