Listen: Michigan professor punished for supporting boycott

On this episode of The Electronic Intifada Podcast: University of Michigan punishes professor for refusing to write a recommendation letter for a student wishing to study abroad in Israel; Major Jewish communal organizations fund far right-wing, Islamophobic and homophobic groups.

In recent weeks, two professors at the University of Michigan have declined to write recommendation letters for two separate students seeking to join study abroad programs in Israel.

The professors cited Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies of occupation and apartheid against Palestinians in their decisions to not write the letters. They have expressed their support for the call to boycott Israeli institutions as long as Israel continues to violate Palestinian rights.

In September, after he refused to write a recommendation letter, professor John Cheney-Lippold received death threats. The threats were not publicly addressed by the university.

But the administration did choose to comment on the professor’s actions, charging him with interfering in the student’s request with his own “personal views and politics.”

Israel lobby groups pressured the university to discipline Cheney-Lippold, claiming that his choice was an act of discrimination and anti-Semitism.

In an apparent effort by the university to appease Israel advocates, an advisory committee declared in late September that “a student’s merit” must be “the primary guide for determining how and when to provide letters of recommendation.”

On 3 October, the university again bowed to the demands of Israel supporters, sanctioning him with the loss of his earned sabbatical for two years and no merit pay raise for the academic year.

Cheney-Lippold is being threatened with further sanctions if his politics guide future decisions about recommendation letters.

Another University of Michigan instructor recently refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study abroad in Israel.

Doctoral student instructor Lucy Peterson said that she had “pledged myself to a boycott of Israeli institutions as a way of showing solidarity with Palestine.”

Last week, she was questioned by the administration. Peterson also faces potential discipline, according to civil rights group Palestine Legal.

“This is an alarming violation of the professor’s First Amendment and 14th Amendment due process rights under the US constitution,” Palestine Legal’s Radhika Sainath told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

As an employee of a public university, Cheney-Lippold has full constitutional protections, she said, “and that means that the university may not punish him for his viewpoint supporting Palestinian rights, or because he is taking this principled stance to support the boycott for Palestinian rights.”

Sainath said that the administration’s punishment is a “really extreme measure, and it will have a chilling effect” on political speech.

Moreover, Sainath noted, by refusing to write the letters for a program that inherently discriminates against students of Palestinian ancestry, Cheney-Lippold and Peterson are merely “abiding by the university’s really strict anti-discrimination and diversity policies by refusing to write recommendations for institutions that all of their students cannot study at.”


Approximately 800 individuals have signed a petition in support of the professors, urging the university to rescind Cheney-Lippold’s punishment and ensure that Peterson not be subjected to similar sanctions.

Academics, scholars, graduate students, alumni and human rights advocates are appealing to the university to drop the punishments as well.

Essayist and academic Maximillian Alvarez pointed out on Twitter that the University of Michigan renewed and expanded a research grant with Israel’s Technion. The grant is worth $20 million.
The Technion is a major Israeli research institution that works in partnership with a number of Israel’s arms manufacturers and has even helped develop a remote-controlled function for the Caterpillar bulldozers Israel uses to demolish Palestinian homes.

Jewish Community Federation funds hate

The Technion has another financial backer in the US: a major Jewish communal organization that has secretly funded a bevy of right-wing, pro-Israel and pro-Trump groups while purporting to represent the “vibrant, caring and enduring Jewish community” of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In early October, an investigation by The Forward revealed that the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties, a major communal philanthropic organization, has been a top funder of Canary Mission – the anonymous blacklisting website that aims to tarnish the reputations of US supporters of Palestinian rights.

The blacklist is also used by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs to bar activists and supporters of Palestinian rights from entering through Ben Gurion airport, according to documents recently released by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Tax filings led reporters to an Israeli company named Megamot Shalom, The Forward reports, “that operates or operated Canary Mission.” Their address is an abandoned office west of Jerusalem.

Last week, The Forward reported that another major charity, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, “made a series of grants totaling $250,000” to Megamot Shalom.

“Evidence is now building that major Jewish institutions with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, and boards of directors that include prominent members of the US Jewish community, have played a significant role in bankrolling the site,” The Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis wrote.

On Monday, Haaretz reported that the head of Megamot Shalom is a British-born Israeli settler named Jonathan Bash.

Ben Packer, a far-right rabbi from the United States and a devout follower of racist leader Meir Kahane, works with Bash and both are shareholders in Megamot Shalom.

