Michigan mayhem

Jewish leaders call out University of Michigan for inaction against anti-Israel threats, disruptions

Demonstration by anti-Zionist protesters cut short the annual Honors Convocation event

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Students walk across the University of Michigan campus January 17, 2003, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Jewish leaders in Michigan are calling out the University of Michigan’s administration for its response to anti-Zionist protesters who disrupted Sunday’s Honors Convocation. 

The event, an annual celebration where undergraduate students are recognized for their academic achievements, came amid heightened tensions on the campus. 

Two days earlier, a student posted a message on Instagram that threatened “death and worse” for supporters of Israel. The university’s administration has not taken disciplinary action — and announced only after the ceremony that security would be increased on the campus.

Still, the Honors Convocation promised to be a “wonderful Michigan moment,” Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a father of two students who were recognized at the ceremony and director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, told Jewish Insider. But when the university’s president, Santa Ono, took the stage toward the end of the ceremony, dozens of anti-Zionist protesters from Students for Justice in Palestine and affiliated groups disrupted the event by chanting that Ono is “funding genocide” — a reference to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. 

Rather than confront the protesters and have them ushered out of the event, the administration abruptly ended the ceremony, even though a final speaker was set to address the crowd and the gathering was supposed to end with “Hail to the Victors” — a staple of Michigan events.   

With graduation season approaching, Jewish leaders say the incident could be a preview of what is to come in terms of how major universities crack down — or don’t — on anti-Israel activity. 

“The disruption of the Honors Convocation was an insult to students’ hard work,” Rabbi Davey Rosen, CEO of Michigan Hillel, told JI. “It raises real concerns about how commencement will be run in May.” Rosen noted that he has “expressed concerns to President Ono directly.”

“He assured me that his team is working on graduation not being disrupted and working on enforcing the rules,” Rosen said. “He said that the graduation rules and procedures will be clearly articulated well in advance of graduation. And I was assured that existing policies and procedures are being reviewed to hold people accountable.” 

But Lopatin said that no one has been held accountable for either of the incidents that occurred last week. 

“If you want to hold up a ‘Free Palestine’ sign at one of these events — that’s free speech,” he said, noting that the disruption scared several of the students being honored, causing some to break out in tears. “But disrupting the speakers was not appropriate and instead of doing something about it, in what could have been a teachable moment for the students… telling the protesters that there is a correct way to have their voices heard, instead of doing that, [the administration] allowed them to take over the ceremony.”

Lopatin said that “everyone packed up and left, including President Ono and everyone else on the stage.”

“The captain goes down with the ship. The captain doesn’t abandon the ship,” he continued, noting that he and his family were among the last of the audience to leave. “Just the protesters remained for the last 10 minutes — they took over. They allowed bullies to take over.” (In December, Ono prohibited the student government from voting on two resolutions concerning the war, one of which explicitly referred to Israel’s actions since the Oct. 7 attacks as constituting “genocide” and accused the Jewish state of engaging in “settler colonialism.”)

Carolyn Normadin, regional director of ADL Michigan, a branch of the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the handling of the incident in a tweet to Ono. “There must be consequences for those who ruined the day,” she wrote. 

Jacob Baime, CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition, told JI that such incidents should not be tolerated to the point that they become a pattern at other campus ceremonies. “While peaceful protest is an important right, shouting down speakers and intimidating Jewish students and their families at what should be a joyous milestone crosses a line,” he said. “What we need now is more dialogue, not less. Colleges should be a place where students can openly discuss difficult issues and hear diverse perspectives, not be silenced or made to feel unsafe for their beliefs. Would universities tolerate pro-ISIS disruptions at graduation? Why the double standard? It’s time for university leaders to find their courage and stand up for what’s right.”

On Sunday evening, after the convocation ended, the university’s vice president for student life, Martino Harmon, sent a campus-wide email condemning the threats made on Friday. Harmon did not mention the protesters at convocation. 

“We unequivocally condemn the student’s message,” Harmon wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by JI. “It is the very opposite of the values and ideals we hold dear. The message caused fear and pain across our community… Following the Instagram post, the university, out of an abundance of caution, increased security patrols on and around campus… Violations of law or University policy will result in appropriate consequences, up to and including expulsion. Conduct that may violate criminal law will be referred to federal, state, or local prosecutors.”

Harmon went on to write that the death threat was made as “many of our students, faculty and staff have personal connections to Gaza and Israel, which have been devastated by war and violence. People have lost loved ones. They are angry, exhausted and hurting.” 

A spokesperson for Michigan State Police told JI that its investigators are not familiar with the threats. 

The statement did not address specific disciplinary action taken toward the student. Colleen Mastony, a University of Michigan spokesperson, declined to discuss student matters with JI. 

Michigan’s handling of the death threat was a contrast from how Cornell University and local Ithaca law enforcement dealt with a similar incident in October when a student was arrested for making online threats against Jewish students on campus.   

Lopatin, whose daughters are in their first and fourth years at the Ann Arbor school, said both occurrences have made him question, “Where are the adults in the room?” 

“Students are students and don’t necessarily understand civil discourse,” he continued, “but administration and professors are there to teach them. Where are they?”  

Lopatin called the outcome of Sunday’s event “very problematic,” adding, “I hope this will be a wake-up call for society in standing up to the bullies.” 

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