October 20, 2016
Special Reports

Activist Groups Join ZOA Letter to U. of Michigan: Condemn Anti-Israel Display on Rosh Hashanah

VIA EMAIL AND FIRST-CLASS MAIL

Dr. Mark S. Schlissel

President, University of Michigan

503 Thompson Street

Ann Arbor, MI  48109-1340

Dear President Schlissel:

Last month, you sent an important and much-needed message to all members of the campus community, making it clear that “hateful messages have no place at the University of Michigan.  They are an attack on all of us who value constructive dialogue and a welcoming university environment.”  Less than a week after you issued that message, the student group called SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality) engaged in exactly the kind of conduct that you described in your message as “reprehensible,” hurting and offending Jewish members of the university community.  Student leaders and Hillel at the University of Michigan have stood up against anti-Israel hate and for peaceful coexistence on their campus and we commend them for it.  We urge you to stand with them by issuing another statement acknowledging the feelings of pain and marginalization that Jewish students have endured because of SAFE’s actions, exactly as you have done when other members of the community have felt hurt and marginalized by the actions of others.    

On Rosh Hashanah which, as you surely know, is one of the holiest days of the year for the Jewish people, SAFE erected a so-called “apartheid” wall and mock Israeli checkpoints in the center of campus, on the Diag.  As one Jewish student described it, the wall falsely depicted Israel as an apartheid state, and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were falsely painted as vicious murderers.

In fact, Israel is not an apartheid state; it’s a democracy.  Over 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry are Arab Israelis and almost all are Muslims.  They have equal rights with Jewish citizens.  Israel gave away all of Gaza and 40 percent of Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”); 99 percent of the Arabs in these areas live under their own rule.  They have their own Parliament, schools, media and other institutions, and control virtually every aspect of their lives except security.  They could have had their own state, but rejected offers of statehood in 2000 and 2008 while refusing to negotiate.  Israel’s security measures – checkpoints, identification cards, and security barriers – may be inconvenient.  But they are a necessity, in the same way that in the U.S., checkpoints at every airport and other security measures in buildings and elsewhere are an inconvenient necessity, because of the threat of Islamist terrorism.  If there were no Arab terrorism emanating from Arab areas in Judea and Samaria, from Gaza, and within Israel itself, then there would be no checkpoints.

Please issue a statement condemning SAFE, by name, for erecting its “apartheid” wall and mock checkpoints on Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holy day.  Your statement should recognize that although SAFE may have had the right to hold its demonstration on Rosh Hashanah, the group’s actions hurt members of the Jewish community and made them feel ostracized and excluded. 

Many Jewish students expressed how hurt, offended and marginalized they felt by SAFE’s actions on Rosh Hashanah.  Indeed, over 1100 students signed a petition expressing these feelings and concerns.  Yet instead of showing compassion and understanding for the pain that SAFE caused, the group justified its actions, claiming that a vicious attack on Israel is not anti-Semitic, and that SAFE’s goal was “to start the conversation about the oppression of Palestinians under occupation.”

Neither claim is defensible.  First, demonizing Israel is anti-Semitic, as the U.S. government has recognized.  (See the U.S. Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism at http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/fs/2010/122352.htm.)  The land of Israel is central to Judaism.  It is the historic and religious homeland of the Jewish people, where Jews have lived for more than 3000 years.  The land’s ancient name was “Judea,” derived from the same root as the word “Jew.”  When Jews pray, they turn toward their holy city of Jerusalem.   

SAFE’s second claim is also implausible.  If the group had truly been interested in “starting a conversation,” then it would have scheduled its anti-Israel demonstration for a day when Jewish students could be part of the conversation.  Instead, many Jewish students were observing the religious holiday, either on campus or elsewhere, and were thus denied the opportunity to stand up for their Jewish homeland in dialogue with others in the campus community.

No one is questioning whether SAFE had the right to erect its wall and mock checkpoints.  The issue is whether SAFE exercised that right responsibly since the group’s actions hurt Jewish students and made them feel ostracized and excluded, as SAFE surely knew they would.

Last year, in analogous circumstances, when the exercise of a legal right offended members of the university community, you and another senior administrator spoke out and acknowledged those feelings.  Muslim students had raised concerns about the screening of the movie “American Sniper” on campus, to the point that the screening was actually initially cancelled.  Fortunately, the university recognized that cancelling the movie would violate the right of free expression and the movie was screened as scheduled.  But both you and Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper issued statements acknowledging that while cancelling the movie was a mistake and that the movie should be screened, it was important to recognize that some Muslim students felt uncomfortable, marginalized and hurt by the movie’s content. 

We urge you to take the pain and concern of Jewish students in your community just as seriously.  Please issue a statement condemning SAFE, by name, for erecting its “apartheid” wall and mock checkpoints on Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holy day.  Your statement should recognize that although SAFE may have had the right to hold its demonstration on Rosh Hashanah, the group’s actions hurt members of the Jewish community and made them feel ostracized and excluded.  Your failure to do so would send an intolerable message:  that you take the concerns of your Jewish students less seriously than the concerns of other students who have felt offended and marginalized on campus.

We understand that you have had someone from the Office of Public Affairs respond to the many concerns about this matter that have already been brought to your attention.  We respectfully ask that you give this matter your personal consideration and respond to us directly.

Respectfully,

ZIONIST ORGANIZATION OF AMERICA

SIMON WIESENTHAL CENTER

STANDWITHUS

SCHOLARS FOR PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

AMCHA INITIATIVE

cc:  University of Michigan Board of Regents (via email)