The University of Michigan canceled voting on a controversial anti-Israel campuswide referendum on Nov. 30 that should never have gotten as far as it did.
The story of this referendum highlights everything Jewish students have faced on American campuses over the last two-plus decades. But the story is also one of hope for a way forward through the emergence of a new model for grassroots student-driven campus activism.
This story is personal for me because I am a proud 2002 University of Michigan graduate. One reason I chose to attend the school was to participate in the diverse student body that it proudly promoted. I have been blessed by the diverse friendships I built there, which have endured for many years.
However, I also saw that spirit of diversity hijacked and twisted into something profoundly sinister. During my senior year, an early incarnation of the disinformation campaign intended to demonize Israel was launched on campus. It was auspiciously timed, as it coincided with the second intifada, during which suicide bombing and other attacks by Hamas and various designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations resulted in thousands of innocent people killed or injured. The victims included Americans represented by our law firm, which has represented American victims of terror for more than 20 years.
The disinformation and defamation then were eerily familiar to what Israel and the Jewish people are experiencing today. Israel was blamed for the murder of Israelis as if such murder were a reasonable response to necessary security measures employed in the disputed territories. In the wake of the barbaric Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, this has happened again, but on a much larger scale. We have witnessed a campaign of hateful and despicable victim-blaming that employs the most ancient antisemitic tropes. And this antisemitism has now been revealed as the prevailing view at top U.S. schools and around the world.
In 2020, as outside general counsel to the Israel Forever Foundation, I coauthored and submitted a report to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief that documented the pervasive manipulation of educational institutions in order to spread antisemitic propaganda and desensitize people to extreme violence against Jewish and other innocent people.
The perversion of education in service of antisemitism is not new. In Nazi Germany, such indoctrination tactics—described by Adolf Hitler as “antisemitism based on reason”—were widely employed in schools. These tactics have been replicated in the classrooms of Gaza, Judea and Samaria via the Palestinian Authority and the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA’s educational curriculum. The purpose of all this, of course, is to create a Nazi-style hatred of Jews that continues to impede the prospects of regional peace.
Now, the academic demonization and dehumanization of the Jewish people have found their way into Ivy League and other major Western college classrooms. Anti-Zionist faculty members employ inflammatory rhetoric, logical fallacy and suppression of opposing viewpoints in order to rewrite Jewish history and defame Jewish people and Israel. This has harmed all students, fostering an atmosphere of antisemitic activism among the indoctrinated.
The student response to the University of Michigan referendum is the long-awaited spark of a much-needed movement that will soon spread to other campuses. The controversial referendum AR 13-025, introduced on Oct. 31 through the school’s Central Student Government, called on the school to “recognize the millions of people undergoing genocide in Gaza” and “loudly and clearly rewrit[e] historically colonist-centered narratives about war, genocide, terrorism and apartheid.” This libelous resolution came days after nearly 750 professors, university staff members and graduate students of the school issued a racist statement blaming Israel for Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage.
I learned about the referendum from a group of University of Michigan students who were tired of the disinformation being spread on their campus and seeking help in implementing a strategy they had designed to counter it.
On Nov. 14, two weeks before the Nov. 28 start of campuswide voting, these students came to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March for Israel rally on the National Mall, attended by almost 300,000 people. Following the rally, the Israel Forever Foundation hosted the students and sponsored and helped launch a fundraising campaign for their new operation, called Facts on the Ground.
The Facts on the Ground students achieved a great deal in just two weeks. Their classmates and parents, university alumni and other supporters responded to the students’ passion and strategic approach with generosity and empowerment. This enabled the students to effectively raise awareness on campus, on social media and in the press. News of the referendum reached celebrities like Noa Tishby and Brett Gelman, who called for the vote to be canceled. On the day voting commenced, the Facts on the Ground students hosted Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of one of the founders of Hamas who turned against his father’s murderous terror group, in a packed auditorium to share his experience.
The attention all this activity brought to the referendum vote held the school’s administrators accountable, ensuring that the referendum voting proceeded with integrity.
On the final day of the three-day voting period, University of Michigan Vice President and General Counsel Timothy G. Lynch announced that the voting had been canceled due to “an unauthorized email [that] was sent to the entire undergraduate student body at the request of a graduate student,” which “irreparably tainted the voting process.”
Two students involved in the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter (known as Students Allied for Freedom and Equality) were publicly identified as responsible for abusing the Michigan email list. Generously, the Facts on the Ground students used their platform to dissuade others from harassing their rival activists.
The Israel Forever Foundation, a US 501(c)3 organization, with support from our law firm Heideman Nudelman & Kalik, PC, based in Washington, D.C., is committed to helping the University of Michigan student group expand its Facts of the Ground operation to other campuses. The goal is simple: truth.
In the coming months, Jewish, pro-Israel and pro-truth students across America will start reaching out to like-minded alumni and stakeholders for support. The anticipated response must be and will be tremendous. Of course, students should never have been the ones responsible for calling out and correcting disinformation masquerading as education. Nonetheless, there is nobody better positioned to play this role.
Fortunately, the Facts on the Ground model demonstrates that there are Gen Z Jewish students on campus who possess the vision, courage, composure and determination to change the future of campus discourse regarding Israel. It is up to the rest of us to empower these students to combat discrimination and disinformation by providing them with the resources they need to succeed.