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September 21, 2018 1:09 pm

University of Michigan Regent Denounces Professor’s ‘Antisemitic’ Refusal to Recommend Student for Study in Tel Aviv

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Sign at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor. Photo: Ken Lund.

The president of the University of Michigan pledged on Thursday to take “appropriate steps” to address a professor’s refusal to help a student who plans to study Israel — an incident that was denounced as “antisemitic” by a school regent and condemned by nearly 60 groups.

“Personal views and politics should never interfere with our support of students,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel of John Cheney-Lippold, a digital studies professor who rescinded an offer to write a letter of recommendation for a student after learning that they sought to study abroad at Tel Aviv University.

“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” explained Cheney-Lippold in a September 5 email to the student, in reference to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Schlissel contested this characterization, emphasizing at a Board of Regents meeting that the professor’s view “is not the position of the University of Michigan, nor does it reflect the position of any department or unit on our campus.”

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As first reported by The Algemeiner, the student — whose family requested anonymity — notified Schlissel of Cheney-Lippold’s rejection the day after receiving his initial email.

“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.”

The professor’s conduct was likewise denounced at Thursday’s meeting by Regent Denise Ilitch.

“This type of profoundly exclusionary conduct by a University of Michigan professor flies completely against our mission,” she said. “Let’s call this what it really is: antisemitic.”

“It impairs and interferes with our student’s ability to reach her educational aspirations and further, this professor was the beneficiary of recommendations during his ascent to a tenured position at our university,” Ilitch continued. “Imagine replacing the phrase that was used in this letter — academic boycott against Israel and students planning to study there — with your ethnicity, your race or your gender, just to name a few.”

The BDS campaign — which says it seeks “to isolate Israel academically, culturally, economically and militarily” until it abides by key Palestinian demands — has been repeatedly characterized as antisemitic by major leaders of the Jewish community in the US and globally, including the Anti-Defamation League.

Critics often accuse it of rejecting the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination and ultimately aiming to dismantle the Jewish state, a goal openly supported by BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti.

The student’s father, an attorney, separately emphasized the point in an interview with The Algemeiner on Monday, saying his family is “against BDS on many different levels.”

“It’s false, I think it’s antisemitic, and I think it doesn’t accurately portray what Israel is about and what Israel is doing,” he added.

Cheney-Lippold nonetheless stood by his decision to withhold a recommendation from the student based on their decision to study in Israel — a position mandated by the official BDS guidelines.

“I wouldn’t cross a union picket line and I can’t cross this one,” the professor said in a statement released Wednesday by the advocacy group Palestine Legal, which said he had received more than 500 messages over the controversy, including some death threats.

“I support the Palestinian boycott call because I am appalled at Israel’s continuing violation of Palestinian rights, and our government’s support for those violations,” he added. “If a student had wanted to do a study abroad at an institution in Apartheid South Africa, I would have declined to write a letter for her as well.”

His stance was applauded by United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which started a petition in his defense on Wednesday that has attracted at least 370 signatories as of Friday afternoon.

Yet a petition calling for Cheney-Lippold’s dismissal, launched a day earlier, gathered more than 1,500 signatures amid continuing backlash over the incident.

“Impeding a student’s ability to participate in a university-approved educational program in order to carry out political activism is reprehensible,” a coalition of 58 groups led by the AMCHA Initiative, which monitors antisemitism on college campuses, wrote in a joint letter to Schlissel on Friday.

“Individual faculty members have the right to express public support for an academic boycott of Israel,” acknowledged the letter’s signatories, which include civil rights, education advocacy, and religious groups. “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.”

They called on Schlissel to issue a clear condemnation of Cheney-Lippold’s behavior and assure that students seeking to study in Israel would not be discriminated against — saying the president’s statement on Thursday did “not go far enough.”

“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,” they wrote. “Left unaddressed, this isolated incident could lead to unchecked discrimination, and the denial to students of their fundamental rights.”

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