John Cheney-Lappold is not an anti-Semite. Just ask him.
The Associate Professor of American Culture and Digital Studies at the University of Michigan will write a recommendation letter for his student Abigail Ingber to study abroad. He just won’t write one for her to study in Israel.
This is the first time Professor Cheney-Lappold rejected a qualified student’s request for a letter of recommendation to study abroad. For the Professor, it would be fine if Ms. Ingber were studying in China. Ditto Turkey. It doesn’t matter that China occupies Tibet illegally, that China oppresses the Uigers and other minorities, or that Turkey refuses to permit the Kurds a state of their own. Professor Cheney-Lappold doesn’t care about them. His humanism is directed only against the Jewish State.
In Professor Cheney-Lappold’s mind, he is not a bigot. The professor is a member of the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divest and Sanction). Targeted only at Israel, the BDS Movement tries to enforce an economic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel until Israel grants “equal rights for everybody”. Exactly what that means is different for different people, but always Israel is guilty.
After a week of controversy, Professor Cheney-Lappold explained to the Jewish Journal that “I declined to write the letter because I believe in equality. Israel’s Nation-State Bill makes it so only Jewish citizens of Israel have the full right of self-determination. This is not the case for Palestinian citizens of Israel. More empirically, to use the most basic of examples, infant mortality among Palestinian citizens is 3 times more than Israeli citizens. This is the result of what some people have called Apartheid – including Israeli state officials – and that’s the reason why I participate in the boycott.”
Professor Cheney-Lappold might be surprised to know that black citizens in the United States have an infant mortality rate which is 2.5 times that of white citizens (and increasing). It’s doubtful he ever looked. He also refers to Palestinian “citizens” of Israel. I doubt he wondered why Jews can never be citizens of Saudi Arabia despite having a history there that predates Mohammed. In fact, Jews aren’t even allowed in the country without special permission. If the Professor really cared about the Palestinians, he might look around the Arab world and ask where Palestinians have greater rights or opportunity than in Israel? If he can find such a place, hopefully he will tell us.
The story of Professor Cheney-Lappold however is not just a story of one professor. It is the story of how decades of Jewish academic silence metastasized into a movement seductive to shallow followers like Professor Cheney-Lappold.
Israel is not a perfect country but it is far better than most. You would never know that from academia. On the same day this week that an Iraqi Kurdish baby was flown to Israel for special life-saving surgery despite there being no relations between the two countries, famed Chinese actress Fan Bingbing remains missing in China. As CNN put it this week, “we know that China often disappears and abuses human rights defenders, but when it can disappear even one of its most famous celebrities, the threat of enforced disappearance looms over anyone China claims within its jurisdiction.” Needless to say, Professor Cheney-Lappold does not reject student requests for study in China.
For decades, University professors have tilted more toward the “progressive” movement. During that same time, progressivism became increasingly critical of Israel. Questions that once were the subject of spirited academic debate – like how does a democratic nation maintain its character when it occupies others, especially when the people occupied remain committed to the occupying nation’s destruction – have become academic certainties. Israel is the aggressor, the Palestinians the victims. There is no room for debate or argument.
Jewish professors never put up a fight. They refused to verbalize any real defense of the difficulty faced by a nation with such a small territory and so many neighbors sworn to its annihilation. Slowly and inexorably, the academic steamroller of Israel haters and bigots reached critical mass. At America’s universities, Israel no longer is a conflicted state facing immense obstacles, it is an “Apartheid State”. At one time, Jewish professors simply didn’t explain the difficulties faced by Israel as it tries to retain its decency in a terrible neighborhood. Now those same professors understand that it is dangerous both for their careers and possibly their persons to even try.
Consistent with history, the anti-Israel feeling in academia isn’t staying in its box. It is spreading to anti-Semitism in general. Professor Cheney-Lappold is a clear example. About certain things he is a deep thinker. He analyzes how modern algorithms have changed media. But when it comes to Israel the Professor refuses to think. He never asks why the BDS Movement restricts itself only to Israel. New Zealand singer Lorde can play in Russia while it occupies parts of Ukraine and slaughters Chechens. That’s OK for Professor Cheney-Lappold. But play in Israel, for Jews? That’s a different story.
Surprised by the controversy he created, the Professor asked for some respect. “This is a coordinated campaign” he complained. “All of this is intentional… It’s trying to unsettle you. It’s trying to shut down speech through intimidation.”
In 2018, should it even surprise us that a University Professor would join BDS, then get upset about a coordinated campaign to shut down speech? Not when the Jewish professors, who like it or not are on the front line, refuse to publicize what it is like to express pro-Israel sentiments on campus.
Professor Cheney-Lappold thought he could make his selective rejection up to his student. He told Ms. Ingber that he would write recommendation letters for her to study other places. He described his email to her rejecting her Israel recommendation request (after he initially had agreed) as “sweet” and “honest”.
Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lappold we now have a new term in the anti-Semitic lexicon. Boycotts levied only against the Jewish state are “sweet”. Is there a limit to the ways anti-Semites justify their actions, and the language and emotion they associate with their bigotry?
After days or silence, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel finally mentioned the Cheney-Lappold issue at a Board of Regents meeting. Schlissel’s two paragraph response was “diplomatic”. Fortunately, other voices weren’t. Regent Denise Iltich stated, “let’s call it for what it is: anti-Semitic. It impairs and interferes with our students’ ability to reach educational aspiration.” Regent Andrea Fischer Newman added, “it is inappropriate to use a student as a platform for your politics. It is really inappropriate. He is entitled to his politics. But you can’t use a student to do that.”
Now is the time for the Jewish professors at UM to speak up – right now. There are situations where these incidents should be handled internally and quietly. This is not one of them. The University of Michigan is a public institution. Michigan law forbids participating in these type of boycotts. It is not clear whether Professor Cheney-Lappold’s refusal to write a recommendation letter would constitute the proscribed participation. That’s for lawyers to determine. But it certainly is appropriate for the Jewish professors at Michigan to express publically how they feel about only the one Jewish nation being singled out for such scrutiny.
Alan Dershowitz already has made his feelings known, as has well known author and long-time Michigan resident Mitch Albom. But from the Jewish professors at Michigan or around the country? Crickets.
What has to happen for our brave Jewish academics to speak out? What line has to be crossed?
None of us seems to know. Let’s hope someday we will find out.