Students, parents react to incidences of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic stances at U-M.
Above: Senior Alexa Smith, a graphic arts student in U-M’s Stamps School of Art & Design, created her own image to counter the anti-Semitic depiction that offended her at a mandatory art lecture series. She spoke to U-M administrators about the university adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
In spite of a semester that has so far been rocked by two instructors denying letters of recommendation to students desiring to study in Israel and a visiting lecturer equating Benjamin Netanyahu with Adolf Hitler, Jewish students at the University of Michigan headed into fall break with their heads held high.
During a social media photography campaign Oct. 11 called “Go Blue and White,” dozens of Jewish students and Israel supporters strolled the Diag wearing blue and white clothing or T-shirts showing their pride in Israel, being Jewish and being a Wolverine.
“This past week, I’ve been flooded with calls and texts from (out-of-town) friends and family asking me how can I go to a university that has such an anti-Israel environment,” said junior Noa Friedman of White Plains, N.Y., who is active with pro-Israel groups such as i-LEAD Michigan (Israel Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Dialogue).
“Despite everything that’s happened, today [Go Blue and White day] showed us we can walk around our campus as proud Jewish Wolverines and supporters of Israel.”
Friedman plans to study at Tel Aviv University in the spring of 2019 and she has already confirmed which professor will be writing her recommendation letter.
Across campus, Alexa Smith of Livingston, N.J., a senior at the Penny Stamps School of Art & Design, handled a flood of calls and texts from media after her viral social media posts depicting anti-Semitic and pro-BDS images at a mandated lecture got global attention. Last week, in the days following the lecture, she juggled press inquiries and her academic demands with meetings with the design school’s dean and Dr. Robert Sellers, U-M’s chief diversity officer. She proposed U-M should adhere to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
“In order for anti-Semitism on this campus to be tackled head on, it must first be defined,” Alexa wrote Oct. 8 on Facebook. “Example 10 of the IHRA definition states that ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of Nazis’ is an example of anti-Semitism. We could have avoided this mess if the university had a policy of teaching this definition to all professors and faculty. In the future, the university will have a guideline to draw a clear line between ‘provocative’ and ‘hate speech.’”
Anti-Defamation League Michigan Director Carolyn Normandin said her organization is at the ready to give students and Hillel the support they need and provide U-M administrators and faculty with anti-bias training.
“We are working on a model policy that will be applicable to other universities,” Normandin said. “We praise the university’s censure of [Cheney-Lippold]. While a small number of professors and academic associations may support BDS, the movement has been roundly condemned.
“Until things [that happen in a lecture] are reported, we do not really know the extent of anti-Israel bias or anti-Semitism on campus. But what we do know is that these refusals [to write] letters of recommendation are the first manifestation of how professors can put their personal political beliefs into practice. And this is very concerning to the ADL.”
Parents, Alumni React
Parents and alumni had mixed reactions to the administration’s statements and actions. While some were satisfied, others — many paying a high price tag for their children’s out-of-state tuition — felt the university did not go far enough.
Regarding U-M President Mark Schlissel’s statements on the Stamps lecture given by former Black Panther Emory Douglas, Sherry Levine of Rye Brook, N.Y., whose son is a U-M student, said this is not a Jewish issue; it is an issue of “allowing and excusing pure hatred” to fester. To her, Schlissel’s response to the Douglas lecture was weak.
“Comparing any leader to Hitler should never be allowed,” Levine said. “Those ignorant on the subject will then take this misleading and inaccurate propaganda and think they are standing up for human rights. Expressing many different views and fighting for rights of all peoples is the kind of dialogue and expression that should happen on a college campus, but charging [the Israeli leader] and, therefore, Jews of genocide is very dangerous. Schlissel needs to take a stand and not make excuses. I’m frankly sick of apologizing for my son’s school.”
Alumna and parent Peri Kadanoff, also of Rye Brook, N.Y., did not mince words when she suggested that if professors still want to hold a personal bias against Israel that is their choice; but if that bias will regularly seep into their professorial duties, the university needs to give full disclosure right in the course catalog. That way, a student wishing to study in Israel will think twice before taking their class or approaching them for a letter of recommendation, she added.
“Getting a letter of recommendation from a professor in a university as large as U-M is a kind of courtship on the part of the student,” Kadanoff said. “They actively seek out the courses they want with the professors they most admire and work hard to gain their recognition. By the time that student asks for that recommendation, they feel they have a good rapport with that professor.
“Rescinding that student’s request not based on their academic performance but on the country in which they desire to study — and at the last minute — directly and negatively impacts their $65,000-a-year education.”
U-M alumna and parent Lisa Gold of Long Beach, Calif., said she is pleased with the university’s response to Cheney-Lippold’s bias.
“The personal and one-sided views [Cheney-Lippold] was putting forth about Middle East policy were completely unrelated to his course of instruction and goes against the Socratic method of teaching that has long been the tradition at the University of Michigan,” Gold said.
“Also, when he rescinded [Abigail Ingber’s] request for a recommendation when there was not even a venue for the student to respond, he was no longer teaching, but talking at that student. A professor’s first duty is to teach, not to tell.”