One of the most important developments in the academic boycott of Israel took place a couple of weeks ago.

A professor at the University of Michigan, John Cheney-Lippold, agreed to write a recommendation letter for a student, Abigail Engber, but later refused when he found out the letter would be used for the student to apply to a study abroad program in Israel.

The BDS Academic Boycott is a Violation of Academic Freedom

The professor adheres to the Academic boycott of Israel, which is part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS has its roots going back over a century in anti-Jewish boycotts led by Arabs in the then British Mandate for Palestine, and then the Arab League Boycott. BDS was launched at the Tehran and Durban conferences in 2001, though BDS peddles the myth that it was launched in 2005 as a response to a call from Palestinian civil society. See my post and lecture, The REAL history of the BDS movement.

The academic boycott includes sweeping primary and secondary boycotts of Israeli academic institutions, which necessarily ends up with the boycott of individuals. The academic boycott also rejects “normalization” activities (i.e., activities that bring Arab and Jewish students together. Study abroad programs in Israel are subject to boycott.

The American Association of University Professors considers systematic academic boycotts to be a violation of academic freedom:

4. The Association recognizes the right of individual faculty members or groups of academics not to cooperate with other individual faculty members or academic institutions with whom or with which they disagree. We believe, however, that when such noncooperation takes the form of a systematic academic boycott, it threatens the principles of free expression and communication on which we collectively depend.

When the American Studies Association passed a boycott resolution in December 2013, over 250 university presidents and numerous university associations rejected the boycott.

Academic BDS has been formally endorsed by over 1000 U.S. faculty. Cheney-Lippold is not a formal endorser, which reflects that there are even more faculty who adhere to the boycott even if they have not signed the BDS endorsement.

Cheney-Lippold Revokes Student Recommendation

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has the basics  on what Cheney-Lippold did:

Last month a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor asked a professor for a letter of recommendation. They haggled over deadlines, and on September 5, the professor agreed. But minutes later, he withdrew his offer, for an unusual reason: The student wanted to study in Israel.

“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” wrote John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the department of American culture, to the student. “This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

“I should have let you know earlier,” he continued, “and for that I apologize. But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.” …

No department at Michigan supports such an academic boycott of Israel, said Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the university, in a statement to The Chronicle. “Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution,” the statement read. The University of Michigan “has consistently opposed” any academic boycott of Israel, Fitzgerald said.

The screenshot of the message from Cheney-Lippold makes clear that prior to learning that the student would be studying in Israel, he agreed to write the recommendation.

Cheney-Lippold’s actions were a clear violation of the student’s academic freedom. He can boycott Israel, if he wants, and he can endorse the anti-Semitic BDS movement too.

But when a professor forces the academic boycott on a student, the professor crosses a line. It is an unethical use of the power professors hold over students.

Cheney-Lippold’s actions pretty clearly violates the Statement on Professional Ethics of the American Association of University Professors, which provides in relevant part:

As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit. They respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student. They avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students. They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from them. They protect their academic freedom.

All of this could be predicted. I’ve covered the academic boycott for years, and repeatedly pointed out that the academic boycott inevitably would be used to deprive students of educational opportunities.

I have little doubt that there is a de facto boycott imposed on students, and that pro-BDS professors like Cheney-Lippold regularly deprive students of educational opportunities. Cheney-Lippold simply stated explicitly what others do surreptitiously.

Demand for Disciplinary Action

The U. Michigan reaction has been muted, refusing to take any action against Cheney-Lippold so far.

A coalition of groups has demanded that U. Michigan take action to protect students from BDS professors who seek to deprive students of educational opportunities:

September 21, 2018

Dear President Schlissel,

We are 58 religious, civil rights and education advocacy groups writing to you about an incident of grave concern to our organizations and our hundreds of thousands of members and supporters.

Earlier this month a University of Michigan faculty member in the department of American Culture, Prof. John Cheney-Lippold, refused to write a letter of recommendation for one of his students applying to study abroad at Tel Aviv University. Cheney-Lippold unabashedly disclosed that the sole reason for his refusal is that the academic boycott guidelines forbid “writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study” in Israel.

