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Michigan students are organizing on campus amid the violence in Gaza and Israel. Here's what they're saying.

Saba Saed and other Michigan State University students gather the night MSU's student government approved a bill calling for support for Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students.
Provided by Saba Saed.
Michigan Radio
Saba Saed and other Michigan State University students gather the night MSU's student government approved a bill calling for support for Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students.

Drawn to public advocacy by renewed violence in Israel and Palestine, students at Michigan universities say they feel vulnerable on their campuses.

Saba Saed lived in the West Bank until she was 10, when she moved to Michigan.

She spent her teenage years in East Lansing and dreamed about going to Michigan State University. She’d walk around Brody Hall and the rest of campus, thinking about the day she would take classes there and learn about the world.

Now, she’s in her fourth year at MSU, studying pre-med, with a focus in neuroscience, and a minor in German.

But being on campus doesn’t feel so welcoming for her anymore. Not since October 7, when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, and Israel began its monthslong retaliation.

Saed said she’s experienced racism and dehumanization — more acutely and with greater frequency than she ever has before, especially on campus.

“It feels now that every time we want to say like we're Muslim or we're like Arab or we're Middle Eastern or we're Palestinian, immediately we have to defend ourselves and condemn Hamas,” she said. “And if you don't, then you're automatically kind of seen as a threat.”

Saed said she does condemn Hamas, and all violence against civilians. But she said even so, she feels her identity is making her a target, and she doesn’t feel like Michigan State has done enough to support Palestinian students.

As a Palestinian, she said, “when October 7 happened and 1,400 Israelis died, we knew the fear that they felt."

“We knew the pain and how important it is to be with your community at the time because that's something we've all been experiencing," she said.

Saed said the university’s response to the Hamas attack was to provide resources to Jewish students and talk about the civilians who died.

Saba Saed, a Michigan State University student, poses in a MSU sweatshirt. Saed said she feels her Palestinian heritage is often viewed as a threat on campus.
Provided by Saba Saed
Michigan Radio
Saba Saed, a Michigan State University student, poses in a MSU sweatshirt. Saed said she feels her Palestinian heritage is often viewed as a threat on campus.

But she said those supports have not been extended to students connected to Palestine, where the Gaza health ministry says more than 16,000 people have been killed.

“As more civilians continued to die, but only in Gaza, no one's talking about it,” she said. “No one's saying anything.”

So Saed decided she had to do something. She met with dozens of students across campus, across faiths and races, and helped draft a student government resolution that called for support for Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian students on campus.

It called on the university to make a statement, in collaboration with the bill writers, to “ensure that the human rights violations of Palestinian people are acknowledged, while acknowledging the innocent lives lost of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Students on other campuses have been writing bills and resolutions too, and at times the backlash has been intense. At the University of Michigan, officials canceled a student vote on two resolutions related to the conflict, with U of M President Santa Ono saying they stoked "fear, anger, and animosity."

The university said an unauthorized email supporting one of the resolutions and opposing the other went out to students on the Ann Arbor campus. In the aftermath, Ono said, two graduate students have been targeted, slandered, and harassed after being falsely accused of stealing a list of campus emails.

Alexia Steinberg, a Jewish sophomore studying pre-med, said she’s not afraid, but she has experienced some of the animosity that Ono mentioned.

Steinberg said she has family in Israel. Every day, she said, she wears a necklace with a Star of David, and she's more thoughtful these days about where she goes on campus, because of who might notice that marker of her Jewish identity.

“I have a hoodie that has an Israeli flag on it, and I wore it to one of my classes a few weeks ago and I had people in my class call me disgusting, look at me like I wasn't human,” she said. “I stepped on one of the Michigan buses and I was listening to a free Palestine radio station. It's just things like this that makes me feel uneasy.”

But that hasn’t deterred Steinberg’s desire to be visible on campus as a Jewish person.

It’s part of why she was at a vigil for the 1,200 people who died and 200 more who were taken hostage during the Hamas attack on Israel.

Evan Cohen helped organize that vigil days after that October 7 attack. He said it was his first time doing anything like that.

He’s 20, majoring in computer science, minoring in French.

“There's not even a question of like, should I do this? It's just that I'm doing this and that's what's going to happen. That's what has to happen," he said of his organizing.

Cohen is now the incoming president of Wolverines for Israel, a pro-Israel student group at the University of Michigan. He said he hadn’t even considered running for the position before the violence in Israel, but now he wants to do everything he can to support Israel.

“I'm very proud of my Judaism. I'm very proud and confident in my pro-Israel, my Zionist stance, if you will,” he said. “But I've always felt comfortable. I've never felt, you know, as if there was any sort of threat to my existence. But for the first time ever, I felt that way.”

Evan Cohen, a University of Michigan student.
Provided by Evan Cohen
Michigan Radio
Evan Cohen, a 20-year-old Jewish computer science major at the University of Michigan, said he’s felt uneasy walking by some of the rallies and protests on campus, including some in front of U of M President Santa Ono’s house.

Cohen said he’s felt uneasy walking by some of the rallies and protests on campus, including some in front of Ono’s house.

Zena Nasiri has been at some of those protests that Cohen hasn’t felt comfortable walking past. They’re a linguistics major on the pre-med track at U of M. Their parents were born in Iraq but Nasiri grew up in Rochester Hills.

Nasiri has wanted to be a visible supporter of Palestine on campus. That’s involved wearing a keffiyeh scarf and attending campus rallies and protests.

They say they’ve been involved in Palestinian advocacy for years. But they’ve been doing a lot more since October 7.

They’ve also seen a lot more pushback, including from a University of Michigan faculty member who got into a verbal dispute with students at a protest against the Israeli strikes on Gaza.

“I get kind of antsy and nervous at protests. So I like to kind of stay on the outside and just remain vigilant," Nasiri said. "I noticed some adults, a man and a woman, were confronting some students. So I went over and I started videotaping. And the woman said to me, 'Are you going to send your terrorists after us?'”

For weeks after this incident, and with the university declining to discipline the faculty member, Nasiri said they felt vulnerable.

“I just felt like everywhere was unsafe. And if something was to happen that I wouldn't be able to get justice or accountability or anything,” they said.

“We've formed a good group of, of people standing in solidarity. People offer to walk each other home all the time or drive each other home if people are feeling unsafe. But it's a shame that the university hasn't done more to keep us safe and that we've had to do that within our own communities," said Nasiri.

Students at both U of M and MSU said they walk in groups now, and they've changed the routes they take on campus to avoid places or people that feel threatening.

These students are calling on their universities to do more to protect people with direct ties to the region and to speak out against antisemitic, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim sentiments on campus.

President Joe Biden’s administration has acknowledged the rise of antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents across the country’s campuses. The administration has released some resources for schools and put more than $38 million toward investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.

And the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to school administrators nationwide last month reminding them of their legal obligation to "address prohibited discrimination against students and others ... including those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian."

Neither Michigan State University nor the University of Michigan responded to requests for comment or requests for more information about how many students have reported antisemitic and anti-Arab attacks on campus.

But Thursday evening, the University of Michigan announced it's establishing a new institute that Ono said will "combat antisemitism and advance religious inclusion."

Editor's note: The University of Michigan owns Michigan Radio's broadcast license.

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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