U of Michigan prof. who refused to write Israel letter denies anti-Semitism

But pro-Israel group charges that John Cheney-Lippold’s decision to rescind recommendation offer to Abby Ingber, who wants to study in Israel, is an unacceptable double standard

University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold was recently disciplined by the school for refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel. (YouTube Screen Capture)
University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold was recently disciplined by the school for refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel. (YouTube Screen Capture)

A University of Michigan professor who refused to send a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel, because he supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, denied that his action is anti-Semitic. But the pro-Israel group that highlighted the incident claimed that it is.

The university on Monday moved to distance itself from the staff member, John Cheney-Lippold, saying that it opposes boycotts of the Jewish state.

Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the university’s Department of American Culture, had initially said he would write a reference letter for undergraduate student Abigail Ingber for a semester abroad program, but rescinded the offer after finding out she wanted to study in Israel.

Cheney-Lippold rejected the idea that his refusal was anti-Semitic, and said his decision was 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 Monday. “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.”

Abby Ingber asked John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of American culture, for a letter of recommendation to help her study abroad in Israel. (Facebook)

Cheney-Lippold told The Michigan Daily that he supported BDS in solidarity with Palestinians who have called for it. “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 UN in general has requested, which is equal rights for everybody,” he said.

However, Masha Merkulova, the executive director of pro-Israel Club Z which publicized the incident on Sunday, charged that Cheney-Lippold’s 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,” Mekulova said in a statement. “We strongly believe that when such acts of anti-Semitism and bigotry occur at higher institutions, we must hold professors, administrators, and universities accountable.”

Kenneth Marcus, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The US 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.

In a statement released late Monday, the public university said it was unhappy with Cheney-Lippold’s actions. “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,” the school said.

The university said it “has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education.”

A University of Michigan logo decorates a roundabout on the school’s campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on July 20, 2015. (AP/Paul Sancya)

“No academic department or any other unit at the University of Michigan has taken a position that departs from this long-held university position,” the statement read.

The statement did not mention Cheney-Lippold but said it would engage faculty “in deep discussions to clarify how the expression of our shared values plays out in support of all students.

“The academic goals of our students are of paramount importance. It is the university’s position to take all steps necessary to make sure our students are supported,” the school, among the country’s largest public universities, said.

In 2017, the school’s governing board of regents rejected a pro-BDS student government resolution calling for it to divest from Israeli companies or firms doing business with Israel.

“Our university has long been a community that seeks to study and improve the human condition through our research and scholarship,” six members of the board wrote in a statement at the time. “We work together to better understand the most complex challenges we face on campus and beyond. We do this work through active engagement in the world around us. To boycott, divest or sanction Israel offends these bedrock values of our great university.”

In an email obtained by The Times of Israel on Monday, Cheney-Lippold had notified Ingber, identified at the stage only as Abigail, that he had not known she was planning on studying in Israel when he agreed to write her a recommendation.

“I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail,” he wrote. “As you may know, 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.

Email sent by University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold informing a student he would not write her a letter of recommendation to study in Israel because he supports BDS. (Screen shot)

“I should have let you know earlier, and for that I apologize,” he went on. “But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”

After dropping his offer to recommend Ingber, Cheney-Lippold told her he would help her with applications for programs in other countries.

“Let me know if you need me to write other letters for you, as I’d be happy,” he told her.

In December 2013, the American Studies Association voted in favor of endorsing an academic boycott of Israel, becoming the second such American scholarly group to do so.

The Anti-Defamation League denounced the associate professor Monday evening, with the organization’s CEO calling on the University of Michigan to make clear that it does not support his actions.

“Not acceptable,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt. “A student striving to learn and further their education should never be a victim of political bias. The university needs to publicly clarify it opposes the academic boycott of Israel.”

The state of Michigan passed a law last year prohibiting boycotts against individuals or a public entities of a foreign state. Without explicitly mentioning Israel, the measure restricts all state agencies from entering contracts with individuals who engage in a “boycott of a person based in or doing business with a strategic partner.”

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