Israel-Hamas war: The impact on CMU's community

Part Two: President Davies and campus community responds


Photo illustration by Aurora Abraham. The photo on the left, showing a 'Free Palestine' flag was taken Nov. 19 by staff photographer, Jo Kenoshmeg. The photo on the right, showing a man holding an Israeli flag, was taken Nov. 14 by senior reporter, Aurora Rae Abraham.

This story is the second part of the Israel and Palestine conflict series. Read part one at Central Michigan Life.

Editor's note: Senior Reporter Aurora Rae Abraham is Jewish and a former member of Hillel at CMU. In no way did this affect the reporting or writing of this story. 

The Israel and Hamas conflict is about 6,000 miles away, but hits close to home in Mount Pleasant. Hamas launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and the Israeli government has since fired back causing controversy around the world.

The impacts of the tragedy are seen on Central Michigan University’s campus.

CMU President Bob Davies. Courtesy Photo | Central Michigan University

CMU President Robert Davies said each of the faculty, staff and student is impacted differently, as all people are living their experiences uniquely.

“The conflict is very complex and a complicated one,” Davies said. “There’s no singular effect … it’s all about the individuals. I think that we’re also seeing a strong polarization around that.”

CMU's response to the conflict 

Muslim Student Association (MSA) President Shaheer Noor said, following Oct. 7, he didn’t see an official statement from CMU.

In an email, CMU Executive Director of Communications Ari Harris said that CMU will not release an official public statement on the conflict.

However, in an interview with Central Michigan Life, Davies said CMU doesn't have a position on this conflict, but instead offers a platform of discussions and a safe environment for students. 

“Now let me also be very clear: We won’t tolerate violence against any group," Davies said. "Call(s) for violence, genocide (and) those type of things (are) not going to be condoned by this institution. “

However, CMU will continue to support its students, faculty and staff, Davies said. 

“It’s our values … respect, compassion, they’re about integrity,” he said. “To me, this is when we live those values. We provide ... that foundation to learn, to explore for better understanding.”

Thomas Studebaker, CMU School of Music faculty member, said he agreed with Davies’ decision.

“I think to make a statement at all is to single out,” Studebaker said. “I understand that there are feelings on both sides, and I think any time there is conflict, I think it’s a chance for people to sit down and talk and iron out. And that requires critical thinking. 

“That’s why I teach, because I want people to think critically and look at things from all sides. I really respect everything that our president has done.”

MSA Vice President Mahum Hakim said she saw many statements from other companies and universities that are neutral (but) do not acknowledge Muslim or Arab students who are also affected in this conflict.

“I think, unfortunately, in a situation like this, I would deem it better not to make a statement ..." Hakim said.

Instead, people can educate themselves -- try to understand what is happening in Gaza and learn its history, Noor said.

CMU senior Shaheer Noor leads the Palestine Information Night, Wednesday, Dec.6, in Pearce room 108. (CM-Life | Soli Gordon)

However, other students are unhappy with CMU's decision to abstain from commenting on the war.

St. Claire freshman and Hillel member at CMU, a Jewish student organization, Michael Manson, said they disapprove of the university’s lack of formal response to the attacks on Oct. 7 or the mass casualties that have come after.

“It’s been complete radio silence,” they said. “And this is something that is affecting a lot of students ... Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian and Arab. … That’s really frustrating as a student.”

Manson said they would like to have seen CMU, at the very least, make students aware of support services on campus.

“They haven’t even offered any support for students who might be affected by this,” Manson said. “(They could say) these are groups you can reach out to, these are people who can help process what you’re feeling because there are people … who either have family who live in Gaza or serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) who have been killed and there’s just nothing for them.” 

“(They could say) these are groups you can reach out to, these are people who can help process what you’re feeling because there are people … who either have family who live in Gaza or serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) who have been killed and there’s just nothing for them.”

Bloomfield Hills freshman and Hillel member Riley Harker said having friends and family in the IDF has caused her a lot of stress.

“I’m worried for their lives, and it’s an everyday thing trying to check up on them, waiting for their text back,” she said. “But at the same time something needs to be done in this world that people can just leave people alone.”

Harker said she and her roommates woke up to a text on Oct. 7 from one of their moms, alerting them to the start of the war.

“My heart just sank picturing all of my friends that I grew up with, all the people from my temple that did a gap year and went back to the Army,” she said.

She instantly texted her friends and family. A lot of them were in bunkers, she said.

“At the end of every Sunday, I go through all the memorial headshots of people who have died and I look through it and make sure none of my friends or family are in that and it’s just created a lot of stress (for) me,” she said.

Throughout the state, universities have experienced demonstrations supporting both sides of the conflict, and students have reported feeling upticks in antisemitism and Islamophobia and a decrease in their safety. To learn more, read CM Life’s article on Michigan Universities’ responses. 

Related content:
Israel-Hamas War: Understanding the division through CMU historians
Israel-Hamas war: Michigan universities respond in various ways
Israel-Hamas war: How does the conflict shape the U.S.?

Has discrimination happened on CMU campus?

Hakim and Noor said they have not any experienced Islamophobia and generally feel safe on CMU's campus.

However, not all students agree.

Manson said they have seen anti-Jewish rhetoric around campus that has created a feeling of greater tension for them among the CMU community.

“The overall feeling toward Jewish people,” they said. “I can feel that’s definitely changed.”

Manson said weeks after the October attacks, flyers were posted around campus.

“There’s just a lot starting to happen towards Jews in general,” they said.

Courtesy of Michael Manson

Manson said the attacks on Oct. 7, and the reaction around the world, has added stress to their life and relationships.

“I don’t support the Israeli government, but I do support the right of the state of Israel to exist,” they said. “And a lot of my friends are pro-Palestine.”

