University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold, an expert in the field of big data and surveillance, received death threats this week after he told a student he would be unable to write her a recommendation letter for a study abroad program in Israel because he supports the academic boycott for Palestinian rights.
“I wouldn’t cross a union picket line and I can’t cross this one,” said Cheney-Lippold. “I support the Palestinian boycott call because I am appalled at Israel’s continuing violation of Palestinian rights, and our government’s support for those violations. If a student had wanted to do a study abroad at an institution in Apartheid South Africa, I would have declined to write a letter for her as well.”
After an email exchange about deadlines with the student, Cheney-Lippold informed the student on September 5 that for political and ethical reasons he could not write her a recommendation for the program. “Let me know if you need me to write other letters for you, as I’d be happy,” Cheney-Lippold wrote.
A few days later, Club Z, a Zionist organization, posted the email on Facebook. Islamophobe ideologue Pamela Geller and right-wing groups including the Zionist Organization of America called for the professor to be dismissed. The story spread among conservative sites such as Fox News, Breitbart and the Daily Caller and was soon picked up by other sites such as CBS and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Soon after, Cheney-Lippold received over 500 emails, including messages calling for him to be killed.
“It’s not uncommon for professors to decline to write recommendations for ethical, political or academic reasons,” said Radhika Sainath, Senior Staff Attorney with Palestine Legal, who is advising Cheney-Lippold. “A professor is not obligated to write a recommendation letter for organizations complicit in unlawful or unethical activity – whether it’s the NRA, President Trump or Israel institutions complicit in violations of Palestinian rights.”
The Palestinian civil society call for a boycott to protest Israel’s ongoing violations of their human rights includes a call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. This includes study abroad programs in Israel, which it says “are part of the Israeli propaganda effort, designed to give international students a ‘positive experience’ of Israel, whitewashing its occupation and denial of Palestinian rights.” The boycott guidelines also state that “international faculty should not accept to write recommendations for students hoping to pursue studies in Israel,” given these institutions’ complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
In 2017, two unconstitutional anti-boycott bills were signed into law by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. The laws apply to narrowly defined state procurement and construction contracts – not professors or an academic boycott.