Photo credit: Alexa Smith

Questions of Anti-Semitism at the University of Michigan

4 mins read

Another day of classes had just begun for the students at The University of Michigan. For most, it was just one day closer to the weekend. For one student, it was the day anti-Semitism had become a part of her curriculum.  


Alexa Smith, senior graphic design major at The University of Michigan, was attending a mandatory lecture entitled the “Penny Stamps Speaker Series,” held by Professor Emory Douglas. During the lecture, Douglas exhibited a series of slides on a projector, containing approximately 200 in total, but one of them had quickly offended Jewish students. It was a photo of Adolf Hitler, who in the 1940s led Germany into World War II and enacted the mass genocide of six million Jews. Alongside his photo, was the face that belongs to the current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Written across their foreheads were the words: “Guilty of Genocide.”  


In a call for action, Smith shared her experience with the rest of the world via Facebook, which has been shared over 1,000 times and has generated a massive audience. In a post that called out the act of anti-Semitism, Smith begs the question, “In what world is it ok for a mandatory course to host a speaker who compares Adolf Hitler to the Prime Minister of Israel?”


According to Smith, university spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald labeled the Stamps Lecture Series as “provocative,” a description which may indicate why the University withheld any formal actions from being taken against the lecturer or in response to the event.  


Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. On Sept. 17th, 2018, a Jewish student received an email from a professor stating his intention to withdraw a letter of recommendation he had agreed to provide for her study-abroad application. Professor John Cheney-Leopold, the professor in question, cited his reasoning in the following statement:  “As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”  


This blatant excuse was written off as permissible since professors have the right to refuse letters to any student.  However, anyone can tell the actual reasoning for this professor’s actions roots from one reason, and it isn’t a pretty one. Smith sided with her fellow student, reasoning that “no student should be denied a letter to study in the land that is so central to his or her own identity regardless of the professor’s political views.”


“I do not think acts of anti-semitism have been given the attention they deserve,” Smith commented. “Many will claim that Jewish individuals are privileged and therefore they do not have the right to be vulnerable. However, Jewish people have historically been attacked on the premise that they have privilege. An example of this can be seen in the recent massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. We must remind others that we are still a minority and just as worthy of protection from hate speech as other minority groups.”  


In light of these enraging events, combined with the devastating events that occurred in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27th, 2018, Alexa’s decision to attend the University of Michigan remains unfaltering. “No school is perfect, but I think the university has a real opportunity here to be the first university in the U.S. to adopt this IHRA definition of antisemitism.”


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