Monday, September 17, 2018

The academic boycott of Israel affects American students

John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor Department of American Culture of the University of Michigan, refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student to study abroad in Israel. He initially had said he would write it for her, but when he realized she wanted to go to Israel he withdrew his offer. The BDS movement is opposed to study abroad programs in Israel. These are the guidelines from the PACBI website:
Study abroad schemes in Israel for international students.  These programs are usually housed at Israeli universities and are part of the Israeli propaganda effort, designed to give international students a “positive experience” of Israel, whitewashing its occupation and denial of Palestinian rights.  Publicity and recruitment for these schemes through students’ affairs offices or academic departments (such as Middle East and international studies centers) at universities abroad should come to an end.
Guideline 10 requires faculty supporting the academic boycott not to write recommendations for students who want to study in Israel:
Furthermore, international faculty should not accept to write recommendations for students hoping to pursue studies in Israel, as this facilitates the violation of guideline 11 below. 
This is guideline 11:
International students enrolling in or international faculty teaching or conducting research at degree or non-degree programs at an Israeli institution. If conducting research at Israeli facilities such as archives does not entail official affiliation with those facilities (e.g. in the form of a visiting position), then the activity is not subject to boycott. 
I've had a visiting research position at Hebrew University (in 2012), so I guess I've violated the academic boycott - proudly, I must say.

The University of Michigan Board of Trustees has rejected the academic boycott of Israel:
Six of the eight members of the board signed the letter, and criticized BDS as an assault on the institution’s values. 
“Our university has long been a community that seeks to study and improve the human condition through our research and scholarship,” the statement said. “We work together to better understand the most complex challenges we face on campus and beyond. We do this work through active engagement in the world around us. To boycott, divest or sanction Israel offends these bedrock values of our great university.”
The day after the student received the note from Cheney-Lippold, she wrote to the president of the University of Michigan:
“I firmly believe that any student’s abroad experience should not be impacted or dictated by any professor’s personal political beliefs,” they wrote. “I feel that his response is very disturbing, as he is allowing his personal beliefs (and apparently those of ‘many university departments’) to interfere with my dreams of studying abroad.” 
“All I asked for was an academic recommendation regarding my work habits, diligence, and aptitude as a student,” they continued.

They called this stance “unconscionable and hypocritical, as presumably he would have no problem in issuing a letter of recommendation” to students who seek to study abroad in “totalitarian” countries and territories as part of a formal U-M program, namely “China, Cuba, Russia, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories.” 
The student pointed out that Cheney-Lippold’s rejection did not appear to stem from any objection to their work ethic or other characteristics, but rather “his own political views.” 
The student further suggested that Cheney-Lippold’s conduct appears to be in violation of a 2017 statement by U-M’s Board of Regents rejecting the BDS campaign, as well as Public Acts 526 and 527, which were signed into law in Michigan in 2016. The bipartisan bills, similar to others that have been passed in nearly two dozen states, bar state agencies from contracting with an individual who is engaged in “the boycott of a person based in or doing business with a strategic partner,” namely Israel.
Will the university do anything to assist this student, perhaps by making sure that another professor write her a recommendation to study in Israel?

This is the university's official response thus far:
Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for the University of Michigan, told The Algemeiner on Monday that the school “has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education.” 
“No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a position that departs from this long-held university position,” he confirmed. 
“The academic goals of our students are of paramount importance. It is the university’s position to take all steps necessary to make sure our students are supported,” Fitzgerald continued. “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 said the school will engage its faculty colleagues “in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”
The Department of American Culture at the university says about itself that it is "the top American studies department in the world." What was the department's stance toward the ASA (American Studies Association) endorsement of the academic boycott in 2013? Do they support it? Have other professors in the department also refused to write recommendations for students who wish to study in Israel?

This is the continuation of the web statement: "Our students and faculty are uniquely committed to social justice and the highest standards of scholarship. We are proud, too, to be home to ethnic studies programs at Michigan: Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies, Arab and Muslim American Studies, Latina|o Studies, and Native American Studies." Jewish American Studies is nowhere to be seen in this list of programs, which is common - Jewish Studies is commonly excluded from participating in ethnic studies and/or multicultural studies.

One wonders if this "commitment" and being "home to ethnic studies" has led to the department's alignment with the BDS movement.

Thus, contrary to the claim of the BDS movement and its advocates, the academic boycott *does* have an effect upon individuals, not just institutions, including this undergraduate whose professor should have put his political commitments aside and just written her the recommendation.


  1. Very useful account: there have been similar (indeed, worse) incidents in the UK: the claim by BDS organisers and supporters (sadly including the UK college lecturers' union UCU) that the boycott only affects "individuals" is patently false as this and many other cases, shows.