A Culture of Discrimination? University of Michigan Faces Scrutiny for Educators’ Anti-Israel Bias
JNS.org – The University of Michigan is again under fire for anti-Israel sentiment, as a pro-BDS instructor rejected a Jewish student’s request for a letter of recommendation to study in Israel for a semester, just a few months after an associate professor refused to do the same for student Abigail Ingber.
In August, associate professor in the American Culture Department John Cheney-Lippold wrote to Ingber via email: “As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there. … For reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”
He is now undergoing disciplinary action.
But the problem is bigger than Cheney-Lippold, as further evidenced by a second, nearly identical incident that affected another Jewish student.
Last week, a graduate teaching instructor reneged on her promise to write 20-year-old junior Jake Secker a letter of recommendation to study abroad for a semester at Tel Aviv University.
“I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask before agreeing to write your recommendation letter, but I regrettably will not be able to write on your behalf,” Lucy Peterson said in her email to Secker. “Along with numerous other academics in the US and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine.”
University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald has stated on the record that “the university is prohibited by federal law from discussing student matters without the written permission of the student.”
Secker did not respond to JNS for a comment, nor did Peterson.
Groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) condemned the move, and called on the university to address the issue of students being denied letters of recommendation to study in Israel, despite the university’s policy against BDS.
“The University of Michigan must take immediate steps to ensure that students are not denied an opportunity to participate in an accredited overseas program because of their professors’ political views,” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a statement.
“The University of Michigan, and indeed all US institutions of higher education, should ensure that students are able to pursue academic studies without having their studies thwarted by their professor’s political views,” he added.
“We are strong supporters of academic freedom. Certainly everyone, including professors, has a right to openly express their views of the policies of the elected Israeli government,” continued Greenblatt. “But this should not be at the expense of students seeking to broaden their academic experiences.”
Greenblatt called out an apparent double standard by instructors. “These professors indicated they had no problem writing recommendations for students who might study in any other country in the world,” he said. “Singling out Israel alone among all the nations of the world as worthy of boycott, according to the State Department working definition, potentially crosses the line from criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism.”
‘A culture of discrimination’
Zionist Organization of America president Mort Klein expressed a similar sentiment to JNS.
“It is shocking and irresponsible for an academic to take this bigoted stance against Israel while ignoring the fact that Israel has offered statehood to the Palestinians,” who have rejected the offer three times in the past 20 years, he said.
“All the while, these academics are ignoring the fact that the Palestinian Authority is a terrorist entity” that refuses to negotiate with Israel, added Klein.
He called on the university to sanction those who “display this type of irrational antisemitic prejudice.”
Club Z Founder and executive director Masha Merkulova said that “there is a culture of discrimination at the University of Michigan that must be addressed immediately by President Mark Schlissel, Michigan elected officials, and the Department of Education. Club Z will be working closely with partners in the pro-Israel community to bring this issue to light. We cannot afford to be silent as students continue to face this hostile and discriminatory environment.”
Secker met last Friday with Rosario Ceballo, associate dean for the social sciences in Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts, who agreed to write the letter in Peterson’s place, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the incident.
According to the Post, Secker’s father, who is Israeli, was so infuriated that he considered withdrawing his son from the school, but reconsidered after his wife contacted the president’s office, which connected the couple to the associate dean, who “offered to write any letter Jake wanted,” he said.
Guest lecturer compares Netanyahu to Hitler
The latest anti-Israel outrage comes less than a week after a guest lecturer, former Black Panther leader Emory Douglas, compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the mastermind of the Holocaust. As part of the department-sponsored lecture, Douglas presented two slides that promoted the ideas behind BDS and violence against Israel.
A student, Alexa Smith, captured the images.
“As a Wolverine, I sat through this lecture horrified at the hatred and intolerance being spewed on our campus,” Smith posted on Facebook. “As a Jew who is proud of my people and my homeland, I sat through this lecture feeling targeted and smeared to be as evil as the man who perpetuated the Holocaust and systematically murdered six million Jews.”
“Two years ago I was forced to sit through another mandatory … lecture in which the speaker, Joe Sacco, made references to Israel being a terrorist state and explicitly claimed that Israeli soldiers were unworthy of being represented as actual human beings in his artwork,” continued Smith.
“I will no longer sit quietly and allow others to dehumanize my people and my community,” she added. “The administration is repeatedly failing to forcefully respond to antisemitism, and so it comes back worse and worse each time. A line needs to be drawn and it needs to be drawn now.”
The lecture was part of a guest-speaker series through the university’s Stamps School of Art & Design.
Calling on the university to react
Pro-Israel groups like StandWithUs, the AMCHA Initiative, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned the content of the talk.
StandWithUs commended Smith for the exposure. “We are proud of Alexa for her courage. She did not give the situation a ‘pass’ and instead stood up to bigotry,” said Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, and a daughter of Holocaust survivors, in a statement. “Comparing Netanyahu to Hitler in the course of a mandatory lecture for art students is an example of the subtle form of antisemitism that is injected into North American campus lectures far too often. … We commend the university leadership for taking a firm and immediate stand against antisemitism in the past and encourage them to take a stand to differentiate the university from Emory Douglas’ hateful, agenda-driven comparison.”
AMCHA echoed SWU’s response. “The image comparing Netanyahu [to Hitler] is outrageous and anti-Semitic,” the group’s director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told JNS.
“Also important to note is that Douglas presented two slides that promoted BDS and violence against Israel, which are perhaps even more problematic, particularly because Douglas’s talk was mandatory and departmentally sponsored,” she said. “In fact, research demonstrates that the presence of BDS-promoting speakers on campus is directly associated with an increase in antisemitism on campus, and specifically those acts that target Jewish students for harm, including assault, harassment, destruction of property and suppression of speech.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) called on the university to act.
“In the name of free speech, a public university invites a speaker who equates in word and visually Netanyahu and Hitler with the term genocide,” the SWC said in a statement to JNS. “Students are required to sit through a propaganda presentation based on an insidious lie.”
Jackson Richman is the Washington Correspondent for JNS.org.