ANN ARBOR — Fifty-eight organizations called on the University of Michigan to sanction professors who boycott Israel — such as by refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study in Israel.
The statement of the 58 organizations, sent Sept. 21 to university president Mark Schlissel, was signed by Jewish, Israel advocacy and political organizations, and organized by the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit seeking to combat campus anti-Semitism.
The statement referred to an incident earlier this month, in which, John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of American culture at the school, refused to write a letter of recommendation for junior Abigail Ingber who wanted to study at Tel Aviv University, citing his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
“I have extraordinary political and ethical conflict lending my name to helping that student go to that place,” Cheney-Lippold told report-ers.
On Sept. 18, the university said in a statement that it opposes academic boycotts of Israel and that “[i]njecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.”
On Sept. 20, in a separate statement, Schlissel said that “[w]e will be taking appropriate steps to address this issue and the broader questions it has raised.”
The signatories of last week’s statement — which included groups such as the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, Christians and Jews United for Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America — strongly criticized Cheney-Lippold’s decision and called on Schlissel to make a statement that such behavior would not be allowed.
“Impeding a student’s ability to participate in a university-approved educational program in order to carry out political activism is reprehensible,” the statement read.
Cheney-Lippold’s decision has raised questions about academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors opposes academic boycotts, although writing letters of recommendation is voluntary on the part of professors.
Hans-Joerg Tiede, the associate secretary of the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, told Insider Higher Ed that AAUP does address whether faculty are obligated to write reference letters, but that “refusing to write a letter of reference on grounds that are discriminatory would appear to be at odds with the AAUP’s Statement on Professional Ethics.”
John K. Wilson, the co-editor of the AAUP’s blog, “Academe,” told Inside Higher Ed that “it is morally wrong for professors to impose their political views on student letters of recommendation.” Wilson emphasized, however, that the professor should not be punished.
The brouhaha at the University of Michigan comes against a background of increased aggressivness by BDS advocates on college campuses, leading to a more organized Jewish student response through such organizations as Israel Campus Coalition.
“As you may know, many University departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” the professor’s email to the student read. “This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”
The email was first publicized Sept. 16 in a post on the Facebook page of Club Z, a pro-Israel group for young people.
JTA has reached out to Ingber for comment, though she declined to comment on the incident to the Michigan Daily, the campus paper.
Cheney-Lippold told JTA that the backlash has not led him to regret the letter.
He wrote that boycotts are a tool to fight injustice, and that Israeli universities are complicit in Israeli abuse of Palestinians because of their role in military research.
“I do not regret declining to write the letter, precisely because I am boycotting injustice,” Cheney-Lippold wrote in an email to JTA.
Cheney-Lippold rejected the idea that his refusal was anti-Semitic, as he is boycotting Israeli institutions, not the Jewish student. He said that the study abroad programs themselves are discriminatory, alleging that they would deny admittance to Palestinian students or those who are pro-Palestinian.
“The issue at hand is how Israel and its institutions discriminate against Palestinians and others, even in terms of the study abroad programs themselves,” he wrote.
“If a Palestinian student approached me to participate in this study abroad trip, they might be denied because of their ethnic origin. The same may go for students who express support for Palestinian rights.”
In a statement to JTA, Club Z’s executive director, Masha Merkulova, said the decision is anti-Semitic as it came “solely because her chosen destination is Israel.” She accused the professor of holding Ingber to a double standard.
“We strongly believe that when such acts of anti-Semitism and bigotry occur at higher institutions, we must hold professors, administrators, and universities accountable.”
The US Dept. of Education may agree. Its Office of Civil Rights under Kenneth Marcus, the department’s new assistant secretary for civil rights, is employing the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes some types of anti-Israel activity, in investigating claims of discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
The definition includes “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions.
Marcus recently employed the definition in reopening an investigation into an allegedly anti-Semitic event at Rutgers University in 2011.
Last year, the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government called on the university to investigate divestment from companies that violate Palestinian human rights. The university’s Board of Regents rejected the call.
“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,” read a statement on Cheney-Lippold’s letter from the university’s Public Affairs Department, according to the Michigan Daily.
“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.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, affiliated with the Palestinian BDS National Committee, urges faculty not to write recommendations for students hoping to pursue studies in Israel.