By now most of us are well versed in the facts: University of Michigan’s Professor Cheney-Lippold promised a student a letter of recommendation to study abroad in Israel, and reneged a month later, citing UM’s policy to boycott Israel. He later clarified that the position was his own, not the University’s, coincidentally immediately following his tenure appointment.
After an international outcry, an intense social media campaign and letters from 60 organizations, UM disciplined and sanctioned Cheney-Lippold. A month later, students were subjected to a mandatory lecture by Emory Douglas, a member of the Black Panther party, featuring a slide of artwork he created juxtaposing Benjamin Netanyahu and Hitler.
UM’s president Mark Schlissel defended Douglas’s image as being just one out of 200 images presented, stating “speakers must be free to express their ideas even when they might be offensive,” but was quick to provide a disclaimer that speakers’ “views do not represent the institution’s values.” That’s not good enough when a democratic world leader is compared to Hitler; as Schlissel concedes Hitler “represents a horrific level of evil with few if any parallels in human history.”
While a speaker series should represent divergent views and encourage civilized discourse, all civility expires quickly when images of Hitler are used to compare him to the Israeli Prime Minister. Especially offensive is Schlissel’s accommodation that the University understands “how these images are offensive, particularly in this case to Jewish students.” Wrong. This type of imagery and the message it intentionally sends is offensive, or should be offensive to students because they are empathetic, open-minded, and caring human beings – not because they are Jews.
Surely the images conjured by Hitler’s systematic murderous regime are offensive to all humans, not just Jewish students. Piles of dead naked men, women and children, heaps of shoes, and hair beside crematoriums that worked 24/7 are more than just “offensive,” and not because we’re Jews.
The Israeli government is not without its profound flaws, but when it is systematically targeted to the exclusion of all other purported violators of human rights around the world, the result amounts to veiled anti-Semitism, which is precisely what the BDS movement stands for.
This is not about a speaker’s first amendment rights to express his views. Even hate speech, provided that it doesn’t call for imminent violence, is protected. This is about whether it is appropriate to subject students to a mandatory lecture series of this nature, and if the answer is yes, perhaps an introduction advising of the content, along with a counter viewpoint would provide context, debate and an educational opportunity.
Whitewashing the consequences of this lecture in the wake of the Israel term abroad letter scandal is a missed opportunity on UM’s part. While these incidents are beyond unfortunate, UM has the opportunity to be a leader for change among institutions of higher learning in the US, where the misguided BDS movement and anti-Semitism on campus run rampant. Making excuses does little to advance meaningful change. BDS targets Israel only, effectively ignoring every other imperfect government around the globe. Would the same professor have denied that student a letter of recommendation to attend a term abroad in China? Would the institution condone a slide depicting blatantly racist images?
Rather than sending out a form letter meant to pacify Jewish students, UM should aim to promote inclusivity, fairness and true discourse on campus for all students. BDS and policies that target one group only should be offensive to all, not just the group it targets, in this case, Jewish students. But for now, the Jewish community is watching, and UM has yet to do the right thing.