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November 7, 2018 8:55 am

Recommendation Letter Flap Illustrates Increasingly Hostile Campus Climate for Israel’s Supporters

avatar by Ariel Behar

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The University of Michigan. Photo: Dante Chinni.

After he criticized Hamas in a 2014 Facebook post, Connecticut College professor Andrew Pessin was forced to take a sabbatical due to threats and faculty ostracism. On the same campus, however, rabidly anti-Israel agitators were invited to speak, including one who pushed the antisemitic conspiracy theory that Israel harvested Palestinians’ organs for medical experiments.

One of Pessin’s colleagues later said that he couldn’t recommend Connecticut College to Jewish students because of “the harassment of Jews on campus in the name of fighting for social justice.”

It was part of a rising tide of antisemitic episodes on American university campuses.

The University of Michigan drew unwanted attention this Fall when a professor reneged on a previous commitment to write a letter of recommendation for a student hoping to study abroad. What changed? The Jewish student wanted to study in Israel, and the professor, John Cheney-Lippold, supports an academic boycott of the Jewish state as part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Meanwhile, pro-Israel speakers are routinely shouted down and Jewish students report feeling intimidated. The following examples all took place last month:

  • University of Minnesota protesters shouted “f***ing Zionists,” “no more death, no more lies, Israel out of Palestine,” and “you’re a bunch of war criminals,” outside a pro-Israel event with IDF soldiers. The founder of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) filmed the protesters as attendees filed in.
  • When the University of Houston Hillel sponsored an event featuring Israeli Druze and Christian reservists, fliers were defaced with messages like “Blood is on your hands,” “Israel kills children, pregnant woman, medical volunteers,” and “Complicit in genocide of Palestinians.”
  • Pro-Israel leaflets at a University of Missouri bus stop were torn down and defaced with the slogan “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free,” a call for Israel’s elimination.

Antisemitic incidents on college campuses increased 59 percent last year, an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study found.

“There is a heightened sense of fear for students to label themselves as ‘pro-Israel,'” University of Michigan student Talia Katz told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Israel has become an increasingly polarizing issue and, in effect, she said, “The fear of being outwardly pro-Israel stems from a fear of being accused of supporting Trump, racism, Islamophobia, and other social views vehemently disavowed by the student body and faculty.”

Cheney-Lippold’s actions are “counter to our values and expectations as an institution,” a University of Michigan statement said. The university “has consistently opposed” boycotting Israel, a spokesman told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

For his part, Cheney-Lippold said that he “firmly stand[s] by my decision, as I stand against all injustice and inequality. I hope others stand with me in protesting a government that has created a legal system that favors Jewish citizens’ right to self-determination over Palestinians.”

Not long after, a Michigan graduate student instructor invoked BDS in refusing a student’s letter of recommendation request.

“My action attests to my ongoing engagement with the theory and practice of social justice pedagogy as well as my concern for the injustices suffered by Palestinians,” Lucy Peterson wrote in an op-ed in the campus newspaper. “In my classroom, I try to make as much space as possible for intellectual and political disagreement and for the voices of marginalized students.”

The university also again took heat when a speaker at a required lecture compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hitler. It is important to note that comparing Israel or Israeli policy to Hitler and Nazi Germany meets the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.

Katz detailed the many antisemitic tropes that have been seen on her campus, such as a cartoon depicting Jews as pigs with bags of money, “However, when other speakers come to campus who are perceived to be racist, sexist, or offensive to other minority identities, the University blasts out e-mails to the student body, offering emotional support, providing mental health resources, and detailing their disagreements with the controversial speakers.” Katz called the policy towards Israel a double standard.

The BDS movement is seen as antisemitic because it sets a double-standard and singles out the only Jewish state for perceived injustices. Many of its supporters also advocate the end of Israel’s existence. Furthermore, the BDS movement has contributed to the plight of Palestinians, the very cause it seeks to support.

Organizers carried on with a recent BDS teach-in event, even though it came two days after an antisemitic gunman murdered 11 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

As a result of the increasing intensity of antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents, “I sometimes would cover up my Israel sticker on my laptop to avoid confrontation,” Katz said. “Some students in my small public policy program regularly protest the Israel-related events I attend.”

Universities are meant to include the exchange and flow of ideas in order to help shape students’ minds for the world in which they will enter. And academic freedom used to include the principle that the university was a place where all ideas could be debated, even the most offensive. A professor’s refusal to help a student study stands in direct opposition to that. The University of Michigan needs to do better in including and encouraging its Jewish and pro-Israel students.

Ariel Behar is a writer and blogger at the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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