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November 4, 2016 4:03 am

A Troubling Silence About Antisemitism at the University of Michigan

avatar by Morton A. Klein and Susan B. Tuchman

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The University of Michigan. Photo: Andrew Horne via Wikimedia Commons.

The University of Michigan. Photo: Andrew Horne via Wikimedia Commons.

For many Jewish students at the University of Michigan, celebration of the Jewish New Year was unjustly marred by feelings of pain and ostracism. On Rosh Hashanah, a campus group called “Students Allied for Freedom and Equality” (SAFE) erected a so-called “apartheid” wall and mock Israeli checkpoints on the Diag, in the center of the campus. As one Jewish student described it, the wall falsely depicted Israel as an apartheid state, and falsely painted the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces as vicious murderers.

Many Jewish students expressed how hurt, offended and marginalized they felt by SAFE’s actions. SAFE unapologetically justified the display, claiming that the group’s goal was “to start the conversation about the oppression of Palestinians under occupation.” If that were true, then SAFE would have scheduled its anti-Israel demonstration on a day when Jewish students could be part of the conversation. Instead, as SAFE undoubtedly knew, many Jewish students were observing the holiday, either on campus or elsewhere, and were thus denied the opportunity to stand up for their Jewish homeland in dialogue with others in the campus community.

Over 1,100 students signed a petition urging University President Mark Schlissel to speak out. In addition, four national organizations, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and StandWithUS, co-signed the Zionist Organization of America’s (ZOA) letter to Schlissel, urging him to issue a statement condemning SAFE for erecting its “apartheid” wall and mock checkpoints on a Jewish holy day. While SAFE had the legal right to hold its demonstration on Rosh Hashanah, it was important for President Schlissel to acknowledge that SAFE’s actions had hurt members of the Jewish community and made them feel excluded.

But Schlissel has not spoken out. Responding to the ZOA’s letter, he justified SAFE’s actions, calling them “pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel,” but containing “no specific or symbolic reference to Jews.”

That characterization is troubling for several reasons. For one thing, there was nothing “pro-Palestinian” about SAFE’s demonstration. It was an all-out attack on Israel, presenting the group’s usual false narrative that Israel is a brutal oppressor and that Palestinian Arabs are Israel’s innocent victims. For another, the fact that SAFE’s actions made no reference to “Jews” did not make them any less offensive to Jewish students. Schlissel failed to appreciate the land of Israel’s centrality to Judaism and to Jews.

Israel is the historic and religious homeland of the Jewish people, where Jews have lived for more than 3,000 years. The land’s ancient name was “Judea,” derived from the same root as the word “Jew.” When Jews pray, they turn toward their holy city of Jerusalem. Even assuming that Schlissel was unaware of these facts, it should have been enough for him to know that Jewish students on his campus were hurt by SAFE’s actions on Rosh Hashanah, without parsing whether their pain was legitimate.

Indeed, Schlissel showed a more expansive and compassionate appreciation of what was offensive to students — when the offended students were Muslim. Last year, the movie American Sniper was going to be screened on campus. This was a dramatization of the life of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who served four tours of duty in Iraq and received several medals for his acts of heroism. But when Muslim students claimed they were offended by the movie’s content, the screening of the inspiring film was cancelled.

Fortunately, the university recognized that cancelling the movie would violate the right of free expression, and it was screened as scheduled. But both Schlissel and the vice president for student life validated the feelings of Muslim students, issuing statements acknowledging that while cancelling the movie was a mistake, it was important to recognize that some Muslim students felt uncomfortable, marginalized and hurt by the movie’s content.

Why is Schlissel refusing to take the very same steps when Jewish students feel hurt and marginalized? As the president knows, SAFE has a history of targeting, threatening and causing pain to Jewish students. Just last year, for example, SAFE began a vendetta against a Jewish student and called for his removal from student government simply because the student objected to the timing and appropriateness of SAFE’s anti-Israel display on campus. SAFE erected it on the very day that there were two terrorist attacks in Israel, killing five people, including Jewish American Ezra Schwartz.

The ZOA, with eight other national organizations, including the American Center for Law and Justice and American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, urged Schlissel to speak out then, not just for the Jewish student who was being bullied and harmed, but for all students. The president needed to make it clear that SAFE’s actions were wrong and that students could not be harassed for exercising their right to free speech and to challenge anti-Israel conduct. But Schlissel wouldn’t speak out then, either.

Schlissel’s silence when Jewish students’ rights are at stake should be troubling to all of us. Students, parents, donors, alumni, the Regents and members of the community should be asking him why he seemingly takes the feelings and concerns of Jewish students less seriously than the concerns of other students who have felt hurt and marginalized on campus.

Susan B. Tuchman, Esq. is the Director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice and Morton A. Klein is the National President of the Zionist Organization of America.

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  • Miles Brumberg

    The agenda of the left in this country and all over the world dictates that Jews are the aggressor and that Palestinians are the oppressed. This is how the left approaches every problem, there are the oppressors and there are the oppressed. If you support whom they despise you are an oppressor as well. They reduce dialog, really a monologue in the case of the left, to this level everywhere, every place and every time. No arguments allowed, just sit back and allow the left to demonstrate, to shout, to riot, to burn to kill because the end in their opinion justifies the means. Unfortunately they do get support from like-minded people who also consider themselves to be victims in some way, shape or form. And they call themselves “progressives”?

  • HaroldAMaio

    Why did you not accept my comment?
    Since I can communicate with you through this portal, objecting to the policies of the government of Israel is not anti-Jewish, it is objecting not to Jews, but to the policies of the government of Israel. It is wrong to conflate the two.

  • HaroldAMaio

    Are you saying the wall is not there in Israel?

  • Olterigo

    Schlissel? Another kapo. Not surprising.