December 19, 2018

UMich Students Call for School to Adopt IHRA Definition of Anti-Semitism

Alexa Smith, the University of Michigan Art & Design student who revealed in a Facebook post that a speaker at the school had a slide comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler, announced that she and other students are pushing for the school to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

Smith and other students had met with Gunalan Nadarajan, the dean of University of Michigan’s Stamp School of Art and Design, and Dr. Robert Sellers, the university’s chief diversity officer, earlier in the day to discuss the matter. This was a response to former Black Panther Emory Douglas’ lecture on campus, where he had the Netanyahu-Hitler slide, as well as a slide that depicted missiles adorned in Israeli flags striking the word “peace.”

“In order for anti-Semitism on this campus to be tackled head on, it must first be defined. Example 10 of the IHRA definition states that ‘drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of Nazis’ is an example of anti-Semitism,” Smith said in a Monday Facebook post. “We could have avoided this mess if the University had a policy of teaching this definition to all professors and faculty. In the future, the University will have a guideline to draw a clear line between ‘provocative’ and ‘hate speech.’”

Smith added that the IHRA demand was “well-received” and they are “cautiously optimistic” that it will come to fruition.

“Thank you to everyone who shared my post, made phone calls, and put pressure on the University,” Smith wrote. “It gives us, Jewish students, strength to see that hatred against us will not go unnoticed.”

In a YouTube video, Emory Douglas, the former “revolutionary artist” and minister of culture for the San Francisco Black Panther Party, is seen showing a slide juxtaposing Netanyahu and Hitler with the words “Guilty of Genocide” emblazoned across their heads during his Oct. 4 campus lecture. Another slide depicted the word “peace” being attacked by missiles adorned with American and Israeli flags.

Douglas’ lecture was a part of the Stamps School of Art & Design’s Penny Stamps Speakers Series. Art students are required to attend 11 of  14  lectures; Douglas’ lecture was part of the series.

The university’s public affairs office released a statement that Douglas “covered a wide array of subject matter within the overarching context of his work” and that the Israeli leader’s image was “a single slide among nearly 200 other slides not related to Israel that were presented over the course of an hour.” It added that Douglas’ work is “critical of a wide range of world leaders, including several U.S. presidents.”

Rick Fitzgerald, the assistant vice president for public affairs at the University of Michigan, told the Journal in an email that he could confirm Smith and other students had a “productive meeting” with Nadarajan and Sellers.

“The matter remains under review,” Fitzgerald said.

This latest controversy comes on the heels of reports that two University of Michigan instructors refused to write letters of recommendations for students to study in Israel. On Sept. 5, professor John Cheney-Lippold told Literature, Science and Arts (LSA) junior Abigail Ingber that he couldn’t write the letter because “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” On Oct. 9, the Washington Post reported that economics junior Jake Secker asked teaching assistant Lucy Peterson to write him a letter of recommendation. Peterson initially agreed to write the letter, only to decline when she learned that Secker wanted to study in Israel.

“Along with numerous other academics in the U.S. and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine,” Peterson wrote. “… I would be happy to write a recommendation for you if you end up applying to other programs.”

Secker met with LSA Associate Social Sciences Dean Rosario Ceballo on Oct. 5, where she offered to write him the letter of recommendation and pledged that “some sort of change” would come.

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told the Journal in an email, “ADL understands that not all speech critical of Israel is anti-Semitic. However, discourse and symbols used with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can become anti-Semitic and once it crosses that line, it must be dealt with quickly and correctly. We would support universities taking the IHRA definition into account as part of its consideration in examining allegations of anti-Semitism on campus.”

This story has been updated.