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Letter to Interim Dean Cole in support of John Cheney-Lippold and Lucy Peterson

Below is the full letter that I sent to Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole of the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts in support of Professor John Cheney-Lippold, a professor in American Culture, and Lucy Peterson, a graduate student in Department of Political Science. Both either have now been punished by the university's administration or may be soon, for their participation in the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, because they refused to write letters of recommendation for students to participate in study abroad programs hosted by Israeli universities.

The story has been reported in several media outlets, recently here and here, for example. I share my letter here in the hope that others might write, send, and publicly share similar letters of support. If you do write a letter, please cc, so we can keep track of support. A collective letter from UM graduate students, which is currently collecting signatures can also be found here. -- rhr


11 October 2018

Dear Dean Cole:

I hope that this letter finds you well. I am writing to you as a PhD Candidate in History and Anthropology in support of Professor John Cheney-Lippold (American Culture), a friend, and Lucy Peterson (graduate student, Political Science). It has been a great privilege of my graduate training to have taught multiple courses in the college of LS&A as both a GSI and a GSI Mentor. In particular, I have valued the way that LS&A prioritizes concerns about diversity in the classroom, and how UM continuously seeks to provide instructors with the latest strategies to facilitate classroom exchanges that are both lively and respectful, between students and instructors who often come from diverse backgrounds. Given this, it has been very difficult for me to understand the disciplinary actions that you have taken or are currently pursuing with respect to the Cheney-Lippold and Peterson cases. Because your actions have called me to question my own future as a teacher in the academy, I thought it appropriate to write to you, with the hope that you might read and respond.

In looking at your research dossier, and in reading some of your articles, I can see that you, like me, are a student of intersectionality, social struggle and societal change. It is hard, very hard, for me to understand how you did not rely upon or ignored this knowledge in your choice to punish Cheney-Lippold. At the same time, I am not naïve, and I am keenly aware that you are in an interim administrative position where you must no doubt take into account various interests, including those of other university administrators as well as your successor. I cannot totally imagine what that must be like. At the same time, I felt a need to let you know that your decision has made it harder for people like me to envision ourselves as having a future teaching and mentoring students in the academy. Reflecting on Cheney-Lippold’s case and how you handled it saddens me, perhaps, in part, because it makes me think that UM, an institution I have held dear and to which I owe most of my professional and scholarly training, perhaps has not come too far from the days when Natalie Zemon Davis – one of the most prominent historians of our day – fled UM and the U.S. when her husband, Chandler Davis, was kicked out of UM as part of the Red Scare in the 60s.

Reporting on the Cheney-Lippold case has misrepresented several matters, and since I have not seen any statement from your office regarding his case, I can only assume that many of the issues reported were at stake in your decision to take punitive action against Cheney-Lippold. As you know well, Cheney-Lippold withheld of a letter of recommendation for a student to study abroad at an Israeli University because he supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. More information on the BDS movement, as well as specific information about the conditions for the American Studies Association’s (ASA) adoption and endorsement of BDS as a matter of official policy, can be found on the association’s website. As a professor in the American Studies Program, the ASA is Cheney-Lippold’s primary professional organization, though his membership and the ASA’s position on the matter went unmentioned in most media reporting.

Because of the ASA’s endorsement of BDS, I would imagine that any member of the ASA who would write such a letter of recommendation could face disciplinary action from the organization that determines their membership in the field. In my view, Cheney-Lippold has been cast (rather unjustly) in the role of a political radical professor, a lone-wolf who would let his own political ideas interfere with the opportunities of his students. The exclusion of the fact that his primary professional organization endorses the dire need to take measures, in light of the ongoing suffering of Palestinian people, lends further support to this characterization, one that seems highly inaccurate to me. I do not understand how you reconcile this, and I would genuinely like to. Is it now the University of Michigan’s policy that ASA members who work for UM should relinquish their memberships, or is the expectation that they violate the policy of their flagship professional organization and face disciplinary action from that side?

