UM in the middle of controversy over Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan has landed in the middle of controversy surrounding the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with one of its professors thrust into the spotlight after he refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study at Tel Aviv University.

The decision by John Lippold-Cheney, an American and digital studies associate professor, was prompted by his political views supporting the Palestinians. It has incited communities on both side of the issue, raising deeper questions about the rights of a scholar versus the mission of an institution of higher education.

On Friday, national institutions on both sides weighed in on the controversy, with Israeli supporters calling for university and federal action while Palestinian allies applauded Lippold-Cheney.

Following public statements by UM President Mark Schlissel and two regents on Thursday, scores of influential Jewish groups called on Schlissel to make stronger statements condemning Cheney-Lippold, with one of the organizations calling for the U.S. Department of Education to investigate. 

The Simon Wiesenthal Center called Friday on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate University of Michigan American culture professor John Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study in Israel.

More than 60 Jewish organizations signed a letter sent Friday to Schlissel expressing their "grave concern" about Cheney-Lippold, a tenured UM associate professor in American and digital studies. In refusing to write the letter, Cheney-Lippold cited his support of an academic boycott of Israel because of human rights concerns regarding Palestinians.

"Impeding a student’s ability to participate in a university-approved educational program in order to carry out political activism is reprehensible," said the letter, penned by the AMCHA Initiative, which monitors more than 400 U.S. college campuses for anti-Semitic activity.

"Individual faculty members have the right to express public support for an academic boycott of Israel. 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. Such discriminatory behavior that impedes the rights of students must be sanctioned to the fullest extent of university policy. " 

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center on Friday urged UM to discipline Cheney-Lippold and also called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate him.

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"This goes well beyond criticizing Israel, disagreeing with Israeli policy or even a personal boycott of Israel, which is despicable but a protected right,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean and director of social action. “Jewish students are being punished for their affinity with Israel. In denying the letter of recommendation purely on his dislike of Israel and using a double standard to justify it, Cheney-Lippold has egregiously violated this young woman’s civil rights."

Cooper added that Cheney-Lippold referencing his resistance in the vein of South African apartheid implies "that Israel is racist and cited human rights abuses that are inconsistent with fact." 

Cheney-Lippold stirred both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he declined to write the recommendation letter, citing the global academic boycott led by the BDS movement in support of Palestinians.

His decision emerged publicly earlier this week, prompting critics and supporters as UM leaders distanced the university from his action. UM officials emphasized they are looking into the situation and insisted his values are not in sync with the university's mission.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel issued a statement Friday applauding Cheney-Lippold's stance.

"Palestinian academics have since 2004 called on all conscientious academics and progressive academic institutions to reject academic business as usual with Israel while it maintains its decades-old system of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid," the statement said. "Palestinian students and faculty face Israel’s institutionalized racism, discriminatory underfunding of education facilities, limits on travel, at home and abroad, military raids on campuses, including with live fire and tear gas, and bombings of schools and universities.

"Israeli universities play a key role in planning, implementing and maintaining these racist Israeli policies," the statement continued. "Prof. Cheney-Lippold refused to be complicit in academically whitewashing this apartheid reality. He is not alone. Important academic associations and teachers’ and student unions as well as thousands of academics support the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions until Israel respects international law."

Cheney-Lippold's lawyer, Radhika Sainath of Chicago-based Palestine Legal, defended him and called the Jewish groups' demand that he be disciplined a modus operandi "to silence anyone who takes a principled stance for Palestinian rights."

"This is unequivocally a First Amendment issue,"  said Sainath. "What these groups are trying to do is silence professors taking a principled stance for Palestinian human rights. Political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment -- this is settled law. There's no special exception for Israel.

"As a professor at a public university, Cheney-Lippold is protected by the First Amendment. This means his school may not punish him for a boycott for Palestinian rights. They also can't compel him to write a letter of recommendation."

