News Story

Legislature Makes Strong Pro-Israel Statement, U-M Goes Other Way

Broad bipartisan majorities approved anti-boycott contracting law; U-M hosted Israel boycott conference

Two days after a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the University of Michigan hosted an anti-Israel event put on by one of its departments.

The university’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies held what it dubbed a “Teach-In Town Hall” Oct. 29. The event was part of a national campaign calling against Israel, called boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS.

The Alegmeiner Journal, a New York-based newspaper that covers Jewish issues, reported that the center’s director, Samer Mahdy Ali, sent an email on Oct. 26 that described the teach-in event as “decidedly pro BDS.” The event transpired just two days after suspect Robert Bowers was accused of killing 11 people and injuring seven others in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

The leader of the B’nai B’rith International said the U-M event wasn’t only about criticism of Israel.

"I question the motivations of those pursuing this,” said Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International. “Their interest is in delegitimizing Israel. It’s a movement meant to demean, delegitimize and demonize the state of Israel."

University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said U-M officially opposes a boycott of Israel.

The University of Michigan earlier made news when in October John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor, changed his mind and refused to write a student a recommendation letter required by a student to study abroad. This happened after Cheney-Lippold learned the student’s program would be in Israel. Cheney-Lippold then cited a boycott in favor of the Palestinians as the reason for his refusal to make the recommendation, according to The Detroit News.

Neither of these at these actions at the university would trigger a state law enacted in December 2016 prohibiting the state from giving a construction contract to a person, company or organization that refuses to affirm that it will not participate in a boycott of Israel. What’s notable about that law is that it was supported by lopsided bipartisan majorities in the Michigan Legislature.

Just one month after the election of Donald Trump as president, only 10 of 108 members of the Michigan House did not vote for the anti-boycott bill, and only three opposed it in the 38-member Senate.

The law was sponsored by Rep. Robert Wittenberg, a Democrat from Oak Park. “I’m not really sure if it can be triggered by an employee acting on his/her own behalf,” Wittenberg said in an email. “I would assume it would have to be based on a decision made by the University Board, President or someone in leadership. I’ll have to do some research and get back to you.”

In June, the Michigan Legislature voted to appropriate $370.2 million for operations at U-M's Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2018.