Speaking Up for Israel
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at U-M fail to silence Jewish student
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Expressing relief that the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government (CSG) Ethics Committee had cleared his name on Dec. 7 of charges of hate speech because he spoke out at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, Jesse Arm, a CSG student representative, said he looks forward to “getting back to work on making campus a better place for all students.”
“Freedom of speech is of critical importance, and all students should recognize that truth,” Arm told the JN shortly after the ethics committee hearing — the first time in the CSG’s history a student serving in a student governmental position had ever been brought up on an ethics violation. “I hope that, in the future, all students will be able to engage in respectful dialogue freely without fear of repercussions for their ideas,” he said.
Under the charges brought up by the pro-Palestinian group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), Arm faced possible removal from his student governmental seat for emotionally, but peacefully, criticizing their Nov. 19 demonstration.
The demonstration featured SAFE members costumed to look like Israeli soldiers pretending to harass others at a mock checkpoint in front of two large, wall-like signs that included a dove targeted in a rifle’s crosshairs and the words “To Exist Is To Resist.”
Arm told the JN, “I objected to the use of that phrase in particular because I believe it to be a plainly regressive way of looking at the conflict no matter what side you are on. To exist is to coexist. To exist is to dialogue. To exist is to compromise. To exist is to strive toward peace.”
The incident occurred on the same day Jewish students on campus learned of the terrorist murder of Jewish American Ezra Schwartz in Israel, though campus media reports that the timing by SAFE was a coincidence. Arm, who passed the demonstration on his way to a class, spoke out and offered his contact information to later discuss the issue, but a SAFE representative was not interested in continuing a dialogue.
The Ethics Committee reviewed the incident, which was documented in a video presented by SAFE. SAFE’S own video, however, proved that Arm acted appropriately — and it wound up supplying the evidence that exonerated him.
The Ethics Committee concluded, “Arm should not be penalized; and members of student government have the right to speak passionately … and advocate on behalf of the causes they believe in. [Arm] remained well inside his First Amendment rights and … he never attempted to speak on behalf of Central Student Government or even mentioned the governing body.”
To justify their ruling, the CSG cited Article VIII, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Student Body of the Ann Arbor Campus of the University of Michigan, which states that “no authority, academic or civil, shall infringe on a student’s freedom of speech, freedom to peacefully assemble, or freedom to demonstrate grievances.”
The Ethics Committee also stated “SAFE has the right to continue to discuss these important issues, just as Representative Arm should have the right to continue to speak freely and participate in dialogue. … This expression cannot be censored; the emotional responses that students have are real and valuable.”
Leading up to the hearing, Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames in a statement said that she had “faith in our Wolverines, and I believe our student government will see there is no substance behind this complaint and will not take action against Jesse.” She said that prior to the hearing, Alex Adler, the Michigan Hillel governing board chair, spoke at the CSG and several other students came out to support Arm against an “unfounded complaint made by students with a BDS agenda.”
Heidi Budaj, Michigan regional director of the AntiDefamation League, praised the efforts of organizations like Hillel and Chabad who have “boots on the ground” to support and advocate for Jewish students on campus. She also questioned SAFE’s motives as well as what standards SAFE felt Arm violated.
“The ADL by no means wishes to limit the right to free speech by any group,” Budaj said. “However, it is not clear as to which standards of behavior Arm is being held against.”
After the hearing, the Ethics Committee concluded that the operation rulings of the committee must be “reformed” as it was unclear as to what standards Arm should have been judged and whether or not Arm was allowed legal representation at the hearing.
According to Article VIII of the Conflicts of Interest Code, a member of the CSG may have an ethical conflict of interest of serving on the CSG if they receive money or payment from any student organization as a direct consequence of their membership in the Assembly. It also states, “No member of the Assembly possessing a conflict of interest with a student organization may participate in debate or vote on any matter regarding the organization with which there exists a conflict of interest.”
There is no language about CSG members participating, or speaking out, at a campus demonstration. Attempts to reach CSG and SAFE representatives before and after the hearing by the Detroit Jewish News went unanswered. *