They said it’s not all black and white, which people often make it seem.

“Israel isn’t Judaism," they said. "Something that happens a lot is the actions of Israel and the IDF and the government that, like I said I do not agree with, the media tends to frame that, this is not what the Israeli government is doing but, instead, this is what Jews are doing.” 

Just as Palestinians are grieving their losses, Manson said, the Jewish people are mourning with them. 

“The Jewish people aren’t your enemy,” they said. 

Similarly, Noor said just as many Israelis and Jewish people do not support the Israeli government, many Palestinians do not support Hamas.

“Palestinians are not synonymous with Hamas,” MSU Vice President Hakim said. “I think it’s important to make that distinction.”

Hamas, Noor and Hakim said, is an organization that was created to serve as a political party. 

“Just calling one side a terrorist organization, especially looking at the decades of occupation and oppression (that) has been going one, (is wrong),” Noor said. “Oftentimes the only way to free themselves is some kind of resistance movement, but again, any kind of terrorist actions is completely condoned – we don’t support that.”

'Free Palestine' photos sit on a bench Sunday, Nov. 19 outside of Warriner Hall.

Harker said she has noticed CMU recognizes an array of cultures, including Arabic and Muslim identities, but not Jewish.

“That really disappoints me and makes me very upset,” she said. “For every single other culture, there is a culture of the month.”

CMU honors cultural celebrations through Multicultural Academic Student Services events. Celebrations on campus include Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, Arab American Heritage Month and others.

In January 2023, Hillel at CMU students organized events to honor the Jewish Heritage Week.

Harker said she believes there are Jewish students on campus who do not know about Hillel and may feel isolated or alone, especially when "anti-Jewish people ... are more known on campus than the Jewish people."

Even being new to adulthood, both Harker and Manson said they have experienced antisemitism in school and the workplace.

Harker said, now on CMU’s campus, she feels safe, but not supported.

President Davies said he had chances to talk to various students who have been impacted by the conflict directly. 

“I listened, I learned, when needed to offer support,” Davies said. “Those are the things that (are) important to me. I want to make sure that they know that they’re supported to be here, that we care about them, not only as students but as individuals representing their country, their religion and whatever the case may be.”

He said he wants the student populations to feel safe at CMU and to let them know that they are not alone.

“There are resources for them,” Davies said. “This is a confusing time. Don’t feel isolated and don’t be alone. We’re here to help.”

Where to find support at CMU

Hillel has offered support and a Jewish community for both Harker and Manson, they said.

Since Oct. 7, Hillel has posted different Zoom meetings to provide a space for students to connect and share their feelings. 

“I feel really supported that way,” Harker said.

Nevertheless, on campus, Harker said Hillel is “going under the radar.”

“Yes, people are aware, but … why is nobody addressing what is going on in our world?” she said.

Manson said they enjoy Hillel because it offers them the only Jewish community they’re able to find on campus.

Studebaker, CMU music professor, has also been a very strong ally to Manson, they said.

“He isn’t super connected to campus, so we have a lot of conversations about how campus is reacting to everything that’s happening,” they said.

Studebaker said he is going to be supportive about anyone who is feeling put down by the conflict.

“I listened to what they have to say,” he said. “I don’t believe hate for hate's sake is OK. Any group … I don’t believe that people should hate just because someone’s different than they are.”

Studebaker has not viewed any acts or sentiments of hateful behavior, but he said that could be different for Jewish professors.

Overall, he said he likes how campus has remained generally respectful, compared to other universities that have seen an increase in protests and hate.

“I’m very pleased with our student body in terms of how this has generally been held when compared with other campuses, because I know that there’s been a lot of volatility on other campuses,” Studebaker said. “And our campus seems to have avoided that and I’m really happy that the student body has handled this as well as they have.”

Davies encouraged students to turn to their professors for support and as a source for  information.

“Our professors are extremely supportive and very understanding and very caring,” he said.

He also said CMU Counseling Center is a resource for those who need it.

As people have different perspectives on this issue, Davies said, it is important to learn other’s viewpoints.

“Our goal as a university is to be the marketplace of ideas where people feel safe and secure,” Davies said.

Maureen Eke is CMU faculty member and human rights activist. She said for her the conflict is of concern because it involves human beings and their rights.

“It’s a difficult situation to talk about, because regardless of how we see it, both groups have lost people,” Eke said. “There’s no way that we can talk about it without addressing the losses at both ends. … We're not just simply talking about numbers. We're talking about human beings who have rights, who have dignity. 

“We want to make sure that we think about the implications of not addressing the situation properly, and in a way that we restore the dignity and the humanity of all involved.”

Davies said CMU faculty members have been talking to him about organizing educational seminars on the conflict next semester.

"These would be organized by faculty ... as part of their studies, their resources," Davies said. "They would possibly put some ideas for their student organizations who could come forward and talk about their history or their culture, their traditions.”

CMU senior Shaheer Noor points out the shrinking of Palestine and the expansion of Israel at Palestine Information Night, Wednesday, Dec.6, in Pearce room 108. (CM-Life | Soli Gordon)

CMU's MSA started educating the campus about the situation in Gaza this fall.

The group held a Palestine Information Night with Amnesty International on Dec. 6.

To support people in Gaza, Noor said, here in the United States people can educate themselves about the conflict. It is important to spread accurate information and engage on social media, Hakim said.

She said Americans can send letters to government officials to show the solidarity with the people of Gaza.

“In a perfect world, innocent people would not be harmed, and it would be more of an equal society for both Palestinians and Israelis," Noor said. "But also to allow the people who have been kicked out of their homes … back onto their property so that they can continue to live the life that they had worked for decades ago.”