Lawfare Project warns University of Michigan about potential legal liability in wake of anti-Semitic incidents

U-M urged to take incidents "very seriously" after two students denied recommendation letters to study in Israel and another student required to hear lecture equating Netanyahu to Hitler

The Lawfare Project, a U.S.-based think tank and litigation fund that fights anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli discrimination, has warned the University of Michigan (U-M) that it may be subject to liability under federal anti-discrimination law as well as other provisions of federal and state law following its unsatisfactory response to several major incidents of anti-Semitism on its campus.

On Sunday, October 14, The Lawfare Project—which is currently litigating two lawsuits against San Francisco State University for alleged anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jewish students at the school, and another two against the City University of New York for anti-Semitic employment discrimination—delivered a memorandum to U-M administrators, including President Mark Schlissel, following reports that American Culture Professor John Cheney-Lippold and Lucy Peterson, a graduate teaching assistant for a political theory course, both denied Jewish students letters of recommendation to study abroad on the grounds that their destination was Israel.

Another student revealed last week that, as a condition for receiving her degree from U-M’s Stamps School of Art & Design, she was required to participate in a lecture that included the presentation of a slide equating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Adolf Hitler. After U-M President Schlissel responded that this slide was one of "nearly 200 slides" in the presentation, the student revealed another image from the same lecture that depicted Jews as pigs, drinking from bottles of money, and holding a wand with a Star of David.

The newly revealed imagery, according to the student, "comes from the playbook of Hitler and Goebbels, and invokes history's most classical—and most genocidal—anti-Semitic conspiracy theories." The Lawfare Project agreed, declaring that "the Jew-hatred inherent in this presentation cannot be whitewashed by pointing to the number of other, 'non-Jew-hating' slides in the lecture."

"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," said Lawrence Hill, Chairman of The Lawfare Project's Board of Directors. "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 from 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."

The Lawfare Project’s memo to U-M outlined "immediate and concrete" steps that the school must take to cure the existing hostile environment, such as to “investigate any professors, instructors, and departments which may have formally or informally adopted a discriminatory boycott, and ensure that appropriate sanctions are imposed on anyone enforcing such a boycott."

The memo added, "The university must also be unequivocal in condemning anti-Semitism anywhere on campus, including in the classrooms and lecture halls, if it is truly committed to providing an equal and safe academic environment for Jewish and Israeli students."

The Lawfare Project urged U-M to "seriously consider" formally adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes a number of clauses pertaining to the targeting of Israel, while arguing that "without understanding the phenomenon [of anti-Semitism] and both its classical and contemporary manifestations, [the University] will be unable to fulfill its obligations to its Jewish and Israeli students to provide the same benefits, privileges, and opportunities to them as to any other U-M student."

The Lawfare Project added that its goal "is to provide necessary context and recommendations to rectify the current hostile environment so that...litigation exposure can hopefully be avoided." The memo noted that U.S. law prohibits the refusal of services to an individual based on that person’s membership in a protected class, and the First Amendment does not act as a shield to protect such bigotry.