Masked anti-Israel protester shows up at UMich Regent’s home in middle of night

When Jordan Acker woke up at 6 a.m. on Wednesday in his home in Huntington Woods, a heavily Jewish suburb of Detroit, he saw several alarming notifications on his iPhone. Photos and videos from his doorbell app showed a disturbance outside his front door around 4:40 a.m., while he, his wife and their three daughters were asleep.

A stranger wearing a red keffiyeh over his face walked up to Acker’s front door and stood there for several moments. He placed papers on the doors and took photographs before leaving. The document, a list of demands for the leadership of the University of Michigan, was signed: “In liberation, the UMich Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

Acker, an attorney and former Obama administration official, sits on the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, a statewide position to which he was elected in 2018. He ran for the seat as a way to promote a safe campus environment and protect students from sexual misconduct. A Jewish Michigan alumnus, Acker knew Israel issues might come up —the school has been dealing with staunchly anti-Israel activists for years —but he never expected anything like the uproar of the last seven months. The disturbance at his home escalated things to a new level.

“Its not a way that we handle disputes in this country, by trying to scare elected officials. I think that is something that is enormously undemocratic,” Acker told Jewish Insider on Wednesday afternoon. “I found it extremely disturbing and very menacing in thinking that someone would dress like that to come to my house at 4:40 a.m. Its really surreal, and its very, very scary.”

He compared the incident to something that happened in December 2020, when two dozen protesters showed up at night outside the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to protest the results of the 2020 election.

“Whether you agree with the cause or not, there is no reason to show up at my home in the middle of the night with a mask on, just like theres no reason to show up at Jocelyn Bensons house,” Acker said. “These tactics are fundamentally — whether they’re from the far right or far left — incredibly illiberal. They try to use fear as a tactic to get what they want, when they cant get what they want at the ballot box. And that cannot be acceptable.”

According to a statement from the university, more than 30 protesters showed up at the homes of several university regents Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. In some cases, they chanted and sang; in at least one instance, they placed fake corpses wrapped in bloodstained sheets on the lawn. The groups that spearheaded the campus’ anti-Israel encampment, which disbanded a couple weeks ago, claimed responsibility via social media posts: Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) and the Transparency, Accountability, Humanity, Reparations, Investment, Resistance (TAHRIR) Coalition. (TAHRIR retweeted a post on the social media network X that accused Acker of “incitement” for complaining about the intruder online.)

“The tactics used today represent a significant and dangerous escalation in the protests that have been occurring on campus. Going to an individual’s private residence is intimidating behavior and, in this instance, illegal trespassing. This kind of conduct is not protected speech; it’s dangerous and unacceptable,” the university said in the statement. (Acker and a university spokesperson declined to say if the police have gotten involved.)

In the letter pasted to Acker’s door, the encampment protesters demanded a meeting with Michigan’s Board of Regents, the university’s governing board. They also demanded involvement in university investment decisions, university divestment “from Israeli apartheid and genocide,” a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and the full abolition of the campus police department. The protesters also seek adoption of “essential preconditions” before any meeting even takes place —including a commitment to “full amnesty” for protesters who faced disciplinary action for their role in the protests and a demand that Michigan “stop using dubious accusations of antisemitism to vilify students protesting for basic human rights and liberation.”

The letter and the middle-of-the-night visit do not make Acker more likely to meet with the group. He has said in the past that divestment is “not really a negotiable one” for him.

“I am not interested in meeting with a group led by someone who has posted that anyone who supports the Zionist state should die,” Acker said, referring to a social media post by the president of SAFE, the anti-Israel group that led the encampment.

“My feelings on Israel and Palestine and Gaza are complicated, like a lot of Jews, by the way. And I dont know if theyre targeting me because of that,” said Acker. “But I will say that the last six months, and certainly the last six weeks have really instilled in me a new appreciation for my own liberal Zionism and the importance of a State of Israel, and why thats there. The level of antisemitism has become enormously scary.”

The biggest concern for Acker is not the students whose style of activism has become increasingly extreme, even though he views that as a problem, too.

“Im much more concerned with the faculty, with the small group of faculty who seem to be egging on some of the worst behaviors of our students. And that, to me, is a much harder problem, because I deeply believe in academic freedom,” Acker said.

“But I also think that with academic freedom comes a responsibility,” Acker continued, “and that responsibility requires these faculty members to do well by their students, to not put them in harms way, to teach them that even when they are angry, or in grief, or dealing with the complex emotions that come from seeing this conflict in Gaza, that they they channel their behaviors into ones that are not dangerous, that won’t lead to them having long-term consequences.”

Acker called for Michigan to adopt a position of institutional neutrality, like the University of Chicago (although Chicago also struggled with how to address its recent Gaza encampment). He wants to see that position extended to the classroom, so that students are free to express their views —including students who support Israel.

“You have to be proactively protecting free speech and academic freedom, and that includes, by the way, the academic freedom of students to learn without being punished for their political views, which is actually something that is most concerning, more than any of the potential violence or the encampments or anything,” said Acker. “The one thing that Ive heard most from Jewish students is that they are deeply concerned that if they dont take a particular position on Israel or Palestine, they may be punished academically in their classes.”

Professors at Michigan shouldn’t be forcing students to adopt their own perspectives, Acker argued. “Youre representing the institution. It’s your job to be facilitating peoples First Amendment rights, not enforcing your own political views,” he said. “Its become a big problem.”