American Culture professor John Cheney-Lippold of the University of Michigan has been receiving backlash from students, community members and administrators alike, with University Regent Denise Ilitch (D) going so far as to accuse the professor of anti-Semitism. These attacks come after Cheney-Lippold, in adherence of the call made by Palestinian civil society organizations to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions, chose to rescind his agreement to write a letter of recommendation to LSA junior Abigail Ingber upon learning it would be for a study abroad program in Israel.
While it is unsurprising the University has been swift to criticize Cheney-Lippold for his decision, the University’s reaction to the incident demonstrates its ongoing complicity with and support for the violent Zionist settler colonial project. While masking itself in the language of political neutrality, the University willfully ignores the role of Israeli institutions in maintaining and expanding the military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and its settler occupation of historic Palestine, as well as the impact this has on the academic freedom of Palestinians.
Curtis Marez, president of the American Studies Association, notes Israeli universities are targeted by this boycott “because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, while university-associated think tanks develop political and communications strategies to advance government aims and defend them internationally.”
Furthermore, Marez notes, “The Israeli occupation prevents Palestinian academics from accessing outside institutions of higher learning and professional conferences, hampering their ability to do their work, while Israeli authorities make it difficult for foreign academics to travel to Gaza and the West Bank.” In other words, Israeli academic institutions are not politically neutral when it comes to the violence of the Zionist nation-state but are a key apparatus of the colonial project. The University must consider its students and the broader public as naïve to believe its propagation of study abroad programs in Israel is politically neutral and not, in fact, a validation of the role of these institutions in the Zionist settler project. It is not difficult to see the role that the Zionist nation-state and Israeli academic institutions play in limiting the academic freedom of Palestinians and those supportive of Palestinian liberation.
This is the same University that swiftly refused the Central Student Government’s call to merely form a committee to investigate companies in which the University invests donor and student monies for potential relationships to Palestinian human rights violations, undermining both on-campus student governance and Palestinian human rights. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald’s statement that “financial factors such as risk and return” are the sole focus of the University’s investments demonstrates the University’s willingness to put profit over morality and Palestinian life. In a statement, University President Mark Schlissel argues the previous two divestment instances in the University’s history — divestment from tobacco and from South African corporations under apartheid — were unique in that they “were inextricably linked to immoral and unethical actions and ideologies.” This grossly undermines the tangible, material and ongoing violence of Zionist colonialism, occupation, apartheid and displacement while clearly demonstrating the University’s — or at the very least, though no less consequentially, Schlissel’s — political position that the historic and ongoing violence and displacement of Palestinians and the theft of their land is something the University finds excusable and justifiable. The University frequently has betrayed its support of the violent political project of Zionism while criticizing its students, staff and faculty for challenging oppression with actions in accordance to their “personal views and politics.” The criticisms of John Cheney-Lippold’s actions are not only a recent manifestation of the University’s complicity with this project, but further reflect the de facto political position of the University the supports and (given its investments) profits from Zionist violence and colonialism.
For all its shallow rhetorical concern with academic freedom, the University chooses to ignore the fact that ongoing colonialism, displacement, military occupation and apartheid policies propagated by the Zionist nation-state materially impact the ability of Palestinians to access such educational opportunities. Military checkpoints and armed Israeli Defense Force personnel disrupt Palestinians of all ages in their pursuit of academic success, often prohibitively and even lethally. According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a stark 50 percent of children in Gaza report a fear of attending school. During the first intifada, the Israeli army closed Palestinian universities for months. In its 2014 offensive, Israel attacked three of Gaza’s seven universities, as well as seven United Nations schools and about 141 local schools. Displaced Palestinians face prohibitive restrictions which often prevent them from being able to return to Palestine, much less study there. Where is the University’s outrage for their right to education?
The University of Michigan already holds a de facto political stance supporting the violence of Zionist colonialism and military occupation. It cannot continue to pretend it is politically neutral and believe the public will be fooled about its political priorities and commitments. It’s time that the University not only confront and rectify its complicity in and support of such violence, but also take an active stand in supporting and working toward justice and liberation for the Palestinian people. Rather than attacking its own faculty for participating in the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, the University should acknowledge the merit of the boycott, participate in it and advocate for it. The University’s insistence that it is not a political institution is, at best, denial and, at worst, deception and manipulation. It’s time the University abandon its empty rhetoric and demonstrate a commitment to justice by supporting liberation for Palestinians.