In 2021, a University of Michigan music professor showed a 1965 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” which featured a white actor in blackface, in class. The professor apologized and stepped down, yet a dean at the university stated that the experience “was hurtful and upsetting to the students in the class,” and the professor’s actions “do not align with our school’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.”
When someone distributed racist fliers on the school’s Ann Arbor campus five years prior, the university’s president at the time, Mark Schlissel, stated, “While we continue to defend any individual’s right to free speech on our campus, these types of attacks directed toward any individual or group, based on a belief or characteristic, are inconsistent with the university’s values of respect, civility and equality.” The university has “a responsibility to create a learning environment that is free of harassment. These are core values and guiding principles that will help us as we strive to live up to our highest ideals,” he added.
When students chanted violent slogans threatening Jewish and Israeli students on campus during Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to campus three weeks ago, the university adopted a different approach. At first, it couldn’t muster a response, and then when it did respond to a letter of complaint from the Israel-based International Legal Forum, the response was “woefully inadequate, and quite frankly offensive,” Arsen Ostrovsky, the forum’s CEO, told JNS.
“It is unfathomable that the university, which purports to promote inclusion and a commitment to combating antisemitism and hate speech, refuses to even merely condemn a rally held on its grounds, calling for violence, with the most obscene antisemitic hate rhetoric,” he said.
Students chanted “there is only one solution: intifada revolution” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” among other hateful slogans, which call for the violent destruction of Israel, according to Ostrovsky.
Rather than responding that Jewish and Israeli students had a right to feel safe, and that such language constituted violence—as the university has plastered all over certain sections of its website—Rick Fitzgerald, associate vice president for public affairs, wrote to ILF that this was a matter of academic freedom.
“It is clear that many within and outside our university community heard certain chants as antisemitic,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We understand that perspective and thank you and others for sharing those views, especially during this time in our nation’s history when there has been a rise in antisemitic speech and violence.”
The implication being that others would not hear a chant like “intifada revolution” as antisemitic. Merriam-Webster defines the first term as “an armed uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
“One of the most important values as an institution—one we teach and model in and out of the classroom and one that is embodied in our commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion—is the respect for those who have different opinions, have different life experiences, hold different world views,” Fitzgerald wrote.
The university’s website addresses violence and safety of the community often. A 2011 item bears the headline, “Fighting words: Violent political rhetoric fuels violent attitudes.” This year, its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 1.0 Evaluation Report referenced creating “an inclusive and equitable campus climate” and encouraged “a culture of belonging in which every member of our community can grow and thrive.” Elsewhere, the university states that it “is committed to establishing, supporting and maintaining a community where all members feel safe and supported.”
The antisemitic rally in Ann Arbor comes as antisemitic incidents on U.S. college campuses have reached an all-time high, according to the ADL-Hillel Campus Antisemitism Survey, released in 2021. This year, antisemitic incidents have included Students for Justice in Palestine calling to boycott a University of Chicago course taught by a retired Israeli general and in Washington, George Washington University’s alleged violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Applying a double standard, in which negative behaviors directed toward Jews are permissible while similar behaviors directed toward other groups are not, is a common feature of antisemitism,” Jay Greene, a senior research fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation, told JNS.
“University of Michigan administrators can claim to be principled defenders of free speech when allowing genocidal chants by groups of students against Jews go unpunished. But the fact that they do not similarly adhere to that principle of free speech in other cases reveals them as unprincipled facilitators of Jew-hatred,” he said.
The University of Michigan did not respond to several requests for comment from JNS over the phone, email and social media.
As a public institution, University of Michigan ought to lean “heavily” in favor of permitting speech, and exceptions to constitutionally protected speech is exceedingly rare, Greene said.
“Speech is not violence, and should not be punished as if it were. Some speech will make others uncomfortable, but public universities should be promoting the free exchange of ideas rather than making sure that everyone feels safe,” he said. “If the standard of punishable speech becomes the subjective discomfort of the hearer, all speech could be punished and this becomes unworkable. And selectively applying that protection to some groups but not others is a double-standard that is discriminatory.”
And when it comes to academic freedom, Greene thinks universities ought to protect that as well, for both students and faculty. If protestors interfere with core research and teaching on campus, they can be restricted.
“The problem, again, is that too often university administrators apply these rules differently to Jews than to other groups,” he said. “The rules should be the same for everyone.”
Ostrovsky, whose letter to the university went unanswered initially, wrote to the University of Michigan that his organization is committed to both free speech and the “sacrosanct” right to protest. The Jan. 12 rally, however, was a direct call for violence, which placed Jewish students, faculty and staff in danger.
“Calls for ‘intifada’ and ‘from the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’ have become synonymous with violence, terror and lethal antisemitism,” he wrote to the university. “Many American citizens were murdered during the brutal first and second intifadas. There may well be students at your university who lost loved ones.”
“You said the university cares ‘deeply about any member of the university community who experiences fear, threat, or devaluation,’” Ostrovsky added. “But if that is so, then why has the university refrained from acting or even issuing any statement in response to the events of January 12th and the deeply felt impact on Jewish students, faculty and staff?”
The university has a history of unchecked antisemitism. And the student group that yelled out the antisemitic chants plans to host activist Mohammed El-Kurd, who has a history of glorifying Palestinian violence and of deeply antisemitic remarks. In two weeks, the group will honor Palestinian terrorists, who commit violence and murder, including Alqam Khairy, who murdered seven Israelis last Shabbat.
“It is unfathomable that the university will permit such events, glorifying the kind of carnage we saw in Jerusalem,” Ostrovsky wrote.