Last Sunday, a screenshot of an email from American Culture Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold denying a student’s request for a letter of recommendation to study abroad in Israel was posted on Facebook. The email was met with outrage from various Zionist groups on campus and students who believed Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write the letter of recommendation was anti-Semitic. Boycotting the government of Israel should not be conflated with anti-Jewish sentiment, and Cheney-Lippold’s decision is not anti-Semitic because religion and the oppressive acts of a country’s government and military are two separate things.
In response to the outcry on social media, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality released a statement Tuesday reaffirming SAFE “stands in solidarity with students, faculty, and staff boycotting Israeli universities” and emphasized the University was very quick to release its own statement to clarify the University does not approve of Cheney-Lippold’s decision and University departments do not officially boycott.
Yet, as SAFE pointed out, the University has never released a statement condemning the blacklist that many students to which are subjected when they speak in solidarity with Palestine, despite attention to this issue being brought to the administration countless times. In the student’s words, Cheney-Lippold’s response to her request was “disturbing and unsettling,” but we think what’s disturbing and unsettling is the University’s failure to address and accommodate Palestinian students’ demands for years, yet its willingness to jump to defend this student and condemn a professor who was simply holding true to his beliefs and solidarity with Palestinian people. The stark contrast in responses, though unsurprising, is too evident to ignore. Though one may disagree with Cheney-Lippold’s decision, one cannot say his email wasn’t courteous, honest and explanatory.
One thing we would like to commend is Cheney-Lippold’s willingness to use his identity as a white man, with no formal ties to the Palestine-Israel conflict, to stand in solidarity with the people in Palestine. One of the platforms taken by the student who received the denial of a recommendation letter is the fact that her “work habits, diligence, and aptitude as a student” should have been the sole determinants of the professor’s decision to write the letter, and that his refusal “allowed his personal beliefs to interfere with (her) dreams of studying abroad.” However, this goes deeper than a student’s innocent “dream” to study abroad. The country we are speaking of is a country with a history and present of oppressing, murdering, stealing land from and denying basic rights to Palestinian people. The purpose of boycott divestment sanctions is to cut any and all ties that would support Israel’s government and in turn aid in perpetuating the violation of Palestinian rights. It is negligent to pretend writing a recommendation letter for a student to study there is completely independent and uncorrelated to the political climate and taking a stance for justice.
It is important for those who hold privilege to levy their position to help the most vulnerable in society. That is what allyhood looks like. Cheney-Lippold could have easily refused the student’s request for a letter of recommendation and not provided any answer or provided a different one. Rather, Cheney-Lippold chose to provide the student with an honest answer that sparks dialogue and causes the student to reflect on her decision to study abroad at an institution that perpetuates the oppression of a group of people. Furthermore, Cheney-Lippold put his reputation at the University at stake by making this decision and participating in the academic boycott.
We hope the University will uphold their commitment to free speech — which they have no problem doing when highly problematic and harmful speakers like Richard Spencer ask to express their dangerous views — and will not punish Cheney-Lippold or any other faculty members who choose to participate in the academic boycott of the government of Israel.