Some parents, students and alumni said they felt that University President Mark Schlissel’s statements about Jew-hatred are vague and not strong enough to curb the rising tide of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hostilities on campus.
Following the May conflict between Hamas and Israel, University of Michigan students, parents and alumni were astonished at an onslaught of one-sided statements condemning Israel from student organizations such as the U-M Central Student Government (CSG), the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) Student Government, an email sent by the Ross School of Business BBA Council to all its contacts, and dozens of others.
All echo the same accusatory language that Israel is committing acts of apartheid, genocide and settler colonialism. The statements’ language focuses on Israel’s displacement and violence toward Palestinians but did not condemn Hamas’ firing more than 4,000 rockets into Israel with intent to kill civilians.
In support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel, the U-M CSG demanded that the university cease academic and financial relations with Israel and called upon students to pressure Congress to cut military aid to the Jewish state.
On June 9, days after the words “F*** Israel” were written on the large, iconic Rock at Washtenaw and Hill, and the Michigan Hillel building across the street was defaced with red handprints, University President Mark Schlissel released a statement acknowledging “the tremendous pain and suffering experienced in the University of Michigan community stemming from the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“I condemn these acts. Any actions motivated by anti-Black or anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian bias or any other form of bigotry have no place in the discourse of a great university.”
Some parents, students and alumni said they felt that Schlissel’s statements about Jew-hatred are vague and not strong enough to curb the rising tide of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hostilities on campus. On a parent’s Facebook page, dozens of parents expressed their concern. Some of them who are paying out-of-state-tuition threatened to unenroll their students unless the Schlissel administration takes a stronger stance.
Stephanie Stoloff of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., mother of U-M student Samii Stoloff who painted over the derogatory language about Israel on the Rock with a pride flag (see the June 17 JN), secured one of the 15 public comment slots to address the U-M Board of Regents on the issue at their June 17 meeting. She would like to see Schlissel specifically call out antisemitism and wants more security cameras in the area where the Rock and three nearby Jewish buildings, Hillel, Chabad and the Jewish Resource Center, are located.
“The university is showing lack of leadership, and I think this is enabling [the hatred toward Jewish students on campus], and that’s not leadership,” Stoloff said.
“This conflict is 6,000 miles away. Why should it jeopardize the security of our students on campus? Who is enabling this hatred toward them? If Northwestern University has a security camera on their ‘rock,’ the same should happen in Ann Arbor.”
What is troubling to others is a statement released by the Graduate Employment Opportunities, a labor union of graduate students, declaring that they stand “in full solidarity with the Palestinian people facing the onslaught of Israeli State terror.”
Dana Miles of Grosse Ile, who is not Jewish, has one daughter who is a senior and another who is a graduate of U-M. She said she is disturbed about the one-sided anti-Israel stance the GEO has taken and how it will impact conversations on the Middle East in the classroom.
“By GEOs taking one side on an issue, I fear they will be teaching our students from that one side,” said Miles. “I think [university leadership] is very weak as evidenced from the vague statement Schlissel put out after the Rock was painted with those anti-Israel slurs. So [anti-Israel activists] see the weakness and are exploiting that.”
Graduate student and GEO member Amir Fleischmann said he was involved in penning the GEO statement to push the organization to “take a stronger position against Israeli apartheid.”
“I am proud to be Jewish and that my labor union is finally standing up for Palestinian human rights.” said Fleischmann, who is a graduate student and lecturer studying political theory.
When asked how the one-sided GEO statement may impact the classroom in terms of pro-Israel students fearing of expressing their opinions or refuting misinformation about Israel, Fleischmann said there has been a history of pro-Israel students that have been doing the silencing, referring to several incidents in 2018 where the university rebuked two professors for refusing to write students letters of recommendation for study abroad in Israel programs.
“We saw this in 2018, when one of our [Jewish] members was sanctioned by the university for refusing to write a letter of recommendation to an Israeli institution in accordance with BDS. We saw this again recently, when Muslim and Palestinian students were harassed and bullied by Israeli apartheid apologists for taking a stance in defense of Palestinian human rights.”
In response to the statements, Jewish organizations such as Hillel have attempted to open dialogue with the student governments and other student organizations on why some Jewish students see the statements and resolutions as inflammatory and divisive.
In emails released to the U-M Jewish community, U-M Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shemer stated that the widely distributed, one-sided messages “made many Jewish students who are concerned about Israel in this moment feel upset, unseen and unrepresented … Jewish and non-Jewish students who have chosen to speak publicly about these statements or share their concern for Israel and how it is depicted or even just call for neutrality — whether on social media or through CSG Community Concerns — have received disrespectful, mocking and even hateful messages in response.”
Shemer said Hillel’s Undergraduate Governing Board urged a halting of hateful messages coming from both sides of the issue and called on the leadership of other student organizations to do the same.
“Hillel’s staff and student leadership invited student leaders from CSG and LSA to attend an online forum in which Jewish students talked about the impact of CSG’s and LSA’s one-sided statements condemning Israel,” said Shemer.
“However, CSG has not retracted their statement, have not condemned hateful messaging directed toward individuals or Hillel or the Jewish community, and have not condemned the vandalism at the Hillel building. While we were deeply disappointed that there was little recognition how painful their messaging was for Jewish and pro-Israel students, we will continue to encourage them to address issues of antisemitism.
“LSA Student Government did pass a resolution condemning the rise in antisemitism and committed their leadership to working with Hillel on programming addressing antisemitism in the future.”
After being approached by Hillel for dialogue, CSG member Ashvin Pai in a May 18 publicly released document to the CSG said he disagreed that the pro-Palestinian declaration was causing divisions in the student body as evidenced by many student organizations that signed on in agreement or put out their own statements against Israel.
