Opinion: Academic boycott of Israel makes no sense | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Opinion: Academic boycott of Israel makes no sense


When I read of the professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student to attend a Tel Aviv study-abroad program, my thoughts turned to Flint, Michigan. 


Yes, Flint, Michigan.


You may recall, Flint is the city that had too much lead in the drinking water. A government switch of the water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014 is what led to the crisis.

An image of Professor John Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a recommendation was posted to Facebook on Sept. 16 by Club Z, a Zionist youth movement.


Who is to blame? A state study concluded that “primary responsibility” rests with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — in other words, the state. 


Accusations abound that Michigan officials did not act quickly enough, that they covered up, even that they simply didn’t care enough about a largely black, low-income city.


Elsewhere in the same state, at the University of Michigan, Professor John Cheney-Lippold declined to write that recommendation letter. An image of his refusal note was posted to Facebook on Sept. 16 by Club Z, a Zionist youth movement. 


Cheney-Lippold has since been accused of anti-Semitism. He reports he’s gotten death threats. I’d prefer to not accuse anyone of anti-Semitism without additional evidence and, of course, he’s done nothing deserving of death threats. 


But Cheney-Lippold, as a self-described “solidarity activist” who seeks to support “Palestinians living in Palestine,” is taking a position that doesn’t make much sense. He should reconsider. 


If he’s going to boycott study in Israel at Tel Aviv University, perhaps he should also consider boycotting his employer, the state-owned University of Michigan.


If he supports Palestinians living in Palestine, what of the rights of Michiganites living in Michigan? Why is one issue more important than the other? I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course; let’s not boycott Michigan, though crimes committed against the families of Flint are depressingly serious.


Good grief, there are so many issues in the world, Cheney-Lippold is going to have to start boycotting everybody. There are human rights and women’s rights abuses in the nations of Israel’s neighborhood. Genocide has not been eradicated from our planet. The U.S. government has separated hundreds of migrants from their children.


And the issue to take a stand on is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It’s no simple issue.


Where even is the issue? The ancient land of Palestine, yes, is home to Palestinians, but it’s also the ancient home for Jews. It’s had Jews living there since long before the state of Israel. It has always been the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. For centuries, we’ve said “next year in Jerusalem” at the end of thousands of Passover seders. The Torah has connected us to the land for thousands of years.


When Cheney-Lippold pursues his boycott, does he have a reasonable plan for Israel? Should millions of Jews just go away? 


Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and terrorism has only continued to emanate from that no-longer-occupied territory. Thus, Israel already tried some going away. It didn’t accomplish much. 


Yes, some see anti-Semitism in Cheney-Lippold’s position. That’s a cutting accusation. But I’ll admit it’s entirely possible Cheney-Lippold is a good man, an idealist who doesn’t see that the Jewish people have a legitimate and historic claim, that we need a homeland in a dangerous world and that Palestinian leadership has been a terrible partner for compromise. 


One would hope that a scholar would have the capacity and curiosity to consider this. Instead of boycotting Israel, Cheney-Lippold should go for a visit, if he’s never been there. He might be impressed with the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians in Israel, the complexity of the politics there, and the hummus, oh the hummus. 


Palestinian hosts treated me to such a wonderful feast of some of the best hummus I’ve ever had, when I visited their school in East Jerusalem in 2016. I’ll never forget young Palestinians standing up in class to recite Hebrew. They beamed with pride. Really.


The Palestinian-run school sought to prepare these kids for life, to help them get work in Hebrew-speaking Israel. I was with a group of journalists and we asked the adult Palestinians in charge about politics; they said they’re not concerned with such things. They’re concerned with helping young people right now.


This is the Israel of the real world. It’s nuanced. It’s complicated. It’s why academics who have turned against Israel may want to dig deeper, just as they might counsel a student to do. 


Palestine for Palestinians? Sure, sounds nice. But what of Israel for Israelis?


Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.


Note: After this article was published in print, The Detroit News reported the University of Michigan is disciplining John Cheney-Lippold, who 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.