Jewish Students at Yale Law School Invited an Israeli Politician To Speak About Anti-Semitism. Then They Caved to Pressure.

Yale’s Jewish Law Students Association backs out of event with former Knesset member Michal Cotler-Wunsh.

A Jewish solidarity march in March 2020 / Getty Images
April 21, 2023

A Jewish student group at Yale Law School pulled out of an event with a centrist Israeli politician, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, after deciding the talk would be too controversial, according to Cotler-Wunsh and two professors with knowledge of the situation.

Yale’s Jewish Law Students Association agreed in February to host Cotler-Wunsh for a lecture on anti-Semitism and human rights, one of several planned stops on a speaking tour organized by the Academic Engagement Network, a pro-Israel advocacy group. But on April 14–one week before Cotler-Wunsh’s talk, which is scheduled for Friday—Yale’s Jewish Law Students Association told the Academic Engagement Network that it would no longer be able to sponsor the event, according to Miriam Elman, the network’s executive director.

The drama follows a string of anti-Semitism controversies at the Ivy League university, which just this month hosted Houria Bouteldja, an anti-Israel activist and outspoken defender of Hamas, on the second night of Passover.  The event’s timing sparked blowback from Jewish students—though not from the Jewish Law Students Association—who said their religious obligations prevented them from organizing a counter-event or from attending the talk to pose questions.

Though the Jewish Law Students Association gave no reason for its about-face, Cotler-Wunsh and two Yale law school professors said they understood that the group succumbed to pressure to call off her lecture.

It is not clear who was applying that pressure, and Morgan Feldenkris, the president of the Jewish Law Students Association, did not respond to a request for comment. The talk would have been canceled but for deputy dean Yair Listokin’s willingness to step in and host the event himself, Elman said. Listokin declined to comment.

The behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the event demonstrates the extent to which pro-Israel speakers—even those who criticize the Jewish State’s government—are increasingly unwelcome at America’s top law school.

A former member of the Israeli Knesset, Cotler-Wunsh is part of the Blue and White alliance that briefly unseated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2020. The centrist party has promoted same-sex unions, opposed bans on public transit during Shabbat, and signaled an openness to peace talks—albeit not to land concessions—with the Palestinians, stances that have endeared it to secular Israelis while angering the country’s ultra-Orthodox bloc.

"If I’m controversial, I don’t know who isn’t," Cotler-Wunsh said.

This is not Yale Law’s first debacle over anti-Semitism or the Jewish state. In 2021, the Yale Law Journal hosted a diversity trainer, Erika Hart, who accused the FBI of artificially inflating the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes. And last year, activists at the law school urged students to boycott a spring break trip to Israel, plastering signs around the school that called Israel an apartheid state, according to sources familiar with the matter. Some of those activists, two sources said, were themselves members of the Jewish Law Students Association.

Such incidents reflect the wider trajectory of anti-Semitism on college campuses, where the line between criticizing Israel and attacking the Jewish people has been steadily effaced. A panel at Cornell University—held on Yom Kippur in 2022—featured a speaker who had likened the Gaza Strip to an "extermination camp, run by Jews." An event at the University of Michigan in January called for an "intifada revolution"; also that month, George Washington University was hit with a discrimination complaint after a psychology professor, Lara Sheehi, allegedly retaliated against Jewish students who raised concerns about her virulently anti-Israel remarks. Though the university cleared Sheehi of any wrongdoing, it declined to release its full report.

Law schools haven’t been spared the world’s oldest hatred: In April 2022, students at New York University School of Law circulated a letter decrying the "Zionist grip on the media" and defending terrorism against Israeli civilians.

Cotler-Wunsh has seen the vitriol up close. When she spoke at Columbia Law School earlier this week, she said, student protesters covered an Israeli flag with fliers decrying the Jewish state—the implication being that the state of Israel should not exist.

"By allowing speakers like Cotler-Wunsh on our campus," one flier from the protest read, "Columbia Law School is actively complicit in the dehumanization and repression of Palestinians."

While the students did not disrupt her talk, they also refused to engage with her. The protest provoked strong words from Cotler-Wunsh, who says that the outcry at Columbia—and the apparent fecklessness at Yale—don’t make solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any easier.

"When a lecture about anti-Semitism provokes this sort of response," she asked, "how does that help Palestinians advance their right to self-determination?"