After he criticized Hamas in a 2014 Facebook post, Connecticut College Professor Andrew Pessin was forced into a sabbatical due to threats and faculty ostracism. On the same campus, however, rabidly anti-Israel speakers were invited, including one who pushed the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Israel harvested Palestinians' organs and engaged in medical experimentation.
One of Pessin's colleagues later said 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 anti-Semitic episodes on American university campuses.
The University of Michigan drew unwanted attention last month 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 routinely are 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.
Anti-Semitic incidents on U.S. 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, a senior studying public policy, 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. He won't get a raise this year and the university froze his sabbatical eligibility.
"I think it's wildly inappropriate for a professor to let his political views get in the way of his relationships and responsibilities to students," Katz told the IPT.
Cheney-Lippold said 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 once again took heat when a speaker at a required lecture compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolph 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 anti-Semitism.
Katz detailed the many anti-Semitic tropes that have been seen on 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," calling it a double standard.
To add insult to injury, Michigan's Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CMENAS) hosted a teach-in about what motivates artists and musicians to join the BDS movement last Monday.
The BDS movement is seen as anti-Semitic because it sets a double-standard and holds the only Jewish state accountable 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 the BDS teach-in even though it came two days after an anti-Semitic gunman murdered 11 Jews at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. "Frankly, we considered canceling the event altogether," said CMENAS director Samer Ali. "But violence is contagious...BDS is the most important global issue for thousands of students on the U-M campus."
So according to Ali, isolating the world's only Jewish state economically, politically, and intellectually is more important to thousands of Michigan students than any domestic issue, or than the deaths of thousands of Syrians, jailed journalists around the globe, or climate change.
He might be right, but what does that say about the motivations and priorities of BDS advocates?
As a result of the increasing intensity of anti-Semitic 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 wear kaffiyehs and 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 its Jewish and pro-Israel students.