Barring students from study in Israel

It has been a rough few weeks for American students wishing to study in Israel. A faculty member opposed to the Israeli state refused to write a recommendation for a University of Michigan honors student who sought to study in Israel, while a state agency of Israel, the Shin Bet, acting on behalf of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, barred another American honors student from entering Israel to begin graduate study at Hebrew University. More recently, a graduate instructor at the University of Michigan similarly refused to write on behalf of yet another student who wished to study in Israel.

In Michigan, Associate Professor John Cheney-Lippold, after first committing to write on behalf of Abigail Ingber, changed his mind. Citing his endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, he withdrew his earlier commitment.  Breaking sharply with normal canons of faculty professionalism, the newly tenured faculty member determined it was more germane to act on his own politics than to assess the student based on her merit or preparation for study.

Cheny-Lippold’s action and accompanying rationale set off a firestorm of criticism and protest about the political misuse of faculty power, and subsequently the UM Senate Advisory Committee on University Activities unanimously declared that merit ought to be the primary criterion considered by faculty in deciding how and when to provide letters of recommendation.  Eventually, Cheny-Lippold was sanctioned by the UM administration, scolded openly by UM’s President and his dean, forced to forego one year’s merit pay, and compelled to endure a two-year delay in access to a university-funded sabbatical.

Then a second instructor at UM, graduate assistant Lucy Peterson, declined to write a letter for another student, Jake Seckler, who was similarly wanting to study in Israel. “Along with numerous other academics in the U.S. and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine,” Ms. Peterson explained. Seckler complained to a dean at the university.

In Israel, Laura Alqasem, a graduate of the University of Florida, was detained and barred entry to Israel by members of the Shin Bet on behalf of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and put in a grim holding facility at Ben Gurion airport to await deportation.  Israeli courts wrestled with the action for about a week and then this past Friday upheld the Ministry’s decision.  This was done despite special pleas from Hebrew University and from leaders of other Israeli universities.

Ms. Alqasem was president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) briefly at Florida, and now  wished to enroll in graduate studies at Hebrew University and to earn a master’s degree in Human Rights and Transitional Justice.  The faculty member at Florida who taught her about Israel/ Palestine, Tamir Sorek, a Hebrew University graduate, encouraged her, and vouched for Ms. Alqasem’s open mindedness and academic excellence.  The Israeli Consulate in Miami provided a student visa. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, however, cited Alqasem’s “consistent activity against Israel, according to Amendment 28 to the Entry to Israel Law,” which bars entry of foreign nationals who support or participate in boycotts of Israel.

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs had told all and sundry earlier that this act would be applied strategically only to the top national leaders of the boycott movement or the top leaders in identified national organizations.  Laura Alqasem was and is not a national leader in the boycott movement and was in effect breaking with the boycott in seeking to study in Israel.

As executive director and chair, respectively, of the Academic Engagement Network, we lead a national faculty organization in the U.S. that takes academic freedom and free speech seriously.  We believe in international exchange and robust conversation about difficult issues. We oppose efforts to challenge the legitimacy of the State of Israel, including the boycott movement, because they hold Israel to a double standard not applied to other nations, they stand emphatically against academic freedom, and they often shun Jewish organizations and sponsor actions on campuses disrupting the speech of those they perceive as pro-Israel. We oppose actions that interfere with the rights of students to participate in international study and have the effect of barring them from interacting with others with diverse views about the complexities of the Middle East.

As administrative leaders at UM have recently emphasized, we think writing letters of recommendation is a customary and expected responsibility of faculty.  Professionalism requires consideration of student merit as the primary guiding criterion in writing such letters.  We also are concerned that the Ministry of Strategic affairs, contrary to its early assurances, is engaged in an exclusionary policy that will have the effect of making  more difficult our work of mobilizing American faculty to oppose BDS.

By Ken Waltzer and Mark G. Yudof

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He currently directs the Academic Engagement Network.