(JTA) — A professor at the University of Michigan is under fire for saying he can’t write a letter of recommendation for study in Israel because he supports a boycott of the country.
John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of American culture, declined to recommend junior Abigail Ingber for a semester abroad in Israel because he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the country, known as BDS.
“As you may know, many University departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” the professor’s email read. “This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”
The email was first publicized Sunday in a post on the Facebook page of Club Z, a pro-Israel group for young people.
JTA has reached out to Cheney-Lippold and Ingber for comment. Ingber declined to comment on the incident to The Michigan Daily, the campus paper.
Cheney-Lippold told The Michigan Daily that he supported the boycott in solidarity with Palestinians who have called for it. Several academic associations, including the American Studies Association in 2013, have voted for boycotts of Israeli universities.
“I follow the idea that people who are being discriminated against or people who need help … I feel compelled to help them,” he told The Michigan Daily. “I was following a call by representatives of Palestinian civil society to boycott Israel in a very similar tactical frame as South Africa. The idea is that I support communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”
Cheney-Lippold rejected the idea that his refusal was anti-Semitic, and said his decision is meant to urge Israel to comply with international law in its treatment of Palestinians.
“The perennial claim of anti-Semitism I fully deny,” he told The Michigan Daily. “I have no bad will against the student, and I would have very gladly written a letter for any other graduate program or study abroad. … I believe that the boycott is a good tactic to enhance human rights and to get everyone in Israel-Palestine to have what [the] International Criminal Court and the U.N. in general has requested, which is equal rights for everybody.”
In a statement to JTA, Club Z’s executive director, Masha Merkulova, said the decision is anti-Semitic as it came “solely because her chosen destination is Israel.” She accused the professor of holding Ingber to a double standard.
“[W]e fully stand behind Abigail, who should have never been subjected to this double standard,” the statement said. “We strongly believe that when such acts of anti-Semitism and bigotry occur at higher institutions, we must hold professors, administrators, and universities accountable.”
The U.S. Department of Education may agree. Its Office of Civil Rights under Kenneth Marcus, the department’s new assistant secretary for civil rights, is employing the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes some types of anti-Israel activity, in investigating claims of discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The definition includes “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and holding Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s actions.
Marcus recently employed the definition in reopening an investigation into an allegedly anti-Semitic event at Rutgers University in 2011.
Last year, the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government called on the university to investigate divestment from companies that violate Palestinian human rights. The university’s Board of Regents rejected the call.
“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,” read a statement from the university’s Public Affairs Department, according to the Michigan Daily. “We will engage our faculty colleagues in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, affiliated with the Palestinian BDS National Committee, urges faculty not to write recommendations for students hoping to pursue studies in Israel.
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