Reed Rosenbacher: Boycott Israel? Why not boycott China and Western Europe

Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - 5:15pm

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Early last week, Prof. Cheney-Lippold of the American Culture Department at the University of Michigan sent an email to LSA junior Abigail Ingber letting Ingber know that, for political reasons, he did not feel comfortable writing her a letter of recommendation to study abroad in Israel. Cheney-Lippold cited an “academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine” as his reason for “rescinding” the letter.

This decision has been nothing but controversial among students and the broader University community. Cheney-Lippold’s decision opens up a wide variety of questions about Israel, ethical responsibility and anti-Semitism. At a fundamental level, the refusal to write the letter comes from an admirable place, as Cheney-Lippold acted upon his beliefs. For Cheney-Lippold, studying abroad and traveling to Israel upholds and reifies a system that oppresses Palestinians living in Palestine. The most common and intuitive reaction among supporters of Israel is to bring these beliefs about the unethicality of the state of Israel into question, but there is a larger and more important theoretical question at hand about the nature of American discourse on Israel.

For the sake of argumentation, let's assume the views of Cheney-Lippold and other boycotters on the state of Israel are true. The official Boycott Divest Sanctions movement website says study abroad programs are a form of “propaganda … designed to give international students a ‘positive experience’ of Israel, whitewashing its occupation and denial of Palestinian rights.” The BDS website also clearly outlines United Nations definitions of human rights violations as the main standards for academically boycotting Israel. I would be shocked if any study abroad program was not designed to give students a “positive experience” of the country. Let’s also assume these are not just acceptable standards for denying to write a letter of recommendation but actually ethical guidelines.  

From this, should a professor in France deny a student’s request to study at the University of Michigan because the U.N. deemed Detroit water shutoffs to be a human rights violation? Should the French professor deny the request to study here because the professor believes the United States is founded upon a history of slavery and genocide? Isn’t one’s intuition to point out there are many people in the U.S. who have committed their lives to fighting against the many problems in our country? To say any visit to America necessarily supports these violent histories is not only reductive of American history but silences people in the U.S. who are working against these forces of domination.

Maybe you aren’t sold on the example of the French professor and the student who wants to study at the University. Currently in China, nearly a million people of the Uighur ethnic minority are being unlawfully detained and sent to “brainwashing” internment camps. The Chinese government refuses to give explanations for these actions and often denies the accounts of Uighurs who have escaped or been released from the internment camps. China is running an intentional campaign to arrest and eradicate an ethnic minority yet no one in the United States is talking about it or protesting against it. The Chinese government has also been criticized for its rampant use of censorship and general free speech suppression. Would Cheney-Lippold deny a student’s request to study in China? I doubt it. Furthermore, I would be hard-pressed to learn of a country that does not have a history soaked in blood. England, Germany, France and Spain, the most common destinations for study abroad have histories of colonialism and/or genocide that have deep lasting negative effects on the world today. Why don’t we hear professors reject other nations on the basis of ethical premises? What is the theoretical threshold that makes a country so unethical that a professor shouldn’t support a student studying there?

I would imagine a supporter of the boycott would respond to this point by highlighting Israel-Palestine is an undeniably more vibrant issue in American political discourse than human rights violations in China or even the ongoing violence caused by western Europe’s colonial history. In a non-academic context, I think this argument is compelling: There are a limited number of political issues worldwide of which someone can keep track and at some level political prioritization is arbitrary and/or dictated by media. However, I don’t think Cheney-Lippold, an academic in the humanities, should be able to access this argument. Academics and humanitarians are the people who should be thinking through political orientations on larger, more theoretically consistent levels. If there is anyone who should theorize about the ethicality of political orientations and the ways that media narratives shape our understanding of those issues, it is academics like Cheney-Lippold.

My contempt for Cheney-Lippold’s decision does not stem from Cheney-Lippold’s political views on Israel or the fact that he was willing to act. In fact, I respect Cheney-Lippold for boldly standing up for what he believes. What frustrates me is Cheney-Lippold did not place his decision within a larger framework for understanding which countries have acceptable enough politics and which ones do not. For Cheney-Lippold and fellow boycotters, I request a thorough explanation of what makes a country worthy of academic boycotting and which countries do or do not meet those standards, because without an explanation, I can’t help but wonder if there is a double standard for Israel.

Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at rrosenb@umich.edu.