Impeding a student’s ability to participate in a university-approved educational program in order to carry out political activism is reprehensible. Individual faculty members have the right to express public support for an academic boycott of Israel. But when faculty like Prof. Cheney-Lippold go as far as implementing the boycott’s guidelines by taking action to suppress students’ ability to travel to or study about Israel, they have abrogated the most basic professorial responsibility of promoting the academic welfare of their students. Such discriminatory behavior that impedes the rights of students must be sanctioned to the fullest extent of university policy.

We are aware that on 9/18/18 your office issued a public statement reiterating the university’s opposition to the academic boycott of Israel and stating that the academic goals of U-M students “are of paramount importance” and that the university will “take all steps necessary to make sure our students are supported.” With all due respect, this statement is simply insufficient to assure students, their parents, and all other U-M stakeholders that you recognize the egregiousness of this incident. Of particular concern are the omission in your statement of any condemnation of Cheney-Lippold’s behavior and your statement acknowledging that “members of the University of Michigan community have a wide range of ‘individual’ opinions on this and many other topics.” Both your omission and inclusion give the impression that individual U-M professors will be permitted by your administration to discriminate against students wanting to study about and in Israel. This is deeply alarming, given that there are at least two dozen U-M faculty members in a number of departments who have expressed public support for the academic boycott of Israel, including seven faculty members currently serving as chairs and directors of U-M academic departments and programs. Left unaddressed, this isolated incident could lead to unchecked discrimination, and the denial to students of their fundamental rights.

And while we appreciate your own remarks that were posted yesterday, in which you acknowledge that “personal views and politics should never interfere with our support of students,” these remarks, too, do not go far enough.

We therefore 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.

Alan Dershowitz, writing in The Hill, explained Refusing study in Israel is a bitter lesson in discrimination:

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. Just as academic freedom would permit a racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish professor to express his bigoted views outside the classroom, so too academic freedom would protect Professor Cheney-Lippold for expressing anti-Israeli views — but it does not protect him from discriminating against a student who has different views.

Detroit Free-Press columnist Mitch Albom had one of the better op-eds exposing Cheney-Lippold’s breach of duty, Michigan professor let politics dictate student’s education:

“Everybody has the right to withhold something,” Cheney-Lippold told the Washington Post, “and I chose to exercise that right based on what the movement needs from me as a solidarity activist.”

The “movement” he refers to is BDS, which stands for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions, a campaign that promotes various boycotts against Israel. And while Cheney-Lippold has every right to be a follower, when he says he’s doing what “the movement needs from me as a solidarity activist,” I might suggest U-M ask him, “What about what we need from you as a teacher?”

Which, unlike BDS, they pay him for.

Since when does a professor get to inject his politics ahead of a student’s academics? No, he is not required to write a recommendation letter, but the reasons should be that the student doesn’t warrant it or hasn’t earned it. Not because, despite the student’s apparent merit, he has got an issue with the location.

When Cheney-Lippold says, “everybody has the right to withhold something,” he’s conveniently ignoring his actual job. Would he be tolerated if he decided to withhold office hours, or marking a paper, because he didn’t like the politics of where a particular student came from?

Of course not. He’d be gone in a minute. So where is any U-M action on this blatantly capricious act — not to mention what some feel is his not-so-subtle antisemitism, a charge the teacher denies? You wonder if Cheney-Lippold refused to write a recommendation for a Muslim student wanting to study at the University of Damascus, citing Syria’s human rights record, would everyone be so quiet?

To date, while U-M has said it does not support boycotts of Israel, it has done nothing to Cheney-Lippold except issue a general statement that didn’t mention his name. It included this sentence:

“Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.”

Well, OK. Do something about it.

A faculty body also has rejected Cheney-Lippold’s actions:

An executive faculty body at the University of Michigan on Monday urged professors to base their letters of recommendations on “student’s merit,” after a professor refused to write one due to his support for academic boycotts of Israel….

In affirming its opposition to such conduct, SACUA pointed to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), whose guidelines call on professors to “avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students,” and to “encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students.”

Per these directives by the AAUP — which has in the past rejected academic boycotts, including of Israel — “faculty should let a student’s merit be the primary guide for determining how and whether to provide such a letter,” the SACUA resolution noted.

