[Marxism] A professor withheld a recommendation letter for a student heading to Israel. Here’s why I’m fine with it.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 14 09:00:44 MDT 2018

Washington Post, October 13
A professor withheld a recommendation letter for a student heading to 
Israel. Here’s why I’m fine with it.
By David Palumbo-Liu

(David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford 

The case of John Cheney-Lippold, a University of Michigan professor who 
declined to write a letter of recommendation for a student for admission 
to a study-abroad program in Israel and subsequently has been 
disciplined by the university for his decision, raises a number of 
issues of great concern for the academy at large.

On Oct. 3, Elizabeth Cole, the interim dean of UM’s College of 
Literature, Science and the Arts, wrote Cheney-Lippold a disciplinary 
letter. In the letter she states, “Your conduct has fallen far short of 
the University’s and College’s expectations for how LSA faculty interact 
with and treat students. … This letter is a strong warning that your 
behavior in this circumstance was inappropriate and will not be 
tolerated.” She also informed him that because of his action, he would 
not receive a merit raise, would be deprived of sabbaticals, and might 
be dismissed from the university if “a similar incident occurs in the 

At the time Lippold-Cheney declined to write, the University of Michigan 
had no rule that mandated professors provide such letters — as Cole 
explicitly acknowledges. While being too busy is a legitimate excuse not 
to write, Cole goes on to say that faculty’s discretion “does not extend 
to withholding a letter because of your personal views regarding a 
student’s place of study.” But what if the student’s place of study is 
discriminatory, not because of some “personal view” but based on a 
documented set of policies and actions?

Cole’s letter implies that any faculty member who makes a principled 
decision not to write a letter for admission to an institution that 
discriminates against those of a particular race, ethnicity, national 
origin, or indeed any person based on group identity may be subject to 

There are two issues that need to be addressed in this instance: Would 
Cheney-Lippold face dismissal had he refused to write a letter for a 
student who wished to attend an educational program administered by a 
school that discriminated against Jews, gays, blacks, etc.? If so, and 
here is the second issue, disciplining faculty who refuse to write 
letters for programs that have discriminatory practices contradicts the 
self-declared ethos of the University of Michigan, which strongly 
prohibits discrimination against any individual “because of race, color, 
national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender 
identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or 
veteran status, except as allowed by the need for bona fide occupational 
qualifications.” How odd then that Cole is happy to dismiss a person who 
acts according to that ethos in protesting Israel’s discriminatory 
practices against Palestinians, and indeed against anyone critical of 
its regime.

Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write was not the result of some personal 
and arbitrary whim. He supports the human rights-based Boycott, 
Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement created by more than 170 
Palestinian civil society organizations. BDS seeks the end of Israeli 
occupation of Arab territory, the full equality of Palestinian citizens 
of Israel and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their 
homes. Supporters include Bishop Desmond Tutu and 2018 Nobel laureate 
George P. Smith.

I doubt that UM would rebuke a Nobel Prize-winning professor in the way 
it has Cheney-Lippold. But what about ordinary professors? As The Post 
reports, Lucy Peterson, a teaching assistant, has similarly declined to 
write a recommendation for a student applying to study in Israel (though 
she says she’d be glad to write for him in other cases). Peterson is in 
an especially vulnerable position — and her action speaks of an even 
greater courage.

One question immediately comes to mind: Isn’t she discriminating against 
Israel? For supporters of BDS (disclosure: I am one), the answer is 
easy: Peterson and Cheney-Lippold are not arbitrarily singling out 
Israel. They are responding to the fact that Israel systematically 
discriminates against non-Jews (and even some Jews, if they are critical 
of Israel) by answering a call to boycott.

Consider the recent case of a U.S. student of Palestinian background, 
Lara Alqasem, whom Israel has refused entry because of her criticism of 
Israel’s policies. The chilling message she got from Gilad Erdan, 
Israel’s minister for public security and strategic affairs, was this: 
“If Lara Alqasem declares clearly and explicitly that she erred in the 
past, we will reconsider our position regarding her entry to Israel.” 
This sounds like something one would expect from a functionary during 
China’s Cultural Revolution.

Cole’s letter bypasses the issue of Israel’s systemic discrimination and 
uses purposefully vague language to deny a professor his right to free 
speech — which is, by the way, what the Supreme Court has declared 
boycotts to be. She has declared Cheney-Lippold’s (and Peterson’s 
actions) to be unacceptable, and by extension, accepted Israel’s 
discrimination against its critics, of whatever faith or ethnicity.

But here’s a final, and very real danger: Disciplining faculty who 
refuse to write letters opens up the possibility that universities will 
be turned into pawns of ideologically-driven organizations who target 
professors critical of their views; they could engage students to ask 
for letters they know the professors are, based on their principles, 
likely to decline to write. University leaders should be “expected” to 
uphold free speech and resist being manipulated into disciplining those 
who exercise their rights in defense of those who cannot.

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