anti-semite professor
Reading Time: 3 minutes Protesting Israeli occupation of Lebanon, bombing of Palestinians. (Humbleslave, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)
Reading Time: 3 minutes
anti-semite professor
Global intifada. (Latuff, Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0)

A University of Michigan professor recently submitted a routine letter of recommendation supporting a student’s study-abroad application.

Then he rescinded it, and all hell broke loose.

The furor that erupted when cultural studies professor John Cheney-Lippold changed his mind on principal shows how opposition to Israel embodies a minefield studded with moral, ethical and religious hazards, most of them bogus.

When Cheney-Lippold initially wrote the supporting letter, he says, he failed to notice that the applying student wanted to study at Tel Aviv University in Israel. The problem was the professor had previously pledged to boycott Israeli academic institutions to protest that state’s unfair and inhumane treatment of Palestinians, according to a September 20 report in The Washington Post.

The BDS movement

Cheney-Lippold belongs to the American Studies Association, whose membership voted by a 2-1 margin in 2013 to ratify the movement known as BDS (for boycott, divestment and sanctions), which aims to terminate Israeli occupation of “all Arab lands,” fully equal status for all Arab-Palestinian citizens within its borders, and the “right of return” to traditional homes now within Israel for Palestinian refugees under U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.

In rescinding his letter, Cheney-Lippold politely explained to the female student applicant his quandary:

“As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes [not] writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”

He told her he would “be happy” to recommend her placement in other study-abroad programs.

Charges of anti-Semitism

However, his political act unleashed myriad practical difficulties for the professor, including being the target of charges of anti-Semitism from Jewish defense organizations, accusations that he was perpetrating his academic bias on students, imputations of religious discrimination, and spirited calls for his academic termination — “fire immediately.”

For his part, Cheney-Lippold argues that it is a particularly dicey time for Israeli-Palestinians and other minority groups in the state. In July, the government passed the so-called “nation-state law,” which declares Israel the national homeland for Jewish people, automatically reducing the Israeli status and rights of the nation’s non-Jewish groups. The Post article notes:

“Its drafters say it is aimed at boosting Israel’s Jewish character, and its passage into law … celebrated as a historic moment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.”

At heart, Israel embodies a political idea wrapped in religion. As such, Israelis and their American defenders view any political attack on the nation as simultaneously an anti-Semitic attack on their religion and Jewishness.

Opposing apartheid, not Judaism

This presents a relentless dilemma for people like Cheney-Lippold who, while not anti-Semitic but anti-discrimination, protest Israel’s officially sanctioned apartheid political system and religiously inequitable and prejudicial behavior.

Such activists are then immediately blasted as anti-Semites, as though religious and political opposition are one and the same, which they’re not. But Israel’s defenders strategically lump them together because if you’re tarred as a religious bigot in in America, you’re not a person to be respected or listened to.

Yet Cheney-Lippold, as other political opponents of brutal Israeli apartheid, has nothing whatsoever against Judaism or Jews. At one of his classes after the academic melee erupted, Cheney-Lippold invited his students to express their views. Some were critical, others supportive. One Jewish student proclaimed that the professor was “the furthest thing from an anti-Semite.”


Still, death threats against the professor have started to arrive.

Last year, the university’s student government passed a resolution calling for the formation of a committee to consider divesting the institution’s endowment from Israel-linked companies, but the Board of Regents declined. Interestingly, the university did divest twice before, from apartheid South Africa in 1978 and the tobacco industry in 2000. University officials have reported that the school “has consistently opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education,” although individual academics, like Cheney-Lippold, have not.

Cheney-Lippold contends that it’s simply a matter of principle.

“It was about consistency,” he told the Post. “If I believe in this, I have to exercise my will as a professor.”

The administration: nay

The university’s administration, however, declined to support him. A spokesman said:

“Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution.”

That’s a fair argument for debate as it pertains to the First Amendment and academic freedom.

But conflating Israel’s discriminatory, apartheid behavior against its citizens with purported anti-Semitism and religious bigotry of those who oppose it is not fair.

Religion, as always, hopelessly muddles real-world problems and corrupts solutions.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...