Earlier this month, the University of Toronto issued a ruling in a dispute between a pro-Israel student and a professor. As reported in last week’s Canadian Jewish News, the case dates back to December 2017, when Ari Blaff, then a graduate student at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, sent an email to Jens Hanssen, a tenured professor who, according to his bio on the university’s website, teaches about “settler colonialism in Palestine; international relations, counter-insurgency and decolonization in the Middle East; and urban colonialism in the modern Mediterranean.”
In his note, Blaff, who is also a former CJN intern, asked Hanssen to meet to discuss his prospects of undertaking a PhD in Mideast history. Hanssen responded in the negative: “You may be a graduate student at the Munk School, but you are also a Hasbara fellow,” he wrote to Blaff, referring to the pro-Israel campus advocacy group. “As far as I know, Hasbara fellows are Israeli advocacy activists sent to North American campuses on behalf of … the new Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and International Diplomacy.… You are instructed to conflate Judaism and Zionism and are encouraged to give the impression on our campus that such criticism constitutes anti-Semitism.” Blaff filed a complaint, alleging the professor discriminated against him on the basis of political belief and religion.
Last week, U of T acting vice-principal of academics and dean Angela Lange ruled that Hanssen’s letter to Blaff was not discriminatory. For what it’s worth, Hanssen, according to Lange, “regrets his tone and some of the language he used.” But, Lange added, “strong views” like Hanssen’s are protected by academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Meanwhile, a similar case popped up just across the border, in which University of Michigan student Abigail Ingber was seeking a letter of recommendation from Prof. John Cheney-Lippold. He initially agreed, but after learning that Ingber planned to study in Israel, he declined. “As you may know,” he wrote to her, “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of the Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.… For reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”
The university responded that it “has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education.… No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a stance that departs from this long-held university position.” Apparently Cheney-Lippold didn’t get the message. It does not appear he will be punished.
So begins another year on campus for pro-Israel students, where some of those charged with helping kids further their education instead appear satisfied to do the precise opposite, while administrators look the other way. If these educators were also refusing to write letters of recommendation for students planning a semester abroad in, say, China or Saudi Arabia – and checking the backgrounds and political beliefs of all students before deciding whether or not to even talk to them – their actions would only be slightly more defensible. The fact that this doesn’t appear to be the case really tells you everything you need to know.