newsBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Michigan Jewish student denied recommendation by professor, citing BDS as reason

Although a BDS resolution was passed last year by the university’s student government, the administration itself does not allow its departments or any part of the school to boycott or divest from Israel, according to University of Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.

The Michigan Union on the University of Michigan Campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Michigan Union on the University of Michigan Campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A University of Michigan professor is under fire for allegedly denying a student’s request to write a letter of recommendation for a semester-long study-abroad program in Israel, claiming he could not do so because of a departmental decision supporting the BDS movement.

Associate professor John Cheney-Lippold belongs to the American Culture department.

Club Z, an Israel advocacy group, first posted on Facebook a screenshot of the email he sent her regarding his decision, which has also been shared by CAMERA on Campus, another pro-Israel group. It has since gone viral.

“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” Cheney-Lippold wrote to the student, named Abigail, whose first name was exposed in the screenshot. (JNS is withholding her last name for privacy reasons.) “This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there … For reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”

Although a BDS resolution was passed last year by the university’s student government, the administration itself does not allow its departments or any part of the school to boycott or divest from Israel, University of Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told JNS.

“That position has been stated publicly by university leaders, including this statement from the president and provost in 2013 and this statement from members of the university’s governing Board of Regents in 2017,” according to Fitzgerald.

“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,” he added.

The University of Michigan enrolls a significant number of Jewish students compared to other academic institutions in the United States—some 5,200 undergraduates (17 percent of the overall study body) and about 1,800 graduate students (11 percent of the overall population).

‘What it looks like at the personal level’

Students and pro-Israel groups reacted strongly to the professor’s email.

“The fact that a professor at my university would rescind his offer of writing a recommendation for a study-abroad program in Israel is saddening,” senior David Berger, a business major from Evanston, Ill., told JNS. “This should be more about giving the student a once-in-a-lifetime experience studying in a foreign country rather than focusing on a departmental boycott of a legitimate country with which the school has a relationship.”

“Club Z believed that it was critically important to bring to light the shocking behavior of this university professor, who blatantly refused to write a student a letter of recommendation to study abroad solely because her chosen destination is Israel,” the organization’s executive director, Masha Merkulova, told JNS.

“Club Z is committed to building a powerful network of proactive and effective advocates, and this means that we fully stand behind Abigail, who should have never been subjected to this double standard,” continued Merkulova. “We hope that other students with similar experiences will be encouraged to share their stories so together, we can hold professors and universities accountable.”

CAMERA executive director and president Andrea Levin told JNS that “it’s rare to see out in the open such unabashed, matter-of-fact bias by an academic figure against a pro-Israel student. We hear about negative effects of the broader BDS campaign, but this is what it looks like at the personal level. The question is what are universities going to do to protect students against the political prejudices of professors?”

Zionist Organization of America president Mort Klein took that idea a step further. “The ignorance of this professor about the Arab war against Israel is tragically typical of academics,” he told JNS. “They don’t know that Palestinians name schools, streets and sports teams after Jew-killers, and promote hatred and violence against Jews and Americans in their media, schools and speeches, and even pay Arabs to murder Jews. If they understood this, they would be boycotting Palestinians, not Jews.”

He added that the “University of Michigan should immediately dismiss Cheney-Lippold for discriminating against his students who wish to study in the Jewish state.”

“This is yet another example of how anti-Israel activists are lying when they claim their boycotts ‘only target Israeli institutions and don’t hinder academic freedom,” StandWithUs said in a statement. “Instead of doing his job and helping a student pursue her educational goals, this professor chose to make it more difficult for her in order to satisfy his hateful political agenda. Students should be able to freely explore every educational opportunity their university has to offer, instead of having people in positions of power stand in their way.”

University of Michigan Hillel executive director Tilly Shames responded in a statement that the Jewish student organization has been talking to university leadership about the situation.

“The professor’s decision is antithetical to the academic values of the university, as it denies the student their right to the education they choose,” stated Shames. “A professor’s political views should not factor into any student’s access to academic opportunities, including studying in Israel.”

The incident is not Cheney-Lippold’s first regarding anti-Israel sentiment. He wrote an article in 2011 that discusses how “researchers in Israel have created an algorithm that predicts an author’s gender based on lexical and syntactic features.”

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