The incidents expose vexed questions about free speech and the role of academics as colleges and universities become battlegrounds in the movement known as BDS — for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Jake Secker is a 20-year-old junior from Great Neck, N.Y., majoring in economics and minoring in entrepreneurship. His father is Israeli, and Secker has made five trips to the nation he considers his “home away from home.” But since he was a young boy, he has longed for something more — actually living in Israel for a stretch of time. This winter, a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University could fulfill that aspiration, he hopes.
As part of the application process, Secker sought a reference from a teaching assistant, known at Michigan as a graduate student instructor, or GSI.
“Hi Lucy!” he wrote Monday, Oct. 1, to his GSI from an introduction to political theory course from last year. “Hope you had a great summer!”
“I am in need of an academic letter of recommendation to study abroad next semester and if you can do that for me that would be greatly appreciated,” he explained.
She replied the same day. “Totally! I’d be delighted,” wrote a teaching assistant he identified as Lucy Peterson who, according to her Facebook profile, is a political theory student at the university.
According to an email provided by Secker, Peterson inquired: “What program are you applying to? Send along whatever information I need, and I’ll let you know when I submit it.”
Secker thanked her and told her he was applying to study at Tel Aviv University. She then replied to say that she couldn’t provide the reference, Secker said.
“I’m so sorry that I didn’t ask before agreeing to write your recommendation letter, but I regrettably will not be able to write on your behalf,” she explained. “Along with numerous other academics in the US and elsewhere, I have pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine.”
She added, “Please know that this decision is not about you as a student or a person, and I would be happy to write a recommendation for you if you end up applying to other programs.”
Peterson didn’t return messages early Tuesday inviting her to elaborate on her reasoning.
Her email echoed the one that arrived last month in the inbox of Abigail Ingber, another junior at the University of Michigan.
“I am very sorry, but I only scanned your first email a couple weeks ago and missed out on a key detail,” John Cheney-Lippold, a cultural studies professor, wrote to Ingber in early September, upon realizing that the reference was for a program at Tel Aviv University. “As you may know, many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine. This boycott includes writing letters of recommendation for students planning to study there.”
He would later clarify, in an interview with The Washington Post, that while his department doesn’t have an official position on BDS, his commitment to boycott Israeli state institutions stems from his membership in the American Studies Association, which voted in 2013 to endorse the movement.
BDS seeks the end of Israeli occupation of “all Arab lands,” the full equality of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”
After Secker told a few friends about what had happened to him, word got to Ingber, who reached out to commiserate.
“I’m friends with Abby, and I’d known what happened to her,” Secker said. “I was completely in shock. I didn’t think it would happen again.”
The message from his teaching assistant didn’t sit well with Secker, who contacted a board member of Michigan Hillel, the Jewish religious and cultural society on campus. His complaint was then “kicked up to the executive director of Hillel, then to the Board of Regents,” he said, referring to the university’s governing body. “The president of the university is aware of it.”
On Thursday, Secker received an email from Rosario Ceballo, associate dean for the social sciences in Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “As an associate dean, part of my role is to help insure that our students receive the best academic support possible,” wrote the dean, who is also a psychology and women’s studies professor.
“I was recently informed about some concerns regarding your letter of recommendation,” Ceballo wrote. “I take these concerns very seriously and as a first step, I hope that we might meet so that we can talk in person about what happened.”
They met the next day, Secker said, at which point the dean offered to write the letter of recommendation herself. She also suggested that there were “ongoing talks” about the broader issue, he recalled, “and promised some sort of change.”
But the student and his father, Ed Secker, said in interviews that they feared the university was trying to sweep the controversy under the rug.
The student’s father said he was at first so angry that he weighed pulling his son out of the school. He reconsidered, as his wife reached out to the president’s office, which put them in touch with the associate dean, who “offered to write any letter Jake wanted,” he said.
Still, he thinks there should be “disciplinary action against the teachers.”
“I don’t think it’s a First Amendment issue. The university has a fiduciary responsibility to students,” he said, equating the school to a corporation whose shareholders, students, are owed certain returns.
