A department at the University of Michigan is hosting an event with leading advocates of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which the department head said will be "decidedly pro-BDS."
The Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CMENAS) will hold a "Teach-In Town Hall" on the Palestinian-led movement and its significance on Monday, only weeks after the university attracted national attention and concern from the Jewish community when two of its instructors withheld letters of recommendations from students who planned to study in Israel.
The instructors each cited their personal political views — specifically their support for the boycott campaign, which forbids adherents from assisting students who wish to study in Israel — in explaining their decisions, prompting U-M's administration to reiterate its rejection of BDS and impose sanctions in at least one case.
In an email sent to CMENAS faculty and students on Tuesday, department director Samer Mahdy Ali said the event — organized "on short order in response to the current crisis" — will feature a 45-minute long "teach in" portion that "is decidedly pro-BDS."
Speakers were initially set to include Anna Baltzer, director of organizing and advocacy at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, and Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement — both professional proponents of BDS.
The panel was changed on Friday to include only Arraf, as well as author Susan Abulhawa and U-M master's student Daniel Kaplan, both of whom have previously been involved in BDS advocacy.
Launched by Palestinian groups in 2005, BDS says it seeks "to isolate Israel academically, culturally, economically and militarily" until it abides by three key demands. Critics accuse it of denying the Jewish people's right to national self-determination and aiming to dismantle the Jewish state, a goal endorsed by the campaign's co-founder.
In addressing why the event will not give "equal time" to speakers who have opposing views on BDS, Ali pointed to laws that were enacted in 25 US states, including Michigan, which forbid the state from contracting with entities that boycott US allies, particularly Israel. Supporters say the measures prevent public funds from being used to legitimize national-origin discrimination, though Palestinian groups and free speech advocates argue that they violate constitutionally-protected rights.
Ali suggested such laws, as well as the stance of U-M leaders, had the effect of "chilling academic freedom" for many.
"In this context, a pro-BDS panel goes against the grain of official orthodoxy and claims for our community a forum to interrogate and test this unpopular point of view," he wrote.
The pro-BDS presentation will be followed by a "town hall," which will include "an open discussion with and among audience members where diverse and diverging views can be aired in a deliberate manner," Ali added.
Additional funding for the event will be provided by U-M's Department of Anthropology; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; Arab and Muslim American Studies; Department of American Culture; the International Institute; Institute for the Humanities; Conflict and Peace Initiative; Colonialism, Race, and Sexualities Initiative; and Middle Eastern Law Students Association.
Ali — a professor of Arabic and Islamic culture, who assumed the role of CMENAS director in July 2017 — told The Algemeiner on Friday that despite the decision to only promote one point of view in the panel, students who both support and oppose BDS are "free to engage this event as they see fit."
"If UM faculty have a right to invite one controversial speaker, such Emory Douglas," he said — referring to the former Black Panther Party member, who displayed a picture comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler in an on-campus lecture earlier this month — then "CMENAS certainly has an equal right to invite three different panelists to talk about their experiences with BDS, and then I as moderator will turn to the audience to facilitate discussion and debate."
"Why would that scare anyone?" he asked.
Yet Tammi Rossman-Benjamin — director of the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit that combats antisemitism on college campuses — raised concerns about the event's stated slant, telling The Algemeiner on Thursday that Middle East Studies departments "have an obligation to encourage their students to study about and travel to and learn the language of Israel — that's a part of what a Middle East Studies program is supposed to do, because last time I checked, Israel is a Middle Eastern country."
She pointed out that CMENAS receives funding from the US Department of Education's Title VI program through its status as a National Resource Center (NRC), as well as its receipt of Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships. In its application for NRC and FLAS grants for 2018-22, which was approved, U-M detailed CMENAS's Hebrew-language program, and said the center "promotes study abroad experiences in more than a dozen MENA countries."
The application also positively noted U-M's institutional links with multiple Israeli counterparts, including Tel Aviv University, University of Haifa, Technion University, Weizmann Institute of Science, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. These ties are rejected by the BDS campaign, to which Ali signed-on in a 2016-17 open letter to members of the Modern Language Association.
Rossman-Benjamin argued that while a department head that backs BDS may face a "conflict of interests," they could still properly execute their role as long as they don't implement the boycott in the university.
"This is why this event is so worrisome," she observed. "[Ali] has a right to say he supports this boycott, but if he uses … 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 … that is a red flag."
Ali, however, underscored that while he has championed the boycott "as a citizen and scholar of Middle Eastern studies," CMENAS 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."
"I hold personal views which are matters of conscience, well known in my public engagement work, and I have duties as CMENAS director, that involve consulting with dozens of stakeholders, and I lead this unit by consensus," Ali explained. "As CMENAS director, I work with more 125 faculty members, each with their own thinking, and an elected Executive Committee to formulate policy."
"As a unit, we have decided not to participate in academic boycotts of Israel," he continued, asserting that many of the department's faculty members "freely encourage students" to study abroad in the MENA region, including Israel.
"We have diverse and diverging views on Israel's occupation and BDS, and I respect and value that diversity," Ali said.
This January, despite objections from some Jewish students, CMENAS sponsored a lecture by former academic and BDS activist Steven Salaita, who had previously accused "Zionists" of "transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948." The discussion centered on Salaita's latest book, Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine, which is described as offering "a fascinating inside account" of BDS, and emphasizing its "significant potential as an organizing entity as well as its importance in the creation of intellectual and political communities."
Earlier that academic year, U-M's student government passed a divestment resolution targeting Israel. A history professor who was barred from speaking at the divestment hearing told The Algemeiner at the time that "in my department alone there are six pro-BDS senior professors."