Anti-Israel Professors Come To Cheney-Lippold’s Defense

Despite all this criticism, Cheney-Lippold is not backing down, and he is finding plenty of support from anti-Israel groups:

The Arab-American Civil Rights League has issued a statement in response to the University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold’s rescinded offer to write a recommendation letter for LSA junior Abigail Ingber, who hoped to study abroad in Israel….

The ACRL expressed support for the BDS movement in their statement, stating its roots in civil rights. ACRL also says the University infringed on professors’ rights to free speech and expression of public support for the academic boycott of Israel.

“The ACRL will always stand by any effort to deter and prohibit discrimination, but it does take a firm stance against efforts to suppress free speech,” the statement reads. “And while we understand your position acknowledging that ‘personal views and politics should never interfere with our support of students,’ individual faculty members have the right to express public support for an academic boycott of Israel, and that right is no less important than a student’s preference in education.”

The ACRL urged the University to reconsider its stance on the BDS movement and support students and faculty who agree with the movement.

Some of the most noxious and notorious academic BDS professors have rallied around Cheney-Lippold, Standing with John Cheney-Lippold:

As educators, we have the ethical responsibility to stand by our political convictions, to advance social justice, and to expose falsehoods and partial truths. Given the United States’ extraordinary financial and military aid to Israel, Americans have a particular responsibility to put pressure on Israel. People of conscience, like Cheney-Lippold, have the responsibility to defend the equal treatment of all members of society and to take peaceful steps to oppose oppression.

Trump appointees Betsy DeVos, head of the Department of Education, and former Brandeis Center President Kenneth Marcus, head of the Civil Rights Division of that department, have advanced a policy that aims to limit advocacy of Palestinian human rights on US university campuses. DeVos and Marcus have made it clear that the current US administration will ignore principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech in order to repress all criticism of Israeli state policies. In this context, Cheney-Lippold’s decision is an exemplary expression of his professional and political rights. Rather than malign Professor Cheney-Lippold, scholars should applaud his courage, which will inspire others to take a stand and oppose Israel study abroad programs. We join him in affirming that we, also, do not write letters of recommendations in support of student participation in Israel study abroad programs. We also call on our colleagues to refuse to participate in Study Abroad in Israel programs by endorsing our pledge at

The letter was signed by:

Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University.
Cynthia Franklin, Professor of English, University of Hawaii
Terri Ginsberg, The American University in Cairo
Salah Hassan, Michigan State University
David Klein, Professor of Mathematics, California State University Northridge
Adam Miyashiro, Stockton University
Bill V. Mullen, Professor of American Studies Purdue University
David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, Stanford University
Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
Snehal Shingavi, Professor of English, University of Texas

As of this writing, over 800 people have signed a petition in support of Cheney-Lippold.

Not surprisingly, the anti-Semitic group misleadingly named “Jewish Voice for Peace” has come to Cheney-Lippold’s defense:

This Unethical Bully Must Be Disciplined To Protect Students

John Cheney-Lippold is an unethical bully who does not deserve the position of trust he holds. He abused that trust to damage a student’s academic freedom and education, and must be held to account.

This is not a First Amendment issue, it’s an issue of conduct on the job that violated U. Michigan policy rejecting the academic boycott of Israel.  This also is not a matter of Cheney-Lippold’s academic freedom. He could refuse to write recommendation letters for anyone, but once he takes on that responsibility in his capacity of a faculty member, he cannot discriminate and cannot impose his own politics on students.

What form that discipline takes will depend on U. Michigan policies and procedures. But if U. Michigan does nothing, it is opening the door to dozens of other professors forcing their political choices on students.

Repeatedly over the last several years I’ve made the point that BDS will destroy academia long before it destroys Israel. That’s playing out at U. Michigan right now, where a pro-BDS professor has launched what amounts to an academic war on a student.

[Note to readers: This is a story that, under normal circumstances, I would have reached soon after it happened, not two weeks later. Due to personal and work commitments, and the crush of Kavanaugh news, I was not able to find the time until now.]

[Featured Image: John Cheney-Lippold at Chicago Humanities Festival, 2015]


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