'U' comments on professor refusal to recommend study in Israel

Monday, September 17, 2018 - 9:51pm

A screenshot of the email exchange that was posted to Facebook Sunday.

A screenshot of the email exchange that was posted to Facebook Sunday. Buy this photo
Club Z Facebook Post/NOSELL

University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold is facing claims of anti-Semitism after rescinding his offer to write a recommendation letter for LSA junior Abigail Ingber, who requested the letter for an application for a study abroad program in Israel.

Cheney-Lippold, who works in the American Culture Department, expressed his apologies in the email but claimed that as part of an academic boycott against Israel, he would be unable to write a recommendation for the student.

Club Z, an organization that works to empower and network Jewish students who are committed to Zionism, posted the screenshot of the email exchange to Facebook Sunday afternoon. The group criticized the email, claiming the message was anti-Semitic. The post also noted the U.S. Department of Education recent changes its definition of anti-Semitism to include situations that hold Israel to a double standard in comparison to other democratic states.

“As you may know, many University departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” the email read. “This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

Cheney-Lippold acknowledged his mistake in claiming University departments support the boycott and amended the statement he made in the email. His support of the boycott, he explained, is a personal stance.

“I support the boycott because I support solidarity,” he said in an interview with The Daily. “I follow the idea that people who are being discriminated against or people who need help … I feel compelled to help them. I was following a call by representatives of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israel in a very similar tactical frame as South Africa. The idea is that I support communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”

This boycott comes on the heels of last year’s iteration of the #UMDivest movement, and the reulting Central Student Government resolution calling for the University to investigate divestment from companies that violate Palestinian human rights. The resolution passed last November with 23 votes in favor, 17 against and five abstentions. The following December, the Board of Regents rejected to consider the resolution in an online statement.

Michigan Hillel Chair Kendall Coden, an LSA senior, described her disappointment with Cheney-Lippold’s decision not to write the letter, saying professors should encourage students to explore educational opportunities without the influence of personal politics.

“I can’t speak for all students, but I know that I and many others feel hurt by this decision,” Coden said. “Studying in or visiting Israel is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in an Israeli culture that is different from our own, but also a Jewish culture that is very familiar and part of our own identity. Students should not be denied the opportunity to experience another culture as a result of a professor’s political viewpoints.”

University Public Affairs released a statement regarding the incident, reaffirming the consistent opposition of boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. The statement upholds no academic department or unit officially maintains a boycott.

“It is disappointing that a faculty member would allow their personal political beliefs to limit the support they are willing to otherwise provide for our students,” the statement read. “We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”

Cheney-Lippold affirmed the boycott focuses on institutions rather than people and stated that denying Ingber’s academic opportunities should not be in question. 

“The perennial claim of anti-Semitism I fully deny,” Cheney-Lippold said. “I have no bad will against the student, and I would have very gladly written a letter for any other graduate program or study abroad. The idea is that I am just one person, and by refusing to write that letter or at least rescinding it, I tried to keep to my conscious and to the fact that I believe that the boycott is a good tactic to enhance human rights and to get everyone in Israel-Palestine to have what international criminal court and the U.N. in general has requested, which is equal rights for everybody.”

Cheney-Lippold also said he wanted to focus on the importance of dialogue within the University on this issue as well as highlight the student organizations on campus who are furthering knowledge on the issue for the campus and upholding diversity of thought.

“As a professor, I’m not just a machine writing things for people,” he said. “I have opinions and even though a letter of recommendation is about the student, a lot of thought goes into them. It’s not a blank check where I’m signing for them to go to any place they want, it is a dialogue. It’s what the University is about, talking through differences and really figuring out where each other stands, not expecting something or assuming something, but really trying to get into what is the key difference. Seeing what can we do more, how can we have a larger campus-wide discussion. I want to push it beyond the horse-race politics of what John did or did not say.”

LSA junior Sophee Langerman said she fully supports Cheney-Lippold’s decision as a boycott, divestment and sanctions activist, but reaffirmed the complexity of the issue and the diversity of opinion among students on campus.

“I believe that this professor is 100 percent correct in his refusal of writing a recommendation letter in support of the BDS movement,” she said. “A trip to Israeli-occupied Palestine would mean the support of the mass murder and oppression of not only Palestinians, but Ethiopian Jews, Mizrahi Jews, East-Asian immigrants and other non-white minority communities. BDS cannot support that. I would also like to point out that this professor was never under any obligation to write this student a letter of recommendation, and in fact, she got more than most students do by receiving a reply about why he would not participate.”

Langerman hopes the boycott can encourage peaceful dialogue and activism for students and faculty alike at the University.

“As far as I have experienced, Jewish and Palestinian communities on campus have always had a divide due to the rhetoric produced by Zionist entities that anything ‘pro-Palestine’ is anti-Semitic, which is just flat out incorrect,” she said. “If anything, I hope that this professor’s boycott empowers the rest of the academic community to take a stand against apartheid regimes, and brings forth more fruitful dialogue surrounding the BDS movement – and why it is such a crucial form of nonviolent activism.”

Ingber told The Michigan Daily she is currently unable to comment on the incident, as she is waiting to discuss it with University officials. According to Club Z’s Facebook page, they did not receive the message from Ingber, but rather from another University professor to whom the email was sent.