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November 5, 2018 7:37 pm

Professor: BDS Panel at University of Michigan Was an ‘Unrelentingly Anti-Israel Propaganda Fete’

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The University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. Photo: Jha4ceb/Wikimedia Commons.

A professor at the University of Michigan said a recent panel hosted by the school on the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign was “a totally one-sided propaganda fete.”

Victor Lieberman, who teaches a popular history course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, said he was one of some 70 people who attended last week’s “Teach-In Town Hall,” which was organized by U-M’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CMENAS) after the university sanctioned a BDS-supporting professor who denied a letter of recommendation to a student who sought to study in Israel.

CMENAS director Samer Mahdy Ali said the event, which was backed financially by multiple U-M departments, would include a “decidedly pro-BDS” panel, followed by a discussion.

Lieberman estimated that less than two dozen undergraduates showed up on Monday morning, two days after a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh while shouting antisemitic epithets.

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Ali acknowledged this “terrible tragedy” in his opening remarks, and explained that while he and other organizers considered canceling the event altogether, BDS was too important an issue to not be discussed, according to the Michigan Daily student newspaper.

“BDS is not against any group, but against a racist structure that oppresses millions of people daily,” he said of the campaign, which has been denounced as discriminatory by major Jewish communal bodies worldwide, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — a coordinating body that includes the nation’s principal bodies of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.

The speaker lineup shifted several times prior to the event, though only BDS advocates were included. Among them was Israeli activist Tom Pessah, who told the audience that “the BDS movement has been outspoken in combating antisemitism.”

Another presenter was Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa, who claimed that Israelis are “stealing our culture and our story and our history” by pointing to falafel, shakshuka, and hummus — Middle Eastern foods that were popularized in Israel by Jewish refugees who fled antisemitic persecution in Arab and Islamic countries in the 20th century.

The third speaker, attorney and International Solidarity Movement co-founder Huwaida Arraf, addressed the recent controversies surrounding John Cheney-Lippold and Lucy Peterson, two U-M instructors who denied letters of recommendations to students who wanted to study in Tel Aviv.

“I don’t believe the professors were discriminating against the students,” Abulhawa said. “The professors were pointing out, they were discriminating against Israel, if you want to call it discrimination.”

Lieberman told The Algemeiner that while he left the event before the Q&A section began, “from the part I did observe and from student reports, the affair was stridently, unrelentingly anti-Israel and pro-BDS.”

“Questions were permitted, but pro-Israel questions were ignored or deflected,” he explained. While a few Jewish students tried to push back on some of the comments made by panelists, they did not have much success, Lieberman shared.

“I have been in touch with U of M regents to express my dismay that a totally one-sided propaganda fete was sponsored by university departments,” added the professor, who last year was barred from speaking against an anti-Israel divestment resolution that was ultimately passed by U-M’s student government, but rejected by the administration. “Several regents are sympathetic to my concerns.”

Ali argued, however, that the one-sided nature of the event was advertised in advance, and that “academic freedom protects the rights of faculty to work as ‘publicly engaged scholars’ who advocate a particular point of view, which we did.”

“It is standard practice for faculty at UM and other free campuses to organize advocacy events in favor of controversial approaches to social issues, like those of Black Lives Matter, fossil fuel divestiture, or the gun control movement,” he told The Algemeiner.

The CMENAS director — himself a proponent of the BDS campaign — approximated that “about 25 students from Hillel and the Jewish Left” attended the event, “and several of them asked challenging but respectful questions in the Town Hall portion.”

“I counted 15 faculty members in attendance from the ten units and departments that co-funded the event,” Ali said. “People came up to me afterwards saying that the event was eye opening and that they enjoyed the climate of respect and dialogue.”

Last month, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin — director of the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit that combats antisemitism on college campuses — told The Algemeiner that the CMENAS event may be a “red flag,” as it indicates that Ali may be using “his own authority in his administrative capacity, as the person who runs this department, to give money to and get other departments to give money to this event which he admits is pro-BDS.”

Ali rebutted the accusation by underscoring that while he has championed the boycott “as a citizen and scholar of Middle Eastern studies,” CMENAS — which receives funding from the US Department of Education’s Title VI program — has not.

“When they fund events, departments are not endorsing the views that speakers present,” he said. “Speakers speak on their own behalf, and audiences make up their own minds. Those are all standard liberties in a free society.”

This article has been updated to reflect comments by Samer Mahdy Ali.

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