Professors, students see executive order on anti-Semitism as a challenge to academic freedom

Sunday, February 9, 2020 - 12:32pm

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Photo & Design by Alec Cohen/Daily

University of Michigan professors are worried that an executive order intended to combat anti-Semitism poses a threat to their ability to teach about Middle Eastern conflict and engage with students freely in the classroom. 

The executive order, signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 11, 2019, designates Judaism as either a nationality or a race and prohibits anti-Semitism, declaring certain language painting Israel in a negative light as anti-Semitic and illegal under the Civil Rights Act. 

Universities that defy it risk potentially losing federal funding, but leaders in the University’s Judaic Studies Department do not foresee any changes to their curricula and doubt the efficacy of the order. Jeffrey Veidlinger, director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, said no alterations would be made in his department.

“We will not make any changes based on the Trump executive order,” Veidlinger said. “I think that’s the goal of the executive order, (which) is to have that chilling effect on the climate of teaching, to make professors afraid of things they would otherwise say.” 

The order follows an increase in anti-Semitic harassment on college campuses across the country. According to the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate group dedicated to protecting Jewish people, American colleges and universities claimed an 89 percent increase in reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 compared to 2016. 

This order follows a rise in attacks on Jewish people outside of academia, including a shooting that killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 and a December 2019 attack in which a knife-wielding man wounded five people gathered to light candles for the seventh night of Hanukkah at the home of a Hasidic rabbi.

Order reminiscent of previous controversy on campus

On Nov. 14, 2017, the University’s Central Student Government passed the #UMDivest resolution supporting divestment from companies operating in Israel due to alleged human rights violations. The resolution aligned with values of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, a movement started by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005, and initiated a wave of support from pro-divestment students, and conversely, dissent from many pro-Israel students.  

Professor Victor Lieberman, who declined to be quoted in this article, was critical of the BDS movement on campus, accusing pro-Palestine activists of stifling political discourse. In an open letter published in The Algemeiner in 2017, Lieberman accused BDS activists of hypocrisy after he was blocked from speaking during the divestment debate at the Central Student Government meeting.

“Uncertainty is what makes intellectual life exciting,” Lieberman wrote. “Unfortunately the tolerance that was on display on November 14 is part of the growing climate of intolerance that has led to the shutting down of speakers on college campuses across the country. Irony of ironies: while student representatives spoke in favor of silencing me, UMDivest supporters in the audience waved signs that read ‘Do Not Silence Me.’”

People have previously accused faculty members claiming academic freedom in their criticism of Israel of anti-Semitism. In 2018, American Culture Professor John Cheney-Lippold and Graduate Student Instructor Lucy Peterson refused to write letters of recommendation for students studying abroad in Israel as part of a boycott against the alleged human rights abuses occurring in Palestine. 

The move garnered national attention, including accusations of anti-Semitism and multiple death threats against Cheney-Lippold. The University issued disciplinary action, withholding his sabbatical eligibility and credits until the Fall 2020 semester. 

In an email to The Daily, Cheney-Lippold stressed the importance of viewing the order in its geopolitical context, citing the Trump administration’s relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of the Golan Heights as a part of Israel. He also described the order as a push to silence pro-BDS conversations.

“Trump is using this re-definition of anti-Semitism, fairly explicitly, as a means to silence political speech that seeks to draw attention to human rights violations in Israel,” Cheney-Lippold wrote. “Critique of a state — indeed, any state — must be protected and not be seen as a critique of the people of that state.”

New definition elicits national response, criticism

The executive order sparked outcry from professors at higher education institutions across the country. The Jewish Studies Activist Network, an organization that speaks out against policies that run counter to its members’ values as Jewish studies scholars, issued a letter on Dec. 19 detailing the concerns surrounding Trump’s executive order. The letter explained the dangers of adopting a definition that includes all “targeting” of Israel as anti-Semitic. 

The executive order codifies the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, but JSAN’s letter points out that the lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, publicly declared that the government should not adopt it, as using such definitions as a matter of U.S. policy was not the original intention.

JSAN encouraged scholars and educators from colleges and universities across the world to sign the letter in support of condemning Trump’s executive order. More than 100 names are attached to the letter, including faculty and staff at the University such as Veidlinger, Karla Goldman, Sam Shuman, Anita Norich, Rachel Rafael Neis and Shachar Pinsker.

Lila Corwin Berman, Temple University history professor and member of the JSAN coordinating committee, said the order specifically targets students who have origins tied to Israel, including Palestinian and Muslim students. Berman discussed the necessity of learning about the histories and the conflicts related to Israel, which she said will be hindered as the order is implemented in college and university campuses.

“Suddenly, there are people who feel like they don’t want to touch it, they don’t want to get involved,” Berman said. “You have this area of study that is incredibly important to think about historically, to think about politically, economically, in all these lenses that academia can bring, that people are going to feel like they can’t talk about it or they will face consequences. And that some people, by virtue of their identity, be seen as suspects already for this.”

National Jewish affinity groups have differed in their response to the order. While critics question if Trump is using it as a political tool to lure in Jewish support, prominent organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee have released statements supporting the order.

The AJC noted it will continue to speak out against any “rational criticism” of Israel, though it does not see this order as an attempt to stifle free speech.