“Make no mistake, the only division that exists on this issue is between those who are sympathetic to a settler colonial, apartheid state and those who are not,” he wrote.
Pai said he resented requests from pro-Israel students to learn more about the complexities of the wider Arab/Israeli conflict by having conversations with other students or reading books from a variety of viewpoints on the history of the topic.
“Whether intentional or not, these statements act as an active erasure of Palestinian history by insinuating that the lived experiences of Palestinians and of marginalized communities who are in solidarity with Palestine are not as valuable as Western institutionalized knowledge. The history of Palestine is not found in a book or learned in a course.”
The JN attempted to contact Pai several times for further comment, but Pai did not respond.
Michigan Anti-Defamation League Director Carolyn Normandin said there is “no doubt” that such proclamations put out by student governing bodies on campuses across the country is causing an uncomfortable and fearful atmosphere for Jewish students.
“When you put out statements that co-opt the truth and are inflammatory, there are dangerous consequences,” said Normandin. “Any time somebody says they don’t need to learn about a topic before they talk about a topic, they’re barking up the wrong tree, especially at the university level.
“In order to talk about a complex subject such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you need to study it from a wide variety of sources. I find [Pai’s] statement foolish and dangerous.”
Alumna Alexa Smith (Penny Stamps School of Design ’18) said she wants her university to do better when it comes to defining what constitutes antisemitism. The best way to “move forward,” is to adapt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which includes demonizing Israel, she said.
In 2018, Smith sat through a mandatory guest lecture presentation that juxtaposed images of Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler with the caption “genocide.”
“When I was a student, if you called out anything that may seem misleading about Israel, you were frowned upon or even verbally attacked,” said Smith. “I am disappointed that the university did not adapt the IHRA definition as I suggested when I was a student.
“They only call out antisemitism by lumping it in with other forms of bigotry. Now, we can see with the rhetoric coming from these student governing bodies, [antisemitism] has gotten worse. The language from the CSG and others are 100% fueling the antisemitism on campus.”
Wolverines for Israel
Wolverines for Israel co-president Benjamin Givner said he and other members of his organization reached out to CSG members following the release of their statement for dialogue and reconciliation.
“We met with some of the signatories of the statement and tried to explain to them why that statement was problematic because it did not take into consideration the nuances and complexities of the issue,” said Givner, a rising junior studying computer science.
“Their response was they had no issue with it; the Palestinians are being oppressed by the apartheid Israeli regime. And I cannot tell you how many times we were told that Hamas is not a terrorist organization.”
Givner said that CSG members, including the student representative for the University’s Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said that in the drafting of their statement, they were only taking into consideration the opinions of Palestinians and “anti-occupation supporting Jewish groups” like IfNotNow and J-Street.
“There is an intentional exclusion on [Israel-supporting] Jews on campus that is becoming normalized through these kinds of statements and actions,” said Givner. “But the cowardly acts of hate don’t scare or intimidate us. Jewish and pro-Israel students aren’t going anywhere.
“We will only be stronger, prouder and more resilient. In the face of hate, we unify and will continue to fight for Israel. We strive for the peaceful and secure existence of the Jewish state.”
Many alumni of higher education across the country as well at the University of Michigan have launched a campaign for universities and other institutions to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) Working Definition of antisemitism so hatred toward Jews on campus can be more clearly identified.
IHRA defines antisemitism as: “A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Manifestations of antisemitism include “drawing analogies between the actions of Israel to Nazis, declaring Israel a racist — and thus illegitimate — endeavor, holding it to standards expected of no other democratic state, denying Israel’s right to exist, and holding Jews collectively responsible for its actions.”
Criticizing the Israeli government and its policies, as one would do to any other country, is not considered antisemitism according to the IHRA.
According to the American Jewish Committee, 30 American universities have endorsed this definition as of May 2021.
Carly F. Gammill, director of StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism, said that because it manifests itself in many ways, antisemitism often gets overlooked.
“The IHRA provides a critical tool in helping to ensure that anti-Jewish activity is readily identified and properly addressed in the same manner as other forms of bigotry and discrimination,” said Gammill. “While critics of the IHRA definition often claim that it restricts protected speech and/or falsely labels criticism of Israel as antisemitism, these claims are easily disposed of simply by looking to the definition’s text. The IHRA contains absolutely no mechanism for [or even mention of] punishing any type of speech.”
U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald would not indicate whether the university would consider adapting the definition but said “the recent violence in the Middle East has a direct impact on the wellbeing of students studying within our campus community.”
Fitzgerald stated that it is the policy of the University of Michigan to maintain an academic and work environment free of discrimination and harassment for all students, faculty and staff.
“At the University of Michigan, we remain committed to creating a community of scholars where everyone feels safe and each one of us is able to share our views without reprisal.”
Seeking to Adopt IHRA at U-M
Alums for Campus Fairness, a nonprofit organization that counters antisemitism and anti-Zionism, said some 900 members who are U-M alumni, parents and students launched a campaign for the university to adopt the definition.
Executive Director Avi Gordon said ACF members are working behind the scenes with administrators and donors at U-M to push for acceptance of the resolution because “what has been happening at the University of Michigan is unacceptable.”
“The IHRA definition should be adapted because, the next time something on campus does happen, there will be a clear definition in place as to what this type of hatred is, and we know what it is because it’s been clearly defined,” said Gordon. “A lot of administrations don’t like to call things out for what they are because of the potential repercussions. But (adapting the IHRA antisemitism definition) would just be another tool in the university’s toolkit to call out hatred and bigotry.”