The BDS picket line


What’s with University of Michigan professor of American Culture John Cheney-Lippold? He’s the guy who refused to write a letter of recommendation for one of his students, a junior named Abigail Ingber, who asked him to support her effort to study abroad — in Israel. Cheney-Lippold refused Ingber’s request because he adheres to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which includes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

“As you may know, many University departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” he wrote to her. “This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

Further, according to the learned professor, writing the requested letter to help one of his students study in Israel would be like crossing a picket line, he said. “I would hope anyone who cares about injustice, such as Israel’s unequal treatment of Palestinians, would make a similar decision … Israeli universities are complicit institutions — they develop weapons systems and military training. Standing up for freedom, justice, and equality for all is something I’m proud of.”

Apparently, Cheney-Lippold’s claimed ethical convictions only apply selectively, as he had no problem serving on a panel this summer at a workshop sponsored in part by the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy at IDC Herzliya. His hypocritical refusal to support his student’s effort to study in Israel and acceptance of an opportunity for personal benefit underwritten by an Israeli university is as upsetting as it is stunning. The University of Michigan deserves better, and Cheney-Lippold’s students have a right to expect more ethical and balanced treatment from their professor.

We note that neither the American Culture department nor the University of Michigan supports BDS. And they don’t support the offensive actions of Cheney-Lippold. Indeed, last week the university reaffirmed its opposition to any academic boycott of Israel and was directly critical of Cheney-Lippold’s actions.

But here is what is truly offensive about Cheney-Lippold and his judgement. Aside from apartheid South Africa, which no longer exists, the professor wrote, “I would have very gladly written a letter for any other graduate program or study abroad.” Really? Anywhere but Israel would include programs in Syria, Russia, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia, or any other number of countries that deny “freedom, justice and equality,” not to mention life and safety. But Cheney-Lippold doesn’t seem to be concerned about those human rights distractions or contradictions, because it’s just Israel that is uniquely disqualified, in his judgment.

To be sure, the student seeking the letter of recommendation could have gone to another professor — as she no doubt did — but that’s beside the point. When we see the disturbing reality of professors like Cheney-Lippold buying into the canard that Israel is uniquely deserving of condemnation, it not only magnifies the insidious nature of the BDS movement, it also raises serious questions about the bona fides of these academics themselves.

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