Following a week-long sit-in by the University of Michigan Students Allied For Equality (SAFE), an obstinate Central Student Government (CSG) council agreed to bring the group's resolution on divesting from corporations involved in human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories to a vote. I appeared as SAFE's guest speaker for the March 25 debate, addressing as many as 600 students packed into an auditorium while hundreds more waited outside. In an electric atmosphere, SAFE members and supporters rose to defend the resolution against a parade of pro-Israel students and professors rattling off well-worn talking points.
From Suha Najjar's blistering indictment of institutional anti-Palestinian racism to Angela Folasade's impassioned repudiation of cynical pro-Israel attempts to co-opt African-American narratives [at 4:30] to Andrew Dallack's impromptu clinic on international law [at 3:30], SAFE orchestrated one of the most powerful displays of student activism I have witnessed on any American campus. Their work should be a model for all future divestment initiatives.
While in Ann Arbor, I was also able to witness the escalating tactics of pro-Israel forces engaged in a desperate but determined fighting retreat. Under the influence of a zealous cast of communal elders and with a powerful, astroturfed political apparatus at their disposal, pro-Israel forces on campus initiated a campaign of subterfuge and manufactured persecution designed to intimidate and silence students inclined toward Palestine solidarity activism. It was a disturbing spectacle to behold, especially at such an intimate distance.
During SAFE's week-long sit-in, a close-knit group of pro-Israel students filed a series of incendiary accusations against SAFE members, accusing them in formal reports to university administrators of delivering anti-Semitic tirades laced with antiquated terms like "kike" and "dirty Jew." At the same time, Facebook profiles belonging to SAFE members were invaded by a mysterious account named "ZPC Viper Matrix." Personal information of SAFE members, their families, and Palestine rights supporters across the country including American Studies Association President-elect Lisa Duggan have appeared on the Viper Matrix Facebook page, often in distorted form alongside derogatory comments, prompting several students to cancel their accounts.
Among those who told me their profile photos and personal information were uploaded at the Viper Matrix page was Sharifah Abdallah, a Palestinian member of Loyola University's Student Government Association who has actively supported Loyola SJP's divestment campaign. "People are scared in my community," Abdallah remarked to me. "Unlike other Palestinians from the diaspora, we return frequently to our land. So these tactics are designed to silence us by making us afraid that we won't be allowed back in to Palestine."
Anti-Arab and Islamophobic incitement directed at SAFE grew so intense its members felt compelled to catalog the unsolicited messages on a Tumblr site called #UMDivest Fan Mail.
"Z Zidan," a U of Michigan SAFE member who claims to have been targeted with baseless allegations of anti-Semitism, and who would not allow me to identify them by their real name, told me that the intimidation campaign represents a new phase of anti-Palestinian repression. "We know that we will be questioned, deeply scrutinized, and dismissed for the work we do on campus. But this slander, these completely fabricated allegations, are intimidating tactics on a whole different level," Zidan said. "They are meant to scare us into silence, to serve as a reminder or warning to those who dare think of getting involved in divestment work, that this will be your fate, that this is what's on the line."
Pineapples of hate
In one of the most bizarre pro-Israel shaming attempts in recent memory, Adam Kredo of the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon produced an article accusing SAFE divestment chair Yazan Kherallah of posting an "overtly threatening photo" to Facebook. The photo featured Kherallah clad in a kuffiyeh and slicing a pineapple. "The emergence of the photo comes just days after Palestinian activists on the University of Michigan's campus leveled death threats and racial epithets at pro-Israel students who opposed a resolution to divest from Israel," wrote Kredo.
As Alex Kane reported here at Mondoweiss, Kredo turned to Kenneth Marcus, the founder of the right-wing Brandeis Center driving the campaign to defund Middle East Studies departments across the country, to link the slicing of a pineapple to neo-Nazism. According to Marcus, the anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonne "had associated the pineapple with Zionists and Holocaust denial." Marcus went on to speculate that "the pineapple may be the closest one can get in a Michigan grocery store to a Sabra," a fruit historically associated with early Israeli settler-colonists.
In reality, Kherallah intended the photo as a humorous jibe at Arab friends who had named their rival intramural basketball team after their favorite sandwich shop, Ananas, which also means "pineapples" in Arabic. Since Kherallah never shared the photo outside his private circles, it can be safely assumed that the photo was mined by ZPC Viper Matrix or someone else scouring Kherallah's Facebook page for ammunition.
Unwilling to let facts obstruct a good smear campaign, pro-Israel operatives from former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block to the Jerusalem Post's Caroline Glick pointed to Kherallah as a symbol of the violent intentions of "campus Brownshirts." None of them bothered to contact him, however.
The day after the divestment vote, I met with Kherallah and UM's SAFE chapter. Not one of the students in the room had ever heard of the French comedian Dieudonne, nor could any of them fathom how a pineapple could be linked to Zionism or Holocaust denial. They reacted with complete befuddlement when I attempted to explain Marcus' twisted logic, then erupted in laughter when I asked Kherallah why he hated the Hawaiian people.
Unfortunately, the charges that had been fabricated against Kherallah and other SAFE activists could not be dismissed as a tasteless joke. As Kherallah explained in a response to Kredo's article:
"My Twitter account has been flooded with hateful and racist messages. There are photoshopped images of me in which I am called a 'Jihadist' and 'Infidel slayer.' The emotional shock I have been through is immeasurable. This is something that will negatively affect me for the rest of my life, every time I have to go through an airport (as if I didn't have to worry about airports already as an Arab male), when I apply for grad school, and every time I interview for a job. It does not matter how inaccurate and libelous Kredo's article is, the fact is that my reputation has been unfairly tarnished and simple Google searches will always lead to the original false allegation."
Behind the smears, a rising AIPAC acolyte