Lawyer: UM prof in Israel letter flap gets death threats

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
The University of Michigan will hire a firm to help assess and change the culture of sexual misconduct surrounding faculty members.

A University of Michigan associate professor is getting death threats after widespread reports that he declined to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel, citing an academic boycott for Palestinian rights, his lawyer said Wednesday.

John Cheney-Lippold, an expert in the field of big data and surveillance, said he won't back down on his decision.

"“I wouldn’t cross a union picket line and I can’t cross this one,” Cheney-Lippold said in a statement sent by Palestine Legal, a Chicago-based advocacy group.

“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," Cheney-Lippold continued. "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.”

The Palestine Legal statement says Cheney-Lippold received more than 500 emails, including death threats, after news of his decision spread among conservative media, then to mainstream media.

Cheney-Lippold had planned to write the student a recommendation letter to study abroad but changed his mind after realizing she wanted to study in Israel, citing an academic boycott in support of Palestinians for his decision.

Publicity about his decision emerged as Jews this week observed Yom Kippur,  a holy day of fasting, prayer and repentance, and as the University of Michigan Board of Regents is scheduled to meet on Thursday.

"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," Regent Andrea Fischer Newman tweeted this week. 

National voices supporting Israel also weighed in on the issue.

“Not acceptable," tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. "A student striving to learn and further their education should never be a victim of political bias." 

But Radhika Sainath, a Palestine Legal staff attorney who is advising Cheney-Lippold, said in a phone interview that it is neither unusual for professors to decline to write recommendations for ethical or political reasons. She also said it's not uncommon for critics to try to get professors fired or disciplined for taking a stand on Palestine.

“We’ve seen this over and over again, whether it’s students or professors,” said Sainath, who is based in New York. “There are often attempts by people who don’t want to see any criticism of Israel to attempt to shut down the speech."

She pointed to the University of Illinois'  $600,000 settlement with Steven Salaita, who lost his position after posting controversial tweets about Israel and Zionists in 2014 and later sued for free speech and breach of contract.

"What's important to remember about the professor is he is a taking a principled  stance for Palestinian human rights,”  Sainath said. "Writing letters of recommendation aren't any contractual obligation. They're a service. Professors have the right to saying no to writing letters for various reasons, including if they disagree with the institution that the recommendee is going to."

The issue came to light this week after Lippold's email to the student started circulating on social media. It was widely discussed on a private parent group for UM students on Facebook, but the statement from Palestine Legal said Club Z, a Zionist organization, posted the email on Facebook.

On Sept. 16, Club Z, a group that promotes "Zionism for teens," posted on Facebook about Cheney-Lippold's email. 

The group's post said: "An unbelievable email from a University of Michigan professor, who has refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student because she will be studying abroad in Israel. We hope that the U.S. Department of Education will take note of this case, in light of their recently adopted definition of anti-Semitism, which includes (a) double standard for Israel." 

The Club Z post also said: "While U-M regents have stated that they will not divest, this does not necessarily dictate how individual professors react, though this situation certainly warrants University action." 

The group did not respond Wednesday to a message seeking comment.

This issue has stirred reaction from the Jewish and Palestinian communities at UM. It also prompted UM to issued a statement disassociating the university from the professor's actions.

Last December, six of eight members of UM's Board of Regents signed a resolution rebuffing calls from student leaders to consider divesting the university’s endowment from companies that allegedly committed human rights violations against Palestinians.