Study-Abroad Programs Enter the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Two University of Michigan instructors refused to write recommendations for students headed to Tel Aviv.

Protesters hold pro-Israel and pro-Palestine posters during a demonstration in Jerusalem.
Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters gather during a demonstration at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Ammar Awad / Reuters)

Twice this semester, University of Michigan instructors have made headlines for their opposition to Israel. In September, John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor in the university’s American-culture department, took back his offer to write a student a letter of recommendation after learning she planned to study in Tel Aviv. On Tuesday, a nearly identical story emerged. The Washington Post reported that Lucy Peterson, a graduate student in political theory, had told an undergraduate she’d be “delighted” to write him a recommendation letter to study abroad. Then she learned he wanted to study in Tel Aviv, and she rescinded her offer.

Both instructors cited a boycott of Israel as their reason. And both promised that they’d be happy to write these students recommendations to study in other countries. They probably thought they were taking a moral, even righteous, stand. But by singling Israel out, these instructors have impeded their students’ ability to gain a nuanced understanding of a complicated conflict—and have betrayed their responsibility to foster serious intellectual engagement.

Cheney-Lippold’s email declining to write a recommendation went viral—first among pro-Israel activists, who said the professor’s personal politics should not obstruct the student’s academic freedom; then among pro-Palestinian activists, who lauded the professor’s commitment to free speech; and finally in the national press. Peterson’s story is following a similar path.

These instructors’ actions show that the discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not actually a discussion; instead, it is a constant relitigation of whether Israel should be treated in the same fashion as other countries. In September, I asked Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal who was then advising Cheney-Lippold, if the professor had ever before declined to write a letter of recommendation for political reasons, or if he would decline to write a letter of recommendation for any other country. She responded that he would have declined to write a letter “for a student studying in apartheid South Africa, or at a whites-only university, or at a male-only university in Saudi Arabia—or any other study abroad program that is discriminatory, where other students of his could not attend.” But she did not cite an example of his having actually declined to write such a letter, and the examples she did give—one of a government that no longer exists, and the others of particular types of institutions—only underscore Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy as a state.*

College campuses are often caricatured for, in the eyes of critics, trying too hard to make students feel safe and comfortable. I don’t think that creating an inclusive academic environment deserves criticism, but the same courtesy must be extended toward all students, including those who support Israel.

Last week, in the window after Cheney-Lippold’s story died down and before Peterson’s emerged, a Michigan student’s account of a mandatory lecture for her major lit up social media. She said the lecturer claimed that Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler are both “guilty of genocide.”

Israel’s collegiate opponents frame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black-and-white terms: Palestine, good; Israel, bad. Anyone who believes Israel has a right to exist? Also bad.

This broad-brush tactic means the whole range of experiences and political perspectives among Zionists—from the most progressive Zionists, who wish to end occupation and who call out Netanyahu’s unequal treatment of Arabs, women, and secular Jews, to their most right-wing counterparts, who view the expansion of Israeli settlements as a biblical imperative—are put under a single normative umbrella: bad. Unacceptable. Unfit for dialogue.

Serious conversations about real challenges in Israel (and there are many—just talk to any Israeli, or read the editorial pages of Israeli newspapers) aren’t happening on American college campuses, because pro-Israel students have to spend all their time and energy making the basic argument that Israel has a right to exist.

What’s most depressing about study abroad becoming the latest battleground in the conflict is that living in Israel offers American students their best chance to develop a sophisticated understanding of the country and its policies.

I spent a semester abroad at the Hebrew University, in East Jerusalem, an area that the United Nations views as disputed territory. Notably, the university itself is not located in a contested area—the Hebrew University campus is the only Israeli-owned land in East Jerusalem whose ownership is not questioned by international bodies. But my dorm was technically located in a settlement, a Jewish neighborhood built in what many people view as Palestinian land.

I studied Hebrew in a class with a Palestinian human-rights lawyer from Ramallah. From the window of our shared classroom, I could see the wall that Israel built to keep out Palestinian terrorists during the bus bombings of the Second Intifada—a wall that serves the dual function of separating Palestinian families and friends.

I returned home to America with a political perspective that had shifted left from what I’d learned growing up. Only when I lived in Israel did I begin to think more seriously about the complexities of an issue that was often presented to me as simple: You’re Jewish; you support Israel. It took that semester to understand that, as a supporter of the country, I could still challenge its policies when I disagreed with them. Israel is a country like any other; I can stand behind it even when I don’t stand behind its leaders.

Why would professors critical of Israel deny their students this experience? The top two destinations for Michigan students studying abroad in the 2016–17 academic year were Spain and Italy, a university spokesperson told me. No one wants students to boycott popular programs in Florence because of Italy’s unwelcoming policy toward African immigrants, or in Barcelona because last year Spain’s government shut down a democratic referendum about Catalonian independence.

As a Jew, I expect the world’s only Jewish state to meet higher standards, because it is rooted in the Jewish values I was raised to follow. Critics of Israeli policies are right to point out when the country has failed to meet those standards. At Shabbat dinners, at Hillel events, and in other Jewish spaces, students do confront these big, difficult issues: for instance, Israel’s reluctance to allow African asylum seekers to take refuge in its borders, or its occupation of Palestinian land. Many pro-Israel students want to have a full discussion of the Israeli experience, as it relates to these issues and the many aspects of the country that make them proud—but they can’t, because their would-be interlocutors do not agree with their basic premise: that Israel has a right to exist.

It’s unlikely that the flare-ups around these emails will result in any changes to Michigan’s political climate. Both students will still get to study in Tel Aviv; the one who corresponded with Peterson reported that a university dean would now be writing his reference instead.

Cheney-Lippold, who sparked the controversy last month, spoke to multiple national outlets (though he declined an interview with The Atlantic) and proudly suggested that he had started a dialogue on campus. “It’s what the university is about, talking through differences and really figuring out where each other stands,” he told Michigan’s student newspaper, even though, according to his lawyer, he hasn’t communicated with the student who asked for the recommendation since he sent the email on September 5. Peterson, for her part, has not spoken to any news organizations, and she did not respond to an interview request from The Atlantic.

Boycotting Israel means refusing to engage with it and shunning it from the realm of acceptable discourse. If educators actually want to encourage curiosity and intellectual growth in their students, boycotts won’t get them very far. A good place to start: studying abroad in Israel.

* This article has been updated to clarify the question asked of Cheney-Lippold’s attorney, and her response.