University of Michigan American Culture Professor, John Cheney-Lippold, is refusing to write letters of recommendation for students wishing to study abroad in Israel, citing his participation in a BDS academic boycott.
In an email obtained by Club Z, a pro-Israel activist organization, Cheney-Lippold rescinded an offer to write a letter of recommendation for U-M student Abigail Ingber after realizing she planned to study in Israel. He wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”
In a recent correspondence with The Michigan Review, Cheney-Lippold clarified that he meant to write “many university professors” instead of “many university departments,” adding that he “accidentally mixed his words up” because he had been doing “departmental business” before and after writing the email.
Cheney-Lippold also wrote that he is a supporter of the BDS movement, a national campaign supported by the Palestinian Authority to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for what it calls “a regime of settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation.”
“In the limited capacity I have as an educator, I cherish the ability to employ my free speech as a political act—be it to critique the occupation of Palestine or to critique discrimination in all forms via my writing and teaching.”
Among the demands of the BDS Movement is the requirement that Israel ends “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” In January 2017, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation aimed at preventing boycotts that single out Israel.
Cheney-Lippold claims he supports last year’s Central Student Government divestment proposal to the Board of Regents. The resolution, which passed in November, proposed that the Board of Regents divest from three companies pro-Palestine campus activists deemed to be complicit in alleged Israeli human rights violations. The Regents, however, voted down the proposal, stating that they “strongly oppose any action involving the boycott, divestment or sanction of Israel.”
With regard to Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write the recommendation letter, a University of Michigan representative wrote that “Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.” The statement further clarified that “No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan” has endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Cheney-Lippold told the Review that he has written letters of recommendation for students studying in Israel in the past, but has since changed his position: “…since receiving tenure earlier this year, I finally felt secure in my position to use my role as a letter writer to more explicitly support the BDS boycott.”
He also claimed that although he does not know any other professors at Michigan who are refusing to write letters of recommendation, he believes “many professors at Michigan support the BDS boycott.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted that Cheney-Lippold’s behavior is “not acceptable” and demanded that “the University needs to publicly clarify it opposes the academic boycott of Israel.”
Cheney-Lippold is being represented by Radhika Sainath, a Senior Staff Attorney with Palestine Legal, which provides legal aid for Palestinian activists in America. In a statement published by Palestine Legal, she said, “A professor is not obligated to write a recommendation letter for organizations complicit in unlawful or unethical activity – whether it’s the NRA, President Trump or Israel institutions complicit in violations of Palestinian rights.”
Abigail Ingber has asked the university to respect Cheney-Lippold’s email as a private matter, and it does not appear that Professor Cheney-Lippold will be facing disciplinary action from the university.