May 20, 2019

Lawfare Project Warns U-M of Potential Legal Action

Photo from Flickr.

The Lawfare Project, an organization that provides legal defense for Jewish and pro-Israel students, wrote in a memorandum to University of Michigan administrators that the school could be subject to legal liability if it doesn’t properly address the recent controversies that have engulfed the campus.

The Oct. 15 memo, which the Journal has obtained, begins by noting that the university could “be subject to liability under federal anti-discrimination law as well as other provisions of federal law and the Michigan Compiled Laws and Constitution” if they don’t adequately address the “hostile environment” on campus toward Jewish students.

Two instructors at the university have declined to write letters of recommendation to students who wanted to study abroad in Israel; one of the instructors, Professor John Cheney-Lippold, has been disciplined by the school. However, Lawfare notes in their memo that the university has yet to commit to an investigation of academic boycotts within their academic personnel and has yet to take any action against the second instructor, teaching assistant Lucy Peterson.

“This is neither an issue of free speech nor an issue of academic freedom. A refusal by a state actor to write a letter of recommendation for Jewish students wishing to study in the Jewish state is not protected speech––it is unlawful conduct,” the memo states. “These principles are enshrined in American jurisprudence: one cannot refuse services to an individual based on that person’s membership in a protected class, and then attempt to hide their bigotry behind the First Amendment.”

Additionally, during an Oct. 4 lecture required for art students, former Black Panther Emory Douglas showed an image comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahut to Adolf Hitler. After University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said it was “one of nearly 200 slides,” Art & Design student Alexa Smith has revealed that Douglas had presented a second anti-Semitic slide during the lecture.

“This attempt to minimize the anti-Semitic content of the lecture suggests that President Schlissel was either unaware of, or ambivalent to, other, even more abhorrent slides that have been unearthed since his statement was released––including one that depicts Jews as pigs, drinking from bottles of money and holding a wand with a Star of David,” the memo states. “This imagery invokes history’s classical––and most genocidal––anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and all the deep-seated bigotry associated with them. The Jew-hatred inherent in this presentation cannot be whitewashed by pointing to the number of other, ‘non-Jew-hating’ slides in the lecture.”

The memo went on to cite other instances that have created the “hostile environment” on campus, including a swastika painted on the men’s bathroom at the university in November 2017, the same day that the school’s student government approved an Israel divestment resolution.

The memo concludes by suggesting that the university investigate and thoroughly sanction their academic personnel for engaging in boycotts of Israel, adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, and issue a statement condemning all forms of anti-Semitism. The memo also indicates that some students are looking into possible “legal options” against the university.

“Today The Lawfare Project urged the University of Michigan to take appropriate steps to respond to recent disturbing incidents of blatant anti-Semitism on campus,” Larry Hill, chairman of The Lawfare Project, said in a statement. “We are monitoring the situation at U-M very carefully, watching to see what the university administration says and does moving forward. There is no academic benefit to the use of images invoking the most hateful and conspiratorial anti-Semitic canards, and no free speech right to impose one’s own political agenda on students under one’s control and tutelage. U-M has a moral and legal responsibility to address discrimination on campus, and we hope it will take swift action to fulfill that obligation.”