Op-Ed: U-M Disgraced MLK’s Legacy With SAFE’s MLK Spirit Award

On January 27, the University of Michigan hosted the 2024 Central Campus MLK Spirit Awards Ceremony. In a disgraceful distortion of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, the university honored the student group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) with this prestigious award for “exemplify[ing]” King’s “leadership and extraordinary vision.”

But such a description of SAFE’s character could not be further divorced from reality. SAFE’s advocacy consistently contradicts the principles King is renowned for, rendering this award an insult to his memory, a blatant mockery that demands immediate rectification and a thorough examination of how such a grievous error could have occurred.

SAFE is the University of Michigan chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, an openly anti-Zionist organization advocating the destruction of the State of Israel. From inviting known antisemites to speak to members’ forcing their way into university buildings, SAFE is quite active on campus.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a central leader of the American civil rights movement. King fervently promoted nonviolence, engaging in numerous peaceful protests and distancing himself from the “by any means necessary” approach embraced by some of his more militant peers. King’s commitment to nonviolence remains the hallmark of his advocacy, an inseparable part of his enduring legacy.

But King’s nonviolence principle is foreign to SAFE. The group regularly advocates violence and glorifies those who engage in it. In January 2023, SAFE led a march featuring the chant “Intifada, intifada! Long live the intifada!” For the uninitiated, the most recent intifada, the Second Intifada, was the period from 2000 to 2005 marked by frequent suicide bombings and other attacks perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists against civilians in Israel. Over 1,200 Israelis were killed during this period, and thousands more were injured.

On October 3, 2023, SAFE held its annual “apartheid wall” demonstration. This event showcased a mock wall resembling the Gaza–Israel security barrier adorned with Palestinian imagery. Most disturbing of all was the depiction of a woman holding an AK-47 rifle surrounded by the words “Power to Our Freedom Fighters. Glory to Our Martyrs.” This woman is Leila Khaled, notorious for hijacking not one, but two civilian aircraft using firearms and explosives. Since retiring from plane hijacking, Khaled has continued to advocate violence in various interviews.

Image courtesy of Josh Brown

These were not isolated incidents. To the contrary, SAFE’s advocacy exhibits a consistent message. On October 7, the very same day of Hamas’s barbaric genocidal attack, mass rape, kidnapping, and murder of more than 1,200 Israelis, SAFE seized the opportunity to reaffirm its support for violence: A statement, which is still available on SAFE’s social media, deemed the attack “100% predictable and justified” (emphasis added). The statement also endearingly labels Hamas’s barrage of rockets, launched indiscriminately at Israeli civilians, “resistance rockets.”

Merely a day later, SAFE further demonstrated its alarming stance by reposting a graphic endorsing Hamas’s abduction of more than 250 hostages. And as if that wasn’t disturbing enough, just two days following the atrocities, SAFE tripled down on its advocacy of violence by reposting on its Instagram story the words “the freedom of the Palestinian people will only be gained through armed resistance” (emphasis added).

Image courtesy of Josh Brown

Since then, SAFE has continued to organize numerous protests and marches featuring an array of inflammatory chants that unmistakably endorse violence. These include “Globalize the intifada,” “No peace on stolen land,” “There is only one solution: intifada revolution,” and “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.” Make no mistake. When the Second Intifiada was defined by terrorism, when the “resistance” SAFE champions includes Hamas’s rockets targeted at civilians, and when SAFE explicitly chants “no peace,” there is no ambiguity: SAFE’s message is one of violence.

Beyond SAFE’s repugnant rhetoric, its fundamental mission stands in stark contrast to King’s legacy. King was unequivocally a Zionist, passionately supporting Israel’s right to exist and the security of its borders. He once stated, “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.”

King also understood the deep connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, a narrative SAFE vehemently rejects. In response to a disparaging remark about Zionists, King retorted, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” While King criticized certain Israeli policies, as many Zionists do, he consistently acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Today, King would likely be considered a moderate Zionist, and he would almost certainly be campaigning against groups like SAFE.

SAFE, a fundamentally anti-Zionist organization, exhibits a clear and steadfast pattern of advocating violence, glorifying terrorists, and rationalizing the perpetration of massacres against civilians. SAFE embodies the antithesis of the nonviolence and Zionism that King stood for. Bestowing an award in King’s name upon a group that so blatantly violates the principles and beliefs he espoused constitutes a profound insult to his legacy and a disgraceful mockery of his name.

I demand that the MLK Spirit Awards Planning and Selection Committee immediately revoke SAFE’s 2024 MLK Spirit Award and issue a formal apology.

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About Josh Brown

Josh Brown is an LSA junior. He can be reached on X @JBis9051.