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A Study Abroad Boycott

A second instructor at the University of Michigan declines to write a letter for a student to study in Israel, citing support for the boycott, and a first professor who refused to write a letter is disciplined. Meanwhile, Israel has detained and ordered the deportation of a U.S. student for her support for the boycott movement.

October 10, 2018
 

In the second such case this academic year, an instructor at the University of Michigan declined to write a recommendation letter for a student to study in Israel due to the instructor's support for the boycott of Israeli universities. And an associate professor who similarly refused to write a letter has been disciplined. 

The news of  the refusal and the sanction comes as Israel is facing scrutiny for detaining an American student and ordering her deportation for her alleged support of the boycott movement. An amendment to an Israeli law passed in 2017 bars foreign supporters of boycotts of Israel from entering the country. While Israel has previously applied the law to bar the entry of at least one American academic, this is the first publicized case of it blocking a student.

The two cases highlight how study abroad has become an expanded front in the academic boycott battles surrounding Israel. Some criticize the instructors for letting personal politics affect the decision of whether to write a letter in support of a student and suggest there could be something anti-Semitic in what they see as a singular focus on Israel as deserving of an academic boycott. Others argue that professors are right not to lend their support to study abroad in Israel, which they argue is not open to all U.S. students by virtue either of their ethnic background or their involvement in boycott-related activism.

Case No. 1: A Second Instructor Refuses to Write a Recommendation

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that a graduate teaching assistant, Lucy Peterson, declined to write a letter for Jake Seckler, a junior whom she’d taught in an introductory political theory course, after initially indicating she would be “delighted” to write a recommendation for him to study abroad.

The Post reported that after learning that Seckler planned to study at Tel Aviv University, Peterson replied, “I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask before agreeing to write your recommendation letter, but I regrettably will not be able to write on your behalf. Along with numerous other academics in the U.S. and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine.”

“Please know that this decision is not about you as a student or a person, and I would be happy to write a recommendation for you if you end up applying to other programs,” Peterson wrote to Seckler. Seckler's father is Israeli, and Seckler has been to Israel five times.

Neither Seckler nor Peterson responded to requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed. The Post reported that after Peterson's refusal, Seckler met with an associate dean for the social sciences in Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts to discuss the matter. The associate dean reportedly offered to write him a recommendation herself.

This is the second such case reported case at Michigan this fall. In September, an associate professor in Michigan's American Culture department, John Cheney-Lippold, declined to write a letter for a student to study abroad in Israel because of his support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Michigan’s public affairs office declined to comment on the newest case Tuesday. "Based on the story in The Washington Post, this second instance involved a graduate student instructor and an undergraduate student. Since both a[re] students, the university is precluded from sharing information without written consent from the students," said a spokesman, Rick Fitzgerald.

As for the first case, Fitzgerald said the university was taking "appropriate steps" but that it does not "publicly discuss personnel matters." But The Detroit News reported late Tuesday night that Cheney-Lippold had been disciplined. Specifically, he will not get a merit raise during the 2018-19 academic year and will not be able to go on an upcoming sabbatical in January or on another sabbatical for two years.

In a statement published in Michigan's University Record email this morning, Mark S. Schlissel, Michigan's president, and Martin A. Philbert, the provost, had strong words.

"Withholding letters of recommendation based on personal views does not meet our university’s expectations for supporting the academic aspirations of our students. Conduct that violates this expectation and harms students will not be tolerated and will be addressed with serious consequences. Such actions interfere with our students’ opportunities, violate their academic freedom and betray our university’s educational mission," they wrote. 

The head of the Anti-Defamation League on Tuesday called on Michigan to “take immediate steps to ensure that students are not denied an opportunity to participate in an accredited overseas program because of their professors’ political views.”

“Boycotts such as these, refusing to recommend a worthy student solely because she intended to study in Israel, have a chilling effect on Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus, who may feel isolated and vulnerable when authority figures or campus groups express hostility or shun them based on their views and associations,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, said in a statement.

“We are strong supporters of academic freedom. Certainly everyone, including professors, has a right to openly express their views of the policies of the elected Israeli government. But this should not be at the expense of students seeking to broaden their academic experiences.”

“These professors indicated they had no problem writing recommendations for students who might study in any other country in the world. Singling out Israel alone among all the nations of the world as worthy of boycott, according to the State Department working definition, potentially crosses the line from criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism,” Greenblatt said.

