Students Protest for Gaza at Michigan University Graduation Ceremony

At the University of Michigan's graduation ceremony on Saturday, there were strong expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians, who called for the withdrawal of investment from Israel.

University of Michigan students wave Palestinian flags at the graduation ceremony. [Getty]

During the University of Michigan's commencement ceremony on Saturday, a plane carried a banner that read, “Withdraw from Israel Now!” Liberate Palestine!” flew over the crowded stadium as hundreds of students in their caps and gowns waved Palestinian flags, foreshadowing possible disruptions to come across the country during the 2024 graduation season.

On a warm May day, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro gave a speech at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, stopping at least twice to acknowledge the protesters' right to speak out.

“It is indeed these young men and women who will protect the freedoms that we as Americans value in our Constitution of the United States, which includes the right to peaceful protest,” Del Toro said at the ceremony which the Palestinians both found strong support, as well as a small group of vocal critics.

“It was a beautiful day,” said Khalid Turaani, a Palestinian American from the Detroit area The new Arab. He attended his nephew's graduation ceremony in Ann Arbor and had recently attended another nephew's graduation ceremony at Wayne State University.

“What struck me at both ceremonies was that there were so many people, Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim, wearing the keffiyeh in solidarity with the Palestinians,” he said, adding that he was very happy few Israeli flags stood out.

During the ceremony, a plane flew overhead with a slogan in support of Israel. Shortly afterwards, another plane flew by with a sign supporting the Palestinians and the crowd erupted in loud cheers.

“This and everything else shows that we are in a different era,” he said. “The very fact that students express solidarity with Palestinians in their final minutes on campus shows their commitment as students.”

Southeast Michigan, home to the prestigious University of Michigan, also hosts the largest gathering of Arabs and Muslims in the United States.

The university is a popular choice for residents of nearby Dearborn, including the city's mayor, Abdullah Hammoud, who earned his bachelor's degree and two master's degrees from the University of Michigan. It also boasts a long list of activist alumni, including Palestinian activist and former US congressional candidate Huwaida Arraf.

Like many U.S. universities, Michigan has seen regular student protests since October, when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.

Israel has responded to an indiscriminate and relentless military campaign against Gaza, killing over 34,600 people – most of them women and children. Several human rights groups have described Israel's actions as genocide.

Last month, it joined universities across the country in setting up a camp of pro-Palestinian protesters, many of which were dispersed in preparation for graduation season.

The University of Michigan said it expected protests on Commencement Day, noting on its website that it would conduct security checks, ban banners and flags, and any disruptions would be met with warnings.

“UM is committed to freedom of speech and expression. Deans and directors are generally patient with legitimate disruptions. If protests significantly impede the program, management will take steps to de-escalate and resolve the disruption,” the university’s inaugural website states.

According to a, the TAHRIR Coalition, a group of pro-Palestinian student organizations, called for action on the day of the ceremony post on social media.

“Not a normal degree when our tuition fees funded the murder of over 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza and every university is now in ruins,” the post reads.

“We are protesting not only against genocide, but also against a scholastic aspect, while our university refuses to recognize our Palestinian fellow students,” it continued.

The weekend brought more action on U.S. campuses, where opposing views about Israel's war in Gaza have been expressed, sometimes violently, in recent weeks.

Many schools, including Columbia University in New York City, have called police to quell the protests.

There was brief renewed tension at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Saturday. In one video, police in riot gear are seen moving toward a camp of pro-Palestinian protesters, tying up some demonstrators with cable ties and dragging them across the lawn.

Police have so far arrested over 2,000 protesters at colleges across the country.

Anna Harden

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