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'No one’s acknowledging we need to grieve': Palestinian students say MSU is not supportive

November 3, 2023
MSU student Saba Saed calls out the Board of Trustees’ lack of support of Palestinian students during the ongoing conflict in Gaza during the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.
MSU student Saba Saed calls out the Board of Trustees’ lack of support of Palestinian students during the ongoing conflict in Gaza during the Board of Trustees meeting in the Hannah Administration Building on Oct. 27, 2023.

Yusuf Abbas, a mechanical engineering senior at Michigan State University, identifies as Palestinian, and his family has lived in what is now Northern Israel for generations. But he's reluctant to tell people that unless they ask.

He's seen what happens when that information gets in the wrong hands. He was once detained and questioned in a Tel Aviv airport, where everyone in the waiting room, Abbas said, was also Arab. His brother recently faced a lengthy Islamophobic rant from a driving test instructor after he told him where he was from.

But recent events compelled him to address MSU administration at the Board of Trustees meeting last Friday.

Many students say that fear, discrimination and hatred towards the MSU Palestinian community has increased in the past month, following the Palestinian militant group Hamas' attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the Israeli Defense Force's intense and continued military response on the Gaza Strip. But many say MSU hasn't properly addressed the situation or students' needs.

"Before this, I wasn't someone who would ever, in a million years, get up onto some stage or some podium and then read a statement," Abbas said. He called for peace and open dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians and urged the university to take a stance to protect and acknowledge Palestinian students at MSU.

Students say they have been insulted, berated and neglected following the Oct. 7 attack. 

Ahmed Amir, a social relations and policy sophomore, said many students painting the rock pro-Palestinian messages were verbally attacked by passersby, and some had their picture taken and posted publicly online.

"There were people in the comments from Michigan State that were calling for the removal of these students, calling for students that were on student visas to be sent back to their countries, and saying that all of the students that are supporting Palestine are pro-terror," Amir said. 

Amir, a student government representative for the Muslim Students' Association, is not Palestinian but is supportive of the cause. He was a proponent of ASMSU Bill 60-30, which "advocates for ASMSU and MSU to address the ongoing Palestinian crisis and support Palestinian students and all impacted students."

Saba Saed, a Palestinian and vice president of the Arab Cultural Society, introduced the bill. During the eight-hour general assembly meeting in which attendees meticulously debated its terminology, Saed and Amir said its proponents were called terrorists and the bill's purpose called "pro-terror."

"We feel the need to constantly say that we don't support violence, we don't support terror, because the assumption there is that we do," Amir said.

The bill is careful to separate Hamas, which the U.S. State Department classifies as a terrorist organization, from Palestinian people, and the Israeli government and military forces from Jewish people.

"The Jewish people are not responsible for the actions of the Israeli government and the Palestinian fight is not defined by Hamas' actions, rather the Palestinian fight is rooted in fighting against colonization and oppression for all within the region," the bill states.

Some students say that level of discernment was not shown in the university's official statement on the Oct. 7 violence.

At Friday's Board of Trustees meeting, Saed criticized the university for not using the word Palestine or Palestinian in the statement, instead referring to "the conflict between Israel and Hamas." Saed said that language groups Hamas and Palestinians together and therefore equates being pro-Palestine with being pro-Hamas. 

"That has opened us to a widespread of Islamophobia to those who are not even Muslim," Saed said at the board meeting. 

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"Palestine was never mentioned," Amir told the State News. "Palestinians were never mentioned. And not mentioning a group is very significant, right? Like, you're completely removing them from the equation, or, on the flip side, you're equating a terror group with the entire Palestinian people."

MSU's statement does oppose "hate, bigotry, antisemitism and Islamophobia." But Saed said Islamophobia is an inaccurate descriptor as many Palestinians practice other religions. She attended a Greek Orthodox school while living in the West Bank.

Saed hopes that MSU amends the language of the statement and addresses that lives continued to be lost following the initial attack.

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"It's hypocritical to condemn civilian lives lost only for that incident when civilian lives continue to be lost, to be killed," Saed said. 

One of those victims is Tariq Thabet, a 2021-2022 MSU Humphrey Scholar who frequented the Islamic Center of East Lansing during his time at MSU. Thabet and his family were killed on Oct. 29 in an Israeli bombing and were buried two days later, according to a friend, Ahmed I. Tanneera.

"We want the university to release a statement of condolence for his life alongside his family and the thousands of others who are dying in the ongoing genocide," Amir said in a text to the State News.

Many Palestinian students have said they feel a lack of support from MSU.

Students recently held a vigil for Wadea Al Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian-American who was stabbed to death by a Chicago landlord in what is now being investigated as a hate crime

Saed said Interim President Teresa Woodruff was the only member of MSU administration to appear at the vigil. She said Woodruff stayed for five minutes, didn’t speak or offer condolences, and left during Duaa – an Islamic prayer that requests God's assistance. Saed described it as "dehumanizing."

"It's hurtful to our community that we are some PR stunt," she said.

MSU's response to the conflict is one part of a larger problem, some students say. 

"We, in general, do not feel that the university showed or shows any care for the Palestinian community," Abbas said.

Amir said there's a lack of places on campus dedicated to Muslim and Arab students. He commended MSU for the Hillel House and spaces across campus for Black students but says he doesn't see the same areas reserved for people like him. 

"Arabs are an ethnic group, but they don't have that kind of representation," Amir said.

In addition, MSU follows the U.S. Census rules for reporting demographics of its student body, which counts Middle Eastern and North African people as white.

"How are you gonna give resources to a group you don't recognize?" Saed said. 

Amir said that being considered white creates problems of misrepresentation if students are to report hate crimes. 

"If there's a report of racism or Islamophobia, if a student can't mark down that they're of a marginalized background, that becomes very harmful," Amir said. "It can be a very tricky situation to address. Like, how are you being marginalized?"

Saed, who lived in the West Bank for around ten years and still visits her family there in the summer, said her cousin has been arrested and her aunt's house raided by the Israel Defense Forces since the Oct. 7 attack. While the situation has taken a toll on her mental health, she said MSU isn't making it any better.

"There's no resources for my grieving process, even, because no one's acknowledging we need to grieve," Saed said.

But Saed said that advocating for Palestinian students at MSU is her duty.

"I can't just cry and be sad about it and be depressed because then I won't be talking to people and explaining what's happening and advocating," Saed said. "People in Gaza right now have no one but us. It's our duty. It's our responsibility to share their stories."

Amir said a meeting with Woodruff and "hopefully some of the Board of Trustees" is planned for Monday, where students will raise their concerns.

"We're gonna hope that they do their jobs and they protect students, and they acknowledge us, and they take us seriously, and ... they do what they can in their capacity to support students," Amir said.

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