The University of Michigan and BDS

First of all, chevra, a gut gebensht yohr! Peace upon all your houses. May Israel, our Arab neighbors, and the whole world enjoy a 5779 of peace and health, of joy and of yiras shomayim, fear of Heaven.

Now then. You’ll have read in the news of a professor of media studies or something waffly like that (one recalls W.H. Auden’s versified strictures about what “sciences” thou shalt not practice, in a commencement address) at Ann Arbor who has refused to write a letter of recommendation for one of his students because she’s hoping to study in Israel. And we all know that, the Technion and Hebrew University and Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ben Gurion, etc. aside, there’s no place to study in Israel. The young lady would be much better off, say, in Aleppo or Damascus, studying the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a bomb shelter. Or in some equally venerable institution in Saudi Arabia or Sudan, learning Shari’a law through a peep hole in her hijab, undistracted by the presence of the opposite sex. Or perhaps enjoying a public flogging near a madrasa in Aceh. But study in the Zionist Entity? The home of apartheid? We might as well rename it the Orange Free State! Mitz tapuzim! Get outta town!

The administrators at Ann Arbor expressed mild displeasure, but anybody who can figure out that water flows downhill knows damn well that most American universities turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a bald head to anti-Semitism on campus. Our Jew-baiting savant will do just fine (unless, please God, Annushka’s already spilled the sunflower oil, ha-mevin yavin).

A few years back a prof at that same benighted idiot-factory-cum- laughing-academy, who had been a friend of mine (we studied Armenian history under the same teacher onct at Columbia, too), discovered his inner Social Justice activist and intrepidly signed a BDS declaration. I wrote to him, saying more or less this: Hey, X, you know I’m not just the prof of Armenian at Harvard, I’m a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University too. Are you planning on boycotting me? He replied that he boycotted institutions, not individuals. Whatever the hell that means. Actually it doesn’t mean anything except that bigots, when confronted with their own vileness, turn out to be mealy-mouthed cowards as well.

That exchange took place while I was in Israel, actually. I had given a lecture at the university, had narrowly escaped death in a terrorist attack at the Jaffa Gate in Yerushalayim (the two who died were an Argentinian Rosh Yeshiva and an Israeli who jumped out of his car to help the defenseless Rabbi ward off his knife-wielding, ever-so-heroic attacker, who was doubtless motivated by displeasure at the Holy City’s insufficient diversity), and was staying with family. We were still mourning the loss of my cousin Walter, who had passed away a few months before. I’d spent the day davening and reading Tehillim at the Kotel.

But my trip had an additional purpose. You see, not long before that the Times of Israel— yes, gentle reader, this very paper— had run a story about an Israeli junior high school girl. Like all girls of that age on this planet, and, one imagines, all other inhabited ones, she loved horses. So she decided to write a term paper about the early domestication of the horse, and she wrote to the ranking specialist in such matters, a British scholar of Jewish extraction in Cambridge. That woman wrote back that she supported BDS and regarded this girl, despite her tender age, as fully complicit in Israel’s suppression of the Palestinians, etc., etc. And therefore (imagine Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen aroused to high dudgeon) would not help her with her term paper! So there! We are not amused! Off with her head! (One can only imagine what the creature might have written to Anne Frank. But better not to.)

Well it just happens that in addition to fooling around with Armenian and Iranian and Slavica and Judaica, I totally love horses. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, and neither would the quarter horse who gave me a really choppy lope out in Clovis this morning. It wasn’t the mare’s fault! But I know something about equine history. So I offered this girl help with her paper. And Robin, the Californian owner of a horse bookshop in Massachusetts (where I lived then), dropped everything to search for and find just the ideal book. Horse people tend to be decent and fair-minded, and the story had enraged my very gentle (and gentile) friend Robin. God bless her. I bought the book, flew to Israel, and presented it to our budding hippologist.

She, her kid sister, and her Dad came to Ein Kerem on Christmas Day to collect the tome and walk around the lovely village. Cousin Paula rolled out the red carpet for them. I got them fancy artisanal Jerusalemite ice cream, excuse me, gelato. The Russian and Catholic church bells rang ding-dong. It was a nice day. She loved the book. She wrote her paper.

The next week her Dad came back to the village one evening and we went out to eat at the Pundak. To my utter surprise, he gave me a kiddush cup— that I’ve used every Shabbos and Havdalah and Yom Tov ever since. And every time I fill it I think of those good days and good folks and how we turned the ugliness of that Cantabrigian scoundrel into the sublime beauty of Ein Kerem, and a sunny winter afternoon, and happiness for a young girl.

So here’s the deal: if the Univ. of Michigan student who was denied a letter would kindly send me some of her term papers, etc., I’ll read them, evaluate her work, and if I deem it is good I’ll write her the letter of recommendation she needs, with a nice crimson veritas letterhead, to the Israeli university of her choice or to any other  school on God’s green earth she wants to attend. It’s not just Ahavas Yisroel, it’s common academic and human decency.

As to her erstwhile prof, I believe God already decided people’s futures and closed the books on that last night. But if he likes, I’d be more than happy to pen an additional letter to The Holy One, Blessed Be He, recommending the gentleman for early admission to the next world. The Hasidim say creatures of his ilk spend a year burning in Gehinnom, and then their entire essence is blown away as dust. Good training for oblivion, which is the final destiny of all haters, part-time or tenured, and irrespective of color or creed.

But let us speak no more of him. He, and his like, are the damned.

Better to close on a vignette from here in the warm Central Valley. A brilliant pupil, a classicist, burly, cheerful, of Mexican descent, came up to me at the end of Biblical Hebrew class. He had gone to a bakery far from his home, reserved, paid for, then returned and fetched me a round holiday challah— this out of his limited time and presumably modest funds. This is a young man who is endlessly generous, tutoring and mentoring others at Fresno State. If they want to learn, who cares what or where? We’re told the world stands on Torah, on ‘avodah (worship), and on gemilus chasodim, loving-kindness. Chabad & Co. have got the first two legs of the cosmic stool covered. Stephen has the third, and I want to thank Hashem for him, for good students and real charity to people who want to learn— to Israelis, to Palestinians, to everybody. That is what teachers do and that is what true intelligence is. The world’s always needed such folks desperately, and it still does. May God drizzle their challahs with honey this year, and every year. And to that student in Ann Arbor: my prediction is that you’re going to have a great time studying at the university of your choice in Israel!




About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
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