What is the Effective Curriculum on Israel at UM?

A group of students styling themselves “Direct Action for Palestine” met in early November with President Mark Schlissel of the University of Michigan.  The students demanded “divestment of all university monies from companies targeted by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDSs) movement….” They demanded that UM end all partnerships with Israeli academic institutions and with the state of Israel. They included all student study abroad programs.

They demanded the university disband the faculty panel recently formed to consider university policy in the wake of the refusal by two university instructors to write letters of recommendation for students seeking to study abroad in Israel.  They demanded a public written apology from the President for his “libel” stating that no academic departments at the university have taken a stance supporting BDS and for his allegedly inflammatory university communications.

Basically, they demanded that the goals of the BDS movement be embraced by the University of Michigan, and that the university thereby supinely turn itself over to their guidance and direction.  President Schlissel should be awarded a prize for forbearance in giving the students an honest audience and engaging with them politely.

There appears to be limited learning going on at the UM campus about the Israel-Palestine conflict or about the true goals and purposes of the BDS movement.  Students like those in Direct Action for Palestine are mobilized not for purposes of enhancing the opportunities for peace or mutual understanding but in the effort to capture university bodies, like student governments or administrative offices, to act as megaphones in the global effort to delegitimize Israel and help end its existence.  Students write about Israel’s failure to observe United Nations resolutions but show no similar proclivity to acknowledge Palestinian failure to observe UN resolutions. Students note Israel’s human rights record but say nothing at all about violations of human rights by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, including suicide bombings, rocketing civilian areas, use of human shields, murder, and more.

Professor Victor Lieberman, the Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History, this week expressed his frustration in the Michigan Daily with the status of historical and political analysis on campus.  Lieberman teaches the UM’s general history course on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and regularly entertains multiple views and perspectives in his teaching. But he felt it important now to address the one-sided uncritical view of those who toe the BDS line or who follow them. Nearly all issues that are currently discussed – refugees created in 1947-1949, the West Bank occupation begun after 1967, settlements expanded since 1977, the defensive wall built in 2002, and the post-Gaza blockade – came in direct responses to Arab-initiated acts of violence aimed against the existence of the Jewish state.  And Israel is far from one of the worst in its human rights record among UN member nation states, which after all include Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and several Arab states.  There is a basic unfairness in that the Palestinians were called upon to pay the price for European antisemitism and its consequences; but the Palestinians, Lieberman wrote, have contributed to their ongoing plight; they have responded in ways that often have proved self-destructive.

What happens when a politicized and rigid ideological movement seeks to dictate in a major university what should be thought and known and even said about this conflict, and members of and supporters of this movement offer one-sided partisan takes on university actions, broadcasting these constantly in the university public commons. Our Administration must stop doing this and it must apologize for that, they insist; faculty should disband the committee recently formed to discuss university policy on faculty who refuse to write letters for students seeking to study in Israel;  and students must not be permitted to study abroad in Israel.  Faculty who defy their professional responsibilities in refusing for political reasons to write for such students should be defended and protected.  Indeed, closing down opportunities for Israel study abroad appears to be a growing preoccupation of SJP groups and their allies elsewhere on several campuses.  As an example, thirty student groups recently called on New York University to close its study abroad program at Tel Aviv University. A student organizer with SJP explains the students all “understand Israel to be an immoral and apartheid state.”  As at UM, spokesmen for the president’s office at NYU in response reiterated “the clear, long-standing policy of opposing an academic boycott of Israel”.

Educators often talk about the real or effective curriculum as distinct from the announced and formal one in an educational institution.  What do University of Michigan students actually learn by being part of the campus community in Ann Arbor?  What is the takeaway from all the chatter and drama about Israel?  The UM has a remarkable Jewish Studies Program and sponsors numerous opportunities to study about Israel and Palestine in courses.  Yet for most students at UM the daily litany of boisterous claims made about Israeli evil and immorality, the in-your-face demands launched at hard pressed administrators, and the likely renewed resolution and argument for divestment that is on the horizon comprise something like an effective alternative curriculum and a form of misleading learning. Here bright UM students learn to think and act in black and white, to turn conflicts with many causes into simplistic moral binaries, and to demonize those who see things differently from them.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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