Packer has a long history of racist and inflammatory statements and recently called for a “death curse” on Durham, North Carolina, after city leaders voted to prohibit “military-style training” programs for its police force in foreign countries, including Israel.

Packer is also a friend of Stephen Miller, the senior White House official who is a key proponent of President Donald Trump’s racist immigration policies separating children from their parents.

Prompted by these recent findings, Chicago-based researcher Stephanie Skora sorted through more of the Jewish Community Federation’s (JCF) tax filings and found that it has not only been a top funder of Canary Mission, but of many other far right-wing, anti-Muslim and homophobic groups going back at least 15 years, with funds totalling more than $300 million.

The Federation “seeks to be this progressive Jewish organization that funds aspects of American life and progressive and liberal causes in the US, but is willing to go so far right as a pro-Israel organization that they fund some of the nastiest people that the country has to offer,” Skora told The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Skora’s research indicates that the JCF gave $100,000 to the American Society for Technion, designated for the “Iron Dome Project.” Iron Dome is an Israeli missile interception system.

Federation funds pro-Trump, anti-Semitic groups

Among the beneficiaries of the federation’s funding are right-wing, pro-Trump groups such as Turning Point USA, the Tea Party and the anti-LGBTQ Heritage Foundation.

Groups with deep ties to white supremacy and anti-Semitism, such as the Tea Party, and the Zionist Organization of America – which has invited former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to speak at its annual gathering – highlight the contradictions in the federation’s funding priorities.

“You run into this contradiction where you have this major Jewish organization funding the work of anti-Semites to promote the interests of the Israeli state,” Skora noted.

Right-wing Zionist organizations including the David Horowitz Freedom Center, led by David Horowitz, a key player in the Islamophobia industry, and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, headed by notorious anti-Muslim bigots Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, have also been funded by the federation.

The Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders, who has been funded by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, has also received funding through the federation, according to Skora’s research.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies – a neoconservative Israel lobby group and the Middle East Forum, which is run by leading anti-Muslim bigot Daniel Pipes – have collected funding as well.

Skora found that other beneficiaries of the federation’s largesse include Israel lobby groups that attempt to disrupt boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns and smear student activists.

StandWithUs received almost $1.3 million, while The Israel Project received nearly $2 million.

The Israel Project shares a funder, Adam Milstein, with Canary Mission.

Other campus-focused right-wing Zionist groups such as the Amcha Initiative, the American Israel Education Foundation, Hasbara Fellowships, Students Supporting Israel and the Israel on Campus Coalition have collectively received millions of dollars through the JCF.

Reconsidering support

The Federation also supports A Wider Bridge, a group that engages in pinkwashing – a public relations strategy that deploys Israel’s supposed enlightenment toward LGBTQ issues to deflect criticism from its human rights abuses and appeal particularly to Western liberal audiences.

Skora said that she hopes her research prompts progressive US Jewish communities to reconsider their support of the federation.

“I’m sure that most of the Jews in the Bay Area would be horrified to learn that the JCF funded the Tea Party,” she said.

For college students, Skora said this research could be helpful for them to know where the funding is coming from “when they’re fighting against groups such as Students Supporting Israel, the Israel on Campus Coalition, or even just right-wing groups associated with their local Hillel [chapter].”

“These groups that claim to speak for the interests of Jews on campus are in fact representing the Israeli state, and they have the right-wing funding to do it.”

Listen to the interviews with Radhika Sainath and Stephanie Skora via the media player above.

Theme music and production assistance by Sharif Zakout

Photo: Emily Mathews

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These academic professionals are entitled to exercise their right to participate in BDS or any other lawful boycott- whether of a food product or a full-blown racist state. No citizen is obliged to facilitate another's entry and scholastic advancement in that state. As to the two cases cited, it seems likely that the teachers were identified regarding their views on Israel and then targeted with requests for collaboration. If this is allowed to go on, the effects will be extremely damaging- not merely to academic careers but to the cause of higher education. Teachers must not be forced to act as rubber stamps in violation of their own First Amendment rights and their consciences. Jewish students who want to go to Israel are not short of opportunities to do so. They don't need to wring an endorsement from a defender of Palestinian rights. This farce is being played out solely to silence and intimidate faculty from exercising a basic tenet of freedom and a moral duty to oppose racism.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).