A Michigan spokesman, Rick Fitzgerald, said, “the university is precluded by federal law from discussing student matters without the written permission of the student.”
In its statement on the prior case involving Cheney-Lippold, Michigan said it “opposed any boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education.”
“Injecting personal politics into a decision regarding support for our students is counter to our values and expectations as an institution,” said Kim Broekhuizen, a university spokeswoman.
Cheney-Lippold told The Post on Sept. 19 that his department chair had been supportive, and that he hadn’t immediately been reprimanded, or even contacted, by the “upper echelons” of the university.
In explaining his decision, the cultural studies professor took a starkly different view from that of Secker and his father. He said students are not consumers owed letters of recommendation in exchange for their tuition payments, and that academics have the right to withhold references for any number of reasons — such as time or familiarity with the student. Controversy arises, he said, when instructors are honest about the way their political commitments shape their academic responsibilities.
“If a union asks me not to buy a grape from a certain producer, or not to cross a picket line, I would support that,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. Following requests from Palestinian and Jewish activists, I find the boycott against Israeli state institutions to be a very useful way to put pressure where I can as an academic.”
Secker disagreed, arguing that a letter of recommendation shouldn’t be used as a political tool.
“It should only be about my merit as a student,” he said. While he disagrees with the aims of BDS, the student said the moral stance of his instructor is beside the point. “It shouldn’t be a reason she changed her mind about the letter,” he maintained.
Secker said he appreciated the support from the university but is not satisfied with “just words.” He is interested in “some sort of policy that prohibits teachers from denying a student an educational advancement based on a professor’s political beliefs” — a rule that could be challenged on academic freedom grounds.
While he didn’t condemn his teacher’s motives, Secker said, “I often think the BDS movement is anti-Semitic.”
“It’s not just hatred for Israel or about the mistreatment of Palestinians,” he said. “A lot of times it stems from anti-Semitism.”
BDS supporters have often sought to distinguish their opposition to the actions of the Israeli government from antagonism toward Jews. But in a moment of anxiety about rising anti-Semitism, that can prove difficult.
Feelings are especially raw in Ann Arbor, where controversy erupted last week after Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 70s, displayed a slide at a required lecture for University of Michigan art students that likened Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler.
“Guilty of genocide,” read black text imposed over the faces of the two men.
In a statement on Friday, the university defended the speaker series, which it said was “intentionally provocative,” adding, “the school is clear with students about this.”
“The school does not control or censor what speakers present,” read the statement, which also included a reiteration of the university’s policy on freedom of speech, “a bedrock principle of our academic community.”
Academics, for their part, disagree sharply about the efficacy of BDS. One such disagreement unfolded in Dissent, the left-wing intellectual magazine, shortly after the 2013 vote by the American Studies Association.
Michael Zakim, a cultural historian at Tel Aviv University, argued that the boycott would end up undermining “the Palestinian struggle” by unwittingly supporting forces “determined to delegitimize the humanism and internationalism that predominates on Israeli university campuses.” He labeled as “inanity” some of the means taken to “discredit Israeli academic culture,” such as the refusal to serve as an external reader on a dissertation.
Feisal G. Mohamed, then of the University of Illinois and now at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, responded, saying the boycott didn’t compel each of the actions decried by Zakim. He suggested that the American Studies Association would argue that, “any and all available means must be used to end an occupation.” Yet he maintained that BDS, if more fully exposed to open dialogue, “would quickly be found wanting.” He reasoned that the movement “goes too far in vilifying all Israelis and not far enough in advancing the rights of Palestinians,” and also “divides various peace parties rather than uniting them.”
At Michigan, the board of regents declined last year to form a committee to investigate divesting the university’s endowment from companies doing business with Israel, after the student government passed a resolution supporting such a move.
But refusing to throw its weight behind BDS isn’t enough, Secker warned. If the university doesn’t take further action to insulate its students from the political actions of their professors, he said, it could have a crisis on its hands.
“This is an epidemic that’s starting to begin,” he said. “Especially being someone who has an Israeli background, I took it personally. It really disturbed me.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to more fully reflect the views of Feisal G. Mohamed.
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