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Citing BDS US professor declines reference letter for student to study in Israel

September 18, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, John Cheney-Lippold, in University of Michigan [Twitter]

Despite efforts to curb anti-BDS activities in the US – which has been denounced as suppression of free speech and a violation of the First Amendment – a professor at the American University of Michigan has declined to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wished to study in Israel.

Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, John Cheney-Lippold, cited his faculties’ pledge to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction’s movement against Israel in his decision to refuse the letter of recommendation. It’s reported that Cheney had previously offered to write an undergraduate’s reference letter for a semester abroad programme in Israel without realising his department’s position on BDS.

“I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail,” he wrote in his email to the student. “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,” Lippold said.

“I should have let you know earlier, and for that I apologize,” he continued in his email that was circulated in social media. “But for reasons of these politics, I must rescind my offer to write your letter.”

READ: Anti-BDS Trump appointee re-opens case over alleged anti-Semitism on US campus

Lippold’s decision drew condemnation from the university management team as well as pro-Israeli groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) whose chairman, Jonathan Greenblatt, called on the University of Michigan to make clear that it does not, as an institution, support the BDS movement or boycotts of Israel.

The university’s governing body sought to distance itself from the professor’s position, saying in a statement yesterday that it “has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education”. Their intervention reflects the growing rift between governing bodies in American institutions and students and professors wishing to exercise their rights in opposing Israeli occupation.

Last November, Central Student Government at the University of Michigan passed a resolution in support of BDS. The vote was passed 23-17 and was described as a “landmark moment” in the university’s history. But the university’s governing body rejected the proposal one month later, saying they “strongly oppose any action involving the boycott, divestment or sanction of Israel.”

READ: Departing for Germany, Israel’s leading theatrical actor-director endorses BDS

Six of the eight members of the board are reported to have signed the letter, and criticised BDS as an assault on the institution’s values.

In what seems to be an attempt to clamp down on BDS, the state of Michigan joined a number of other US states to pass a law to ban BDS activities. State legislatures adopted a rule barring companies that engage in boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel from receiving local government contracts.

An earlier version stated that John Cheney-Lippold was a professor at the University of Maryland.