In an interview last month with Inside Higher Ed, Cheney-Lippold defended the appropriateness of professors allowing their own ethical and political stances to inform their choices of whether and when to write letters on their students’ behalf. He said that he refused to write a letter for one of his students to study in Israel because he stands against inequality, oppression and occupation, and apartheid.

“A professor should have a decision on how their words will be taken and where their words will go,” Cheney-Lippold said. He added, “I have extraordinary political and ethical conflict lending my name to helping that student go to that place.”

Cheney-Lippold did not respond to an email request for comment late Tuesday afternoon. He was criticized by many -- including implicitly by his university president -- for letting his personal politics affect his decision of whether to write a letter in support of a student’s academic goals. But his supporters defended his decision on the grounds that study abroad to Israel is discriminatory and not open to all students.

A statement of support for Cheney-Lippold from the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which advocates for boycotting study abroad in Israel, said, “Prof. Cheney-Lippold’s decision is grounded in significant evidence that Israel study abroad programs are not equally accessible to all students attending U.S. universities. Some students, specifically students of Palestinian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim background, who attempt to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories may be denied visas to Israel or would be denied entry into the country by Israeli customs and immigrations officials as stated in the U.S. State Department travel advisory.

“In addition, the Israeli government has declared its intent to deny entry to members of pro-BDS organizations, such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Many students on U.S. campuses are members of these organizations and would be barred from entering Israel. Consequently, study abroad programs in Israel exclude certain students on the grounds of national, ethnic or religious identity and political viewpoint, and are contrary to the basic principle of equality of educational opportunity.”

Case No. 2: An American Student Is Detained in Israel

Last week, Israel ordered the deportation of Lara Alqasem, an American student who received a student visa at the Israeli consulate in Miami to pursue a master’s degree at Hebrew University of Jerusalem -- but who was refused entry to Israel upon arrival at the airport in Tel Aviv nevertheless. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Alqasem, who has Palestinian grandparents, remained in detention as she appealed the order to deport her for her alleged support for the boycott movement. Israeli officials cited her role as the former chapter president of the University of Florida’s Students for Justice in Palestine group and said that during her tenure as president, the group advocated for a boycott of an Israeli brand of hummus, Sabra.

“Lara served as president of a chapter of one of the most extreme and hate-filled anti-Israel BDS groups in the U.S.,” Israel’s strategic affairs minister, Gilad Erdan, said, according to the Associated Press. Erdan suggested that he might reconsider the order to deport Alqasem if she apologized and renounced her support for BDS.

Malini Johar Schueller, a professor of English and the faculty adviser for the Students for Justice in Palestine group at Florida, said via email that she is “extremely bothered by the way SJP is being portrayed as a hate group. This is a legitimate student organization with chapters in many campuses across the country. Their website states that 'Students for Justice in Palestine is founded at the University of Florida to promote public awareness and activism for Palestinians under Israeli occupation.' Since when have historical awareness and activism become reprehensible?”

Schueller shared a statement signed by 27 faculty, including herself, calling for Alqasem to be immediately released and describing her detention as "a violation of her human rights, her academic freedom and freedom of movement. The detention clearly shows that Israel discriminates against Arab American students, who because of their cultural and familial connections to Palestine … are regularly turned back when they seek to enter Israel."

Hebrew University has joined Alqasem's appeal of her deportation, according to the Israeli publication Haaretz. The University Senate there on Monday passed a resolution describing the university as "a place that does not shy from disagreements and is pleased to hear multiple voices. The minister’s decision not to permit the student’s entry solely because of her views constitutes a threat to what the institution of the university represents." The resolution also said that Alqasem's decision to study in Israel "attests foremost to her reservations about the boycott. As does the testimony of researchers who know her. The minister’s move -- which raises questions about the independence that Israeli academia is given by government policy -- actually has the effect of bolstering any such boycott."

Haaretz also reported that the Association of University Heads of Israel sent a letter to the strategic affairs minister, Erdan, warning of the damage to Israeli academia of barring students like Alqasem and calling on the ministry to consult with host universities before issuing deportation orders.

"The damage caused to Israel and Israeli academia as a whole, to the Israeli universities and particularly to Israeli scientists and researchers abroad by decisions of this kind could well exceed the potential damage, if any, of permitting her to enter Israel," the association's head, Tel Aviv University president Joseph Klafter​, wrote in the letter.

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