As I approached the Alexander G. Ruthven Building last month, I saw a crowd of more than 200 protesters gathered outside, demanding that the University divest from Israel. The groups represented were Jewish Voice for Peace and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, among many others. There was a line of roughly 100 students waiting to enter the building, with a dozen police officers standing guard.
I finally got inside after telling them I was on the approved list. The two police officers opened the door for me as their radios continued chattering from various points around the building. I walked through a metal detector, surrounded by a dozen more suited officers as they searched every pocket in my bag.
I went up the staircase and passed through a second metal detector before finally taking my seat at the Board of Regents meeting among the other public commenters. To my right was a pro-Palestinian activist, and to my left was a leader of a Jewish student organization on campus. I had a chance to speak with each person before the meeting. Both seemed passionate and reasonable despite the polarized environment. I was eager to see how the meeting would unfold.
It was horribly unproductive. Five pro-Palestinian speakers chastised the administration, saying its refusal to divest from Israel was tantamount to complicity in genocide. Every time a protester spoke, a swarm of cameras and phones, many live streaming on Instagram, turned on. The gallery of mostly protesters behind the speakers stood up each time, making a mouth-covering gesture to imply that the university remains silent on an active genocide.
The protestors repeatedly interrupted the meeting near the end, chastising the regents and taking more photos. President Santa J. Ono then said, “That is the end of the meeting.” A coordinated chant of “Shame on you!” broke out as the regents quickly left the room.
The protesters’ behavior prevented me from achieving my goals at the board meeting. I went to the meeting to comment on something completely unrelated — giving students the day off on Election Day — and I was hoping to discuss it further with the regents after the meeting. I had done so at the board meeting in October, when no protestors derailed the public comments.
Instead, I was left without an opportunity to accomplish something for all students.
The protesters’ methods also hurt their own cause. The regents completely ignored nearly every single hostile comment. They have not moved an inch of movement on divestment. And if divestment truly is the goal, why use such ineffective methods to achieve it?
Having had the opportunity to speak with individual activists, I believe that each person was genuinely passionate and reasonable on the topic. Candidly, I have lived in Michigan all my life and I do not have the experience of losing a family member trapped in Gaza or having someone living on Israel’s border. I don’t know what it’s like to have a stake in the matter or how justified these emotions may be. To me, each conversation was tempered, down-to-earth, and productive. Every single voice on each side had very understandable worries, demands, and concerns.
So why does that not translate into the public sphere? I’m not writing to argue for or against divestment. I would go as far to say that a tempered, compelling argument questioning why the university makes controversial investments would at least be given air.
That argument was not made and has never been made, and that distorted view of activism is seen as a vehicle to progress. In fact, not one sign or speech at the meeting contained a specific company to divest from.
There is also historical proof that making a compelling case to the regents works. The $15 minimum wage for student employees, which I worked toward successfully alongside dozens of other students in 2022, is an example. The Winter Break extension earlier this year also would have been only a fantasy had student leaders antagonized the regents. In nearly all the examples of success over the last decade, none involved hostile PR tactics designed to galvanize the student population and simultaneously shame the regents into action.
Please, if you are affiliated with any pro-Palestinian groups on campus, hear this message: I and many others want your voices to be heard and to meet with you to preserve our constructive, intellectually unshackled campus environment. We want to give our Palestinian and Israeli students, and frankly anyone who has a disdain for unproductive conflict, an opportunity to make real, tangible progress. But this hostile, optics-based approach is not working, and it’s smothering all other attempts at change on this campus.