In Defense of Professor Cheney-Lippold

University of Michigan Law School (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The past few weeks have been marked by contentious debate surrounding University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold’s decision to decline a letter of recommendation for a student intending to study abroad in Israel. Lippold clarified in an interview with the Michigan Daily that his boycott was a political one, on the basis of support for Palestinian human rights. The University of Michigan has responded with an official statement underlining their position that the political beliefs and preferences of a faculty member should not play a role in the support they are willing to grant to students; the University has been firm in not affirming the professor’s decision to boycott. Others in the University of Michigan community have been firm in their responses; University Regent Denise Ilitch characterized the act as profoundly exclusionary and alleged anti-Semitism as the motivation behind the boycott.

The University of Michigan’s response to the incident is insufficient in its refusal to acknowledge the individual rights of faculty members to express their beliefs, as well as their right to protest. Secondly, the statements of some members of the University of Michigan community inaccurately conflate criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism.

The University’s claim is unsatisfactory and fails to address the rights of Cheney-Lippold as a faculty member. While professors can play a positive role in supporting their students by providing letters of recommendation, they have no obligation to issue a letter of recommendation to any student. Organizations and members of the Michigan community who have also opposed Cheney-Lippold’s boycott fail to recognize the right of Cheney-Lippold to refrain from providing recommendations. One such criticism by Max Samarov, the executive director of research and campus strategy for an Israel advocacy group- StandWithUs, characterized Cheney-Lippold’s boycott as an example of the professor “refusing to do his job simply because it conflicts with his personal politics”. This statement incorrectly assumes, once again, that Cheney-Lippold has an obligation to provide letters of recommendation not only for the sake of supporting students but as a required part of his position as faculty member.

Cheney-Lippold’s actions fall in line with a tradition of peaceful protest and boycott against the state of Israel and its actions. While individuals may disagree regarding the extent of the atrocities committed in Israel or with the classification of Israel as an apartheid state, it is completely within Cheney-Lippold’s rights to express his opinions regarding the political actions of a state. The University should not only recognize professors’ right to express their political opinions, but encourage University staff to express their political views in similarly peaceful and productive ways. It is the peaceful, non-violent political action of principled individuals that is vital to fostering a diverse and engaged intellectual climate on campus. The University policy regarding freedom of expression states that “expression of diverse points of view is of the highest importance, not only for those who espouse a cause or position and then defend it, but also for those who hear and pass judgement on that defense”. While this policy claims to support diversity of opinions, the University’s statement in regards to the boycott seems to contradict this belief- stating that “injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values as an institution”. This glaring contradiction needs to be addressed.

An important addendum to any discussion regarding Cheney-Lippold’s political boycott is that it should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. While Regents on the Board have made accusations of anti-Semitism, we must address the flaws with this conflation in order to establish a more productive environment for dialogue surrounding Israel. A critique of the actions of the Israeli state is not an attack on all Jews or Judaism. Many Jewish groups, on both an international and national scale, adopt similar attitudes and work towards cross-cultural dialogue and political action. Groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, a national grassroots organization, adopt a more progressive understanding of the conflict. Driven by Jewish values in their defense of international human rights and advocacy of peace, they recognize the Israeli occupation of Palestine and support the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. They, and many other Jews, understand that confronting the realities of the Israeli occupation does not equate to attacking their own right to exist as Jews, but in reality is a necessary political action against the systematic oppression of Palestinians and the deprivation of their basic human rights.

If there is to be productive dialogue on this issue moving forward, we must first recognize Cheney-Lippold’s right to refuse a student a letter of recommendation and more importantly to express his individual political beliefs in a peaceful manner. Secondly, we must question the conflation of any critique of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism. It’s time that we address the severe misconceptions and charged language that occurs anytime there is dialogue surrounding the state of Israel. The power of peaceful boycott is one of the few valuable tools that activists in the West have at their disposal if they are to take action to confront the human rights violations of the state of Israel. The least we can do is educate and continue to be active allies; to be silent in the face of injustice is to be complicit in oppression.

To read an opposing opinion, click here.

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