I am also concerned about the gloss of anti-Semitism with which Cheney-Lippold has been demonized in the media, and, perhaps, the partial grounds upon which he has been punished by you. As it should be needless to say, Cheney-Lippold is not an anti-Semite, nor has the ASA officially adopted an anti-Semitic position by signing onto BDS. Before I began as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I spent several years working with Jewish people and Jewish organizations as a Capuchin-Franciscan friar. As the coordinator of the New Sanctuary Movement in Milwaukee, an interfaith movement, we collaborated with MIKLAT! A Jewish Voice for Displacement to defend the rights of immigrants and refugees and to document abuses of immigrants that had taken place in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I began to have conversations with Jewish activists about the issues of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine and the state of Israel’s failure to create a moratorium or to suspend the creation of new settlements in Palestine. Not all of the Jewish activists I worked with held the same positions on this question, but it was a question that was and could be debated without any gloss or question of anti-Semitism being involved. Later on, in Chicago, I began to collaborate with activists, some of them Jewish and from Jewish organizations, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, both on issues related to the BDS movement as well as on other, more local issues of justice. These experiences made it clear to me that Judaism offered no monolithic view on the question of the state of Israel or on some of its more violent colonial endeavors. The accusation against Cheney-Lippold, even the suggestion of a gloss of anti-Semitism, suggests to me that a group of people who opposed his principled stance on the issue of BDS, saw in it an “in” to secure his punishment on the grounds of being discriminatory and anti-Semitic. I thus see the gloss of anti-Semitism, at least in Cheney-Lippold’s case, as a thinly-veiled and baseless tactic used by Cheney-Lippold’s political opponents, and I wonder if you do too.

It seems like there is general acceptance that the withholding of letters of recommendation is within the purview of the recommender. Faculty and, yes, graduate students, who are frequently asked to write letters of recommendation for study abroad programs, often decline to write them for all kinds of reasons, and this practice is widely seen as legitimate. Indeed, if it were required for instructors to write recommendation letters in all cases, there would be no point to the genre. What seems to differ in the cases of Cheney-Lippold and Peterson, is that they did so as part of a principled position about the need for a boycott of the cultural and educational institutions of a nation state that continues to exercise violence with impunity in defiance of international sanctions, following the leads of a professional flagship organization (in Cheney-Lippold’s case), as well as the legacy of academics who did similarly with respect to South African apartheid in the 1990s. I do not believe they did so to present students with additional barriers to success, self-realization, educational opportunities, and the like. I especially do not believe they did so based on any kind of discrimination. Instead, they did so based on the call of Palestinian scholars and because, to borrow the language of the ASA’s in explanation of its endorsement,

Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights. The National Council’s decision to honor the call for the Academic Boycott of Israeli institutions is an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.

While I do not write this letter to request that such a principled position should be officially rewarded, I am deeply saddened at your decision that it ought to be punished. Indeed, your decision makes all of our futures in the academy more precarious. This letter is written as a bit of a shot in the dark. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that you will read it and that you will respond.

In an essay entitled “From an Exile,” composed after the University of Michigan fired him in 1960, Chandler Davis wrote:

[I]t won’t do. For your own sake, for the universities’ sake, you must face what happened. More than you need the exiles in particular, you need dissent in general, a profusion of ideas richer than you have seen before. You must welcome dissent; you must welcome serious, systematic, proselytizing dissent—not only the playful, the fitful, or the eclectic; you must value it enough, not merely to refrain from expelling it yourselves, but to refuse to have it torn from you by outsiders. You must welcome dissent, not in a whisper when alone, but publicly so potential dissenters can hear you.
What potential dissenters see now is that you accept an academic world from which we are excluded for our thoughts. This is a manifest signpost over all your arches, telling them: Think at your peril. You must not let it stand. You must (defying outside power; gritting your teeth as we grit ours) take us back.

Based on what I know of your work and interests, I hope the words of Davis’s essay might resonate with you a bit, even, as we are, almost sixty years on.


Richard Hoffman Reinhardt

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