Defend academic freedom and the right to boycott : Support Lucy Peterson and John Cheney-Lippold

| USACBI |Tribunes

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) expresses its support and solidarity with two academics at the University of Michigan (UM) John Cheney-Lippold (a tenured American and digital studies associate professor) and Lucy Peterson (a vulnerable graduate student instructor), both of whom have refused to write letters of recommendations in accordance with their principled beliefs and commitment to BDS.

They have been met with accusations of “professionally unethical” conduct, accusations that come within a context of Zionist academic repression in the U.S. USACBI strongly condemns any mislabeling, as “professionally unethical”, of principled action such as the refusal of academics of conscience to write letters of recommendations for students who wish to join study abroad programs at Israeli academic institutions complicit with a system of state apartheid. Indeed, we urge all academics to take the path that Cheney-Lippold and Peterson have taken, refusing to participate in these systems of complicity in line with the Palestinian call for the academic boycott of Israel and its academic institutions.

Since initiating Resist Racist Repression, Defend Solidarity with the Palestinian People : National Defense Campaign, USACBI has been committed to fighting against Zionist harassment (including institutional harassment) and rightwing lawfare directed at BDS activists. US academics have begun speaking up about the condition of scholasticide in Palestine and honoring the academic boycott of Israel, individually and collectively. We applaud the courage of faculty and graduate students who are taking actions to withdraw complicity with Israeli academic institutions and set an example to their students and colleagues of the “engaged scholar” that many universities now promote. Not writing a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study at an Israeli institution is one small action that instructors can take – and should take – to boycott study abroad in Israel.

The institutional harassment of Professor John Cheney-Lippold has already begun. He “will not get a merit raise during the 2018-19 academic year and can’t go on his upcoming sabbatical in January or another sabbatical for two years, according to the letter signed by Elizabeth Cole, the interim dean of UM’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts.”

To engage in academic boycott is a constitutionally protected right of political expression and a stance that people of conscience have taken in order to refuse complicity with oppressive institutions. And to adhere, in particular, to the Palestinian-led boycott of Israeli academic institutions is to take a principled position in support of Palestinian human rights. Israeli universities participate in the oppression of Palestinians in any number of well-documented ways, from providing research for the military occupation to building campuses on stolen Palestinian land to repressing academic freedom for Palestinian students and censoring their political activities. No Israeli academic institution has ever protested the Israeli state’s human rights abuses. Yet the Israeli state continues to deny Palestinian students and scholars their right to freedom of movement and their right to education, by engaging and besieging them in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza and by subjecting them to racial discrimination in every aspect of their lives inside Israel.

Critiquing Israel’s academia, Ilan Pappe writes in On Palestine (2015) : “Academia, as always, becomes part of the machinery [of incremental genocide]. The prestigious private university, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, has established a ‘civilian headquarters’ where students volunteer to serve as mouthpieces in the propaganda campaign abroad. Various universities have offered the state their student bodies to help and battle for the Israeli narrative in cyberspace and the alternative media.”

Indeed, even were the state of Israel not subject to a boycott, Professor Cheney-Lippold is a university professor whose refusal to write a letter of recommendation should be understood as a form of knowledge-practice that is protected by the principles of academic freedom. Insofar as Professor Cheney-Lippold knows that study abroad programs in Israel discriminate against entire groups of people based upon their ethnic and religious origins, he has every right to refuse to support any student’s desire to participate in such programs, and if anything is obligated to educate any such student about that discrimination–which Prof. Cheney-Lippold did, in fact, during the course of his refusal to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wished to study abroad in Israel.

It is outrageous that faculty members–first John Cheney-Lippold, and now, in a copycat fashion, Lucy Peterson–are being condemned, threatened, and even disciplined in violation of their free speech and academic freedom. Such McCarthyite crackdowns create a chilling climate for academics and threaten the careers of graduate students and junior faculty. The exceptional censorship of criticism of Israel, and concomitantly, of US unconditional support for Israel at a time when the US is seriously out of step with the international critique of its human rights abuses, only deforms the US academy at a time when our independent critique is most needed.

Disciplining faculty who refuse to write letters for admission to programs that have a documented record and set of policies that discriminate has the effect of completely bypassing the educational mission of the university, which we assume means equal access to education for all, a sentiment enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and turn professors into simply service providers.

Disciplining faculty who refuse to write letters also opens up the possibility that universities will be turned into pawns of ideologically-driven organizations who target professors critical of their views, and engage students to ask for letters they know the professors are, based on their principles, likely to decline to write.

The issue has been purposefully misconstrued to be a matter of “mistreating” a student who after all has several other faculty to ask for recommendations. In no case are they being deprived of academic freedom, as is the entire category of students against whom the program in question discriminates against.

It is particularly incumbent on faculty members to support Lucy Peterson at a time when, in the name of free speech, Nazi, fascist, and other white supremacist, Islamophobic and antisemitic groups are holding events on college campuses ; non-violent legitimate political expression is being penalized ; and the Trump appointee to head of the office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education, Kenneth Marcus, is working to enforce a patently false definition of any criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

We urge all faculty members and supporters of academic freedom to join with us in supporting Lucy Peterson, John Cheney-Lippold and other scholars of conscience. We call on the UM administration to immediately rescind all disciplinary actions against Cheney-Lippold and to assure that Peterson will not be subject to any academic, professional or other sanctions for her exercise of conscience.

We call on all to sign the petition below, available at https://www.change.org/p/elizabeth-cole-defend-lucy-peterson-john-cheney-lippold-support-academic-freedom-right-to-boycott :

We, the undersigned, stand in support of Lucy Peterson’s prerogative to follow her conscience in refusing to write a recommendation for a student studying at an Israel academic institution. We demand that the university where she is working as an instructor desist from sanctioning or harassing her in any way.

A graduate student instructor at the University of Michigan (UM), Lucy Peterson refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student to participate in a study abroad in Israel program. This refusal comes as part of the exercise of her own academic freedom and independent judgment as a university educator and as part of the Palestinian call for the academic boycott of Israel.

Disciplining faculty who refuse to write letters for admission to programs that have a documented record and set of policies that discriminate has the effect of completely bypassing the educational mission of the university, which we assume means equal access to education for all, a sentiment enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and turn professors into simply service providers.

Disciplining faculty who refuse to write letters also opens up the possibility that universities will be turned into pawns of ideologically-driven organizations who target professors critical of their views, and engage students to ask for letters they know the professors are, based on their principles, likely to decline to write.

We express our support of Lucy Peterson, and we are appalled to learn that the University of Michigan has pursued discipline against tenured professor John Cheney-Lippold. We call on the UM administration to ensure the following :

  • Lucy Peterson must not be subject to academic or professional sanctions or discipline for her act of conscience.
  • The discipline of John Cheney-Lippold for his refusal to write a letter of recommendation must be rescinded in full.
  • Faculty members’ academic freedom to refuse to write recommendation letters due to matters of conscience must be respected.
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