“We trust that a careful application of this directive will enable university administrators to avoid running afoul of free speech protections as they seek to root out anti-Semitism on their campuses,” AJC CEO David Harris wrote in a statement.

Students, faculty split on potential impacts of order

In addition to noting his department will not make any changes because of the order, Veidlinger said the order has no practical purpose, besides signaling to academia that they are being watched by the government.

“I think they recognize that universities promote liberal values of tolerance, diversity — and those values are an anathema to the current government,” Veidliner said.

LSA sophomore David Zwick, president of Wolverines for Israel, acknowledged that academic overreach by the federal government is a prominent concern but said anti-Semitism was a problem that many Jewish students face. 

“Students feel frankly scared to walk around wearing symbols of Judaism publicly, like a yamaka or a Star of David, on some of the most diverse campuses that we have, not only diverse but one of the most prestigious college campuses in this country,” Zwick said.

Goldman, a professor of Judaic studies and program director of Jewish Communal Leadership who signed the JSAN letter, said the executive order may feel unsettling for many in the Jewish community because she believes singling out Jewish people may lead to increased anti-Semitism.

“We discussed this in class, this blurriness of what Jewish identity is in general,” Goldman said. “It’s not just a religion, it’s not just a culture, it’s not just a peoplehood. But these things, like nationality or race, are just very clumsy fits, as well as religion. Those are categories that our culture gives us that aren’t great fits for describing an identity that has lots of facets and means different things to different people.” 

After the executive order was signed, students and activist groups on campus alternatively praised and criticized the move. 

Social Work student Simeon Adler is currently in the first year of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. Adler said Trump’s decision may further alienate Jewish students. 

“It singles out the Jews themselves, which I think a lot of Jews on campus and in general are really skeptical about, and a little cautious about,” Adler said. “This whole idea of labeling us as a nationality has people a little uneasy.”

Students also acknowledged that the order will influence the academic freedom of faculty teaching about Israel.

LSA senior Silan Fadlallah, who took The Arab-Israeli Conflict in Middle Eastern Literature and Film, noted that the executive order could have a negative impact on discussions in the classroom, specifically for Palestinian students.

“Some Palestinian students, specifically, may feel a little less encouraged to be able to participate in these types of discussions for fear of being anti-Semitic,” Fadlallah said. “Personally, I have no problem speaking out about it and standing up for myself, but I know a lot of students would take a step back because of that.”

Deborah Dash Moore, Frederick G.L. Huetwell professor of history, currently teaches several courses related to Jewish history and culture. Moore said she will focus her classes more on the history and methods of combating anti-Semitism. 

“That approach I will probably pay a little more attention to because those are efforts to dismantle the practice of anti-Semitic discrimination by explicitly calling upon American ideals, rather than grounding it in definitions of what constitutes as anti-Semitism,” Moore said. 

Moore’s classes examine the history of Zionism, which Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs defines as “an ideology which expresses the yearning of Jews the world over for their historical homeland — Zion, the Land of Israel.” 

Similar to Cheney-Lippold, Fadlallah raised concerns that anti-Zionism could be considered anti-Semitism when they are not the same.  

“Just because you are against the state of Israel, that does not mean you are against Jewish people,” Fadlallah said. 

According to Zwick, there are two main types of discussion surrounding Israel. The first is fair, just criticism of Israel similar to how any person could criticize the U.S. However, in Zwick’s eyes, the second type — criticism that disproportionately scrutinizes Israel — is unhealthy. Zwick thinks that pro-Palestinian groups are sometimes unable to distinguish between those discussions.

“Their claim that is that their free speech is being stifled, specifically disproportionately being stifled, I think that’s also ridiculous,” Zwick said. “The reason I say that is because what they accuse us of doing is conflating criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, but really, it’s really they who are conflating it.” 

Education junior Diana Yassin has taken History 244: The History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Political Science 353: The Arab-Israeli Conflict. She said the courses were taught with a pro-Israeli focus.

“I really don’t agree with the ways these classes are taught often just because I feel like it really neglects a lot of the Palestinian perspective and really puts a lot of blame on Palestinians,” Yassin said. 

Zwick, however, said he has not witnessed any bias in the Middle Eastern-focused classes that he has taken. He noted anti-Semitic teachings might not always happen in the topics strictly pertaining to Middle Eastern or Judaic studies. 

“A lot of the issues of anti-Semitism come from classes that are completely irrelevant to this topic, oftentimes in departments that you wouldn’t even imagine this would come up,” Zwick said. “Go and ask so many pro-Israel students on this campus … they will be painfully familiar with instances on this campus and/or on other campuses of teachers using the classroom as a platform to promote anti-Semitic movements against Israel.”

Goldman said universities should be places for encouraging conversations and broadening perspectives, and this order undermines that goal. Because of this, Goldman said she sees the order as a threat to academic freedom.

“Most of us are here because we want to have access to voice, to financial security — these things that a university can help provide — to legitimacy,” Goldman said. “Our hopes — our ideals — are that it’s a place for opening discourse, rather than shutting it down. And that’s why this (executive order) feels bad.”

Daily staff Reporters Francesca Duong and Kristina Zheng can be reached at fduong@umich.edu and krizheng@umich.edu.