Study abroad in Turkey, anyone?

Would University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold invoke the same principles of academic freedom and non-discrimination in the case of Turkey? I can find no record of him ever having spoken out against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

Earlier this month, the Turkish NBA star Enes Kanter published a moving article in Time magazine about how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mushrooming tyranny is impacting his own family.

“This month, my dad will face trial in Turkey for ‘membership of a terror group,’ ” the New York Knicks center wrote. “He is a university professor, not a terrorist.”

Kanter’s father is among the thousands of Turkish academics who have been purged from their positions by Erdoğan’s regime since the murky coup d’ état of July 2016. This clampdown on opponents—real or imagined—is not limited to the universities; more than 4,000 judges have been purged, more than 300 journalists imprisoned, nearly 200 media outlets shut down and a staggering 81,000 people arrested during the past two years. But even by these standards, the toll of Erdoğan’s purge on Turkish higher education has been notably severe, with more than 6,000 professors ejected from their posts and 3,000 schools, universities and dormitories closed during the same period, according to the website

During 2017, the world’s various university communities acted on the persecution of their Turkish colleagues to some degree, with petitions being circulated and trade publications such as Inside Higher Ed carrying interviews with dissident Turkish professors. But this year, that concern seems to have petered out, even as Erdoğan’s purge continues apace. Last week, the regime announced its intention to build more prisons since its existing facilities can no longer cope with the 225,000 inmates (and counting) who are presently incarcerated.

Forgive me for wondering, then, what the response would be if a student were to approach University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold with a request for a recommendation for a study-abroad program at one of the several Turkish partner universities on offer. This good professor—as the entire world is now apparently aware—refused to write just such a recommendation letter for a student seeking to study in Israel, citing his support for the academic boycott of the Jewish state as his reason.

Would Cheney-Lippold invoke the same principles of academic freedom and non-discrimination in the case of Turkey? I can find no record of him ever having spoken out against Erdoğan (what he does have, as of this week, is the firm approval for his stance on Israel of Yeni Safak, a viciously anti-Semitic newspaper that is slavishly loyal to Erdoğan.) Nor is there much evidence of academics involved with the BDS campaign engaging in similar initiatives against Turkey, despite the fact that their stated objection to collaboration with Israel—that its universities are extensions of the Israeli state—applies far more accurately in the case of Turkey.

But perhaps there’s an even baser reason behind the silence on Turkey. In several ways, Turkey has become a primary center of the BDS campaign against Israel. Erdoğan’s frequent rhetorical assaults on Israel and Zionism echo the same demonizing themes promoted by the BDS movement. Through the Islamist IHH Foundation, Turkey has sponsored the various “civil society” flotillas that have attempted to break the blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza—a place, incidentally, where photographs of Erdoğan and Turkish flags are happily displayed. Most importantly of all, Turkey continues to insist that the unresolved question of the Palestinians lies at the heart of the Middle East’s discontents, at just the time that nearly every Arab state has abandoned that dangerous misconception.

On that last point, Turkey’s position dovetails perfectly with the BDS campaign, which has always regarded other human-rights issues with contempt, especially when the states in question are allies of the Palestinians. This is more than plain dishonesty or hypocrisy. By framing the Palestinian question as embodiment of universal principles—“Standing up for freedom, justice, and equality for all is something I’m proud of,” Cheney-Lippold told the JTA news agency when asked to defend his position on Israel—the BDS movement achieves exactly what it accuses its adversaries of doing.

Specifically, it exploits the institutionalized authority of its academic advocates not simply by shutting down contact with Israel, but by encouraging students to view the world through a Palestinian filter. So whether the issue is the policing of American cities or the persecution of the LGBT+ community in Iran, the first concern is always where Israel and its tentacles fit into the picture (rest assured, they will find a way; they always do.)

This is a further reminder of why the real danger of the BDS campaign is not its material impact upon the State of Israel, which has been comically negligible, but on the message of intimidation it communicates to those who oppose it, as well as those advocating on broader issues that conflict with its agenda. The net result—for our campuses, not Israel’s—is a censorship of the mind bearing an academic seal of approval. Erdoğan will be delighted.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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