By Eve Mykytyn
Earlier this month, University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold, told his student, Abigail Ingber, that he would not write a letter of recommendation for her to study in Israel. In declining to write the recommendation, he wrote in part, “As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine.This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”
This incident has, predictably, led to wild accusations of anti Semitism. First, it is worth noting that it is unlikely that this refusal caused Ms Ingber any harm. Other professors can write recommendations and the publicity around this incident will not harm her application to be a visiting student at Tel Aviv University.
Without reaching any of the other issues raised, I tend to think that Professor Cheney-Lippold’s refusal was wrong. He is an employee of a public university and part of his job is writing recommendations for deserving students. However deeply the professor supports the BDS movement, this may not excuse his failure to fulfill his obligations as a professor.
The University made a similar point. “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.”
But there is something in the psyche of Israel’s supporters that refuses to allow a simple solution (even if it is in their favor) or to miss a chance to rail against perceived anti Semitism and unfair treatment of Israel.
Club Z’, a Zionist facebook page posted Cheney-Lippold’s explanation for not writing the recommendation and stated through its executive director, Masha Merkulova, that the refusal was anti-Semitic as it came “solely because her chosen destination is Israel.” But Israel is neither a race nor a religion and by conflating the boycott of Israel and Jews, Ms Merkula is doing what the IHRA definition of antisemitism forbids. Or is that definition only applicable to those accused of anti Semitism and not the accusers?
Cheney-Lippold responded he did not regret his decision. “I do not regret declining to write the letter, precisely because I am boycotting injustice… Israeli universities are complicit institutions — they develop weapons systems and military training. Cheney-Lippold denied charges that his refusal was anti Semitic, stating that he is boycotting Israeli institutions, not Jewish students.
A group of 58 religious, civil rights and education advocacy groups, most of them notably Zionist, wrote to the University’s president, “We … call on you to make a public statement specifically stating that this behavior will not be permitted, affirming your commitment to ensuring that no U-M student will be impeded from studying about or in Israel, and detailing the steps you will take to ensure that faculty do not implement an academic boycott of Israel at the University of Michigan.” The letter’s demands go far beyond the facts of this case. It is not clear why a professor, if he or she otherwise fulfills his obligations, is not free to boycott Israel.
The histrionics were abetted by former law professor Alan Dershowitz who weighed in with wild accusations: “imagine a white university professor telling a highly qualified African-American student that he refused to recommend her for a year-abroad program to an African country because he disapproved of the way that country treated its white minority. That professor would be ostracized, boycotted, reprimanded, disciplined or fired.”
This example of a ‘white’ professor supporting a white minority is inapplicable. Cheney-Lippold is not Palestinian, his convictions are ethical, not tribal. Secondly, are African American students really in the habit of crying ‘racist’ at any criticism of Africa? And lastly, what African country locks millions of white people in open air prisons? Are there any African states that deploy snipers against unarmed white protestors?
Dershowitz continues his absurd tale. “Many who support singling out Israel will actively encourage academic contacts with Russian, Cuban, Saudi, Venezuelan, Chinese, Belarusian and Palestinian universities, despite the horrid human-rights records of these undemocratic countries and the discriminatory policies of their universities.” Where is the evidence for this bold statement?
Dershowitz adds another outrageous accusation based on no facts. “This hypocritical professor probably would not hesitate to recommend his student to universities that discriminate against gay and transgender, women, Jewish or Christian students.”
Finally, Dershowitz garners the evidence of his imaginings to make his point. “Academic freedom may permit a professor to advocate a boycott against Israeli (or any other) universities, misguided as that may be. But it does not permit a professor to actually discriminate against one of his students based on invidious factors. A teacher must treat all of his students fairly and equally, without regard to their religious, political or ethnic views or identities…academic freedom … does not protect him from discriminating against a student who has different views.”
Professor Cheney Lippold did not discriminate against the student for her ethnicity or beliefs, rather he refused to write a recommendation because, as he said, he believed that doing so would support Israel and violate his own commitment to BDS.
It seems that the relatively minor incident of a refusal to write a letter of recommendation based on the boycott of Israel has become the basis of hysterical accusations of anti Semitism. It may be that such extreme reactions serve to inure the public to true anti Semitism.