U.S. Education Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said via email he was looking into the Wiesenthal Center's call for a national investigation and could not immediately respond.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald declined comment, pointing to a statement that Schlissel made Thursday during the Board of Regents meeting.  

"The University of Michigan strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions," Schlissel said. "The academic aspirations of our students – and their academic freedom – are fundamental to the University of Michigan, and our teaching and research missions."

Cheney-Lippold, who has reported receiving death threats, did not make a comment about the latest developments. But in a lengthy interview Thursday with The Detroit News, he defended his refusal to write the recommendation letter. "The Constitution does not compel one to speak," he said.

Neil Marsh, chair of the UM Faculty Senate, said it is an expectation that faculty members will write letters of recommendation for students who need them for study, fellowship and other applications. But it is not a requirement, he said.

"It should be something that should be independent of political considerations if a student needs a recommendation," said Marsh, who is a UM chemistry and biological chemistry professor. 

At the same time, Marsh said that as chair of the UM Faculty Senate, he strongly supports the right of instructors to make their own decisions on these matters, though he had mixed feelings about what Cheney-Lippold did.

"I respect his decision," Marsh said, "but I don’t think it is necessarily the correct decision ... Faculty shouldn’t allow individual political stances to influence the way in which they deal with individual student writing letters of recommendation."

Marsh said he didn't know if Cheney-Lippold would face discipline; that would be up to the chair of his department or the dean of his college.

"I very much doubt that he would face revocation of tenure," Marsh said. "That is not likely."

Two other students had earlier asked Cheney-Lippold to write letters of recommendation to study in Israel and he said he did because he didn’t have tenure.

UM Regent Andrea Fischer-Newman said the board approved Cheney-Lippold’s tenure in May but it didn’t become effective until Sept. 1 – four days before the professor declined the student’s request for the letter of recommendation to study in Israel. Fisher-Newman called Cheney-Lippold’s actions as “playing the system.”

The AMCHA letter to Schlissel — signed by organizations such as the American Institute for Jewish Research, World Jewish Congress, American Section and the Zionist Organization of America —  called on the UM president to speak out specifically against Cheney-Lippold to deter other faculty from following his lead.

"Of particular concern are the omission in your statement of any condemnation of Cheney-Lippold’s behavior and your statement acknowledging that 'members of the University of Michigan community have a wide range of ‘individual’ opinions on this and many other topics.'” the letter said. "Both your omission and inclusion give the impression that individual UM professors will be permitted by your administration to discriminate against students wanting to study about and in Israel."

This is "deeply alarming," the letter continued, saying two dozen UM faculty members have expressed public support for the academic boycott of Israel.

"Left unaddressed, this isolated incident could lead to unchecked discrimination, and the denial to students of their fundamental rights," the letter said. "We therefore call on you to make a public statement specifically stating that this behavior will not be permitted, affirming your commitment to ensuring that no UM student will be impeded from studying about or in Israel, and detailing the steps you will take to ensure that faculty do not implement an academic boycott of Israel at the University of Michigan."

AMCHA also launched a petition on its web site that calls for signatures to urge all university leaders “to prevent the implementation of an academic boycott of Israel that directly instructs faculty to impede students’ rights.” 

Meanwhile, Cooper questioned whether Cheney-Lippold would also refuse to write a recommendation letter for Tsinghua University in Beijing or Allama Iqbal Open University in Pakistan, where homosexuality is penalized.

“This gross hypocrisy is rooted in an anti-Semitic double standard and charges of racism, which the professor has used in order to punish a young Jewish woman over Israeli policies he doesn’t like and for her expression of Jewish cultural identity," Cooper said. "That’s illegal and immoral and another acute example of the need for Congress to pass the anti-Semitism bill currently under consideration by the House of Representatives.”

“Jewish students need protection from the likes of Cheney-Lippold and the academic bigotry he practices," he continued. "University of Michigan and other great universities must hold anti-Semitic civil rights violators accountable for undermining the academy’s core mission.”