Imagine this scenario: You are a third-year student hoping to study abroad in Italy.
You ask for a letter of recommendation from a favorite professor of yours to get into the program. After initially saying yes, the professor writes back a few weeks later rescinding the offer, because he or she disagrees with the current extremist government in Italy.
Pretty ridiculous, right?
Unfortunately, this is the real-life situation for University of Michigan student Abigail Ingber, who requested a letter of recommendation from Professor John Cheney-Lippold. He realized he missed a large detail in her initial email — her destination, Israel. “I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail,” wrote Cheney-Lippold in a follow-up email to Ingber on September 5. “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.”
He told her he would be happy to recommend her for other programs.
Many have called the decision anti-Semitic, while others have applauded it. But this is a multi-layered issue. It is one thing to be anti-Israel, and another to be anti-Semitic, and this distinction is a battle that universities and organizations have been continuously fighting. According to the anti-defamation league, there is a “3-D” test that discerns these two ideologies and recognizes anti-Semitism.
1. Demonization. When the Jewish state is being demonized; when Israel's actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz
2. Double Standards. When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored
3. Delegitimization. When Israel's fundamental right to exist is denied — alone among all peoples in the world — this, too, is anti-Semitism.
While Cheney-Lippold may not be an anti-Semite, he is guilty of holding Israel to a double standard. Back to the aforementioned scenario, if you were denied the right to study abroad in the country of your choice, be it Italy or Australia or Israel, how would you feel?
Yes, professors should feel free to rescind or deny a request for a recommendation based on a student’s merit or character. But to hinder a student’s academic endeavors for one’s own political disposition, allowing personal politics to infringe on this student’s academic life, is simply absurd. Next, he won’t give a recommendation to a Chicago Cubs fan, because he doesn’t believe in their coaching strategy or to a meat-eating student because he’s a vegetarian. Where do we draw the line?
As a student who identifies as a Zionist, I am fully aware that Israel is not an infallible state. The beauty of a democratic state, like Israel or the US, is that it is and should be subject to criticism. This criticism only becomes an issue when it unfairly bestowed. It’s also important to recognize that the double standard, while blaringly obvious, does not excuse Israel from scrutiny. However, not acknowledging it allows people to think of Israel — an internationally recognized state — as nonessential. As Bret Stephens of NYT puts perfectly, “The world now demands that Jerusalem account for every bullet fired at the demonstrators, without offering a single practical alternative for dealing with the crisis. But where is the outrage when Palestinian children as young as seven were dispatched to try to breach the fence?”
Israel provides humanitarian relief all over the world. It provides services to Syrian refugees and was also the first country to show up to help Haiti. Israeli technology was used to rescue the boys from the Thai cave. Israeli people founded the USB flash drive, Waze etc. It is a place of innovation, a place for learning. But we don’t hear about any of these things in the news.
Professor Cheney-Lippold is a member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (University of Michigan has time and time again denounced this movement). It is certainly fair to state that the grievances that motivate BDS are legitimate and merit attention. Perhaps Abigail Ingber is hoping to study abroad in Israel to learn and to have new experiences, as most students do. And perhaps once she arrives she is awed by Israel’s beauty, motivated by its technological innovation, but ultimately turned off by its current bureaucratic and social issues. That could very well be the case, if only she were granted the opportunity to make these decisions for herself.
He told her he would be happy to recommend her for other programs. If Professor Cheney-Lippold is such a proponent for human rights, he must be a proponent for human rights everywhere. His statement would be fair, as long as these other programs don’t include human rights violating countries, such as Syria, Yemen or Philippines. As Sami Stoloff, a student at University of Michigan stated, “It’s been brought up that if this student were studying abroad in China, Russia, or Egypt the professor might have written the recommendation, with no pertinence to their human rights records.”
Abigail Ignber, like all of us here at UW-Madison, has probably been trained and conditioned and taught to be curious and to ask questions. It would be helpful and fruitful to have these important nuanced conversations about what a two-state solution would amount to, the issues with Israeli settlements, and how best to secure Palestinian statehood. Unfortunately, Professor Cheney-Lippold has chosen to deny such possibility. As a professor of culture, he should be advocating for students, encouraging them to explore these nuances and complexities, and enabling them to come to these decisions on their own.
A professor, especially one in the department of “American Culture” whose research areas include “identity,” “race” and “privacy”, according to the Michigan faculty website, should be aware of the massive cultural cleavage our own country is facing. Do cultural race relations in our own country not deserve boycotting? What gives him the right to say that this other culture — one in which he does not identify with — is not worthy of study abroad students, when our home country’s race relations are in disarray?
Here at UW, the Wisconsin Idea encourages sifting and winnowing; it is incumbent upon us to be informed. But when a third power is intervening in these nuanced discussions and debates, we’re not receiving the all-encompassing education that the university is promising. I was on campus two years ago, when BDS was pervading the UW student body. UW rightfully condemned it.
Hilary Miller, a current senior at UW, has taken classes like History of Jerusalem, and the History of Israel, where she called the professors “balanced” and “not abusing their positions” and because of this, she has been afforded a very positive and enlightening experience at UW.
Let’s go back to that scenario I introduced in the beginning. Luckily for you though, nobody is going to reject your request for a recommendation to study abroad in Italy, despite their government’s dangerous and racist actions. Because Italy is not the world’s only Jewish sovereign state.
Olivia is a senior studying computer science with a certificate in graphic design and digital studies. What are your thoughts on the relationship between political beliefs and studying abroad? Do you think Israel is fairly criticized, given a free pass, or unfairly targeted? Send any comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.