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October 01, 2018


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Raff Donelson

Generally, I agree that there are reasonable and less reasonable ways to boycott institutions, but I'm not sure that the line lies at letters of recommendation.

Imagine an evil organization, an organization whose primary purpose was to harm and denigrate certain groups of people, like the American Nazi Party, the American Freedom Party, or some other racist group. Suppose that a student asks for a letter of recommendation to work for such an organization. Suppose even that the student is well-intentioned because she thinks that, once inside the organization, she can re-channel the hateful energies elsewhere. She thinks that the people who join such groups are actually mad about economic marginalization, not people of other races.

In such a situation, it seems entirely reasonable for a professor to refuse to write to a letter. (And that's the best case scenario; if the student endorsed the awful views, the prof is even more licensed not to take part.) If that's right, the question of whether a professor has crossed the line into an unreasonable way of boycotting isn't settled by asking whether she has refused to write a letter. Instead, we're going to have to ask whether the group is an ANP type of group or not.

I want to close with two remarks about the scope of my comment. First, I haven't said anything about Israel or Cheney-Lippold. My point was just that we faculty should not understand ourselves as morally obliged to write letters for just ANY organization, no matter who they are. Second, though my example imagined the student as seeking a job, not an educational opportunity, nothing turns on that. Or at least nothing suggests that the professor should feel more obliged to help the student get into a hateful 'school' than a hateful job. If anything, being a teacher maybe requires one to try, within reasonable bounds, to steer students away from 'educational opportunities' that are not genuinely educational.

Steve L.

Raff Donelson: First, sorry about the delay posting your comment; it was stuck in the spam filter.

You raise a valid consideration, but the study-abroad Tel Aviv program is approved by the University of Michigan, making it part of the curriculum, which I believe takes it out of the "hateful school" category you propose. A professor could not, for example, refuse to sign off on a prerequisite for another course, even if he or she thought it "hateful."

Brett Kavanaugh Macho Macho Man Association of America

If Palestine or disputed territories were to unilaterally lay down their arms and declare peace, what do you think would happen? There would be peace. If Israel were to unilaterally lay down it arms and declare peace, what do you think would happen?

Jeffry V Mallow

Refusing to referee Israeli proposals isn't so different from refusing to write student recommendations. It belies the BDS claim that it targets institutions, not individuals. It hurts the proposers by constraining the referee pool (which in my subspecialty is not large to begin with). Journal editors who recognize this behavior should remove the boycotter from the referee pool entirely. This is not only an appropriate response to dishonorable behavior, but it also levels the playing field for the proposers.

Steve L.

You raise a good point, Jeffry, but there is still a difference. Professors owe a specific professional duty to their own students, which they do not owe to other researchers or institutions. So whatever one thinks of abstaining from refereeing proposals, refusing to recommend your own students is worse.


A question might be raised that perhaps transcends the particulars (letter of recommendation, referee proposals, approve study abroad, etc.). What is the point of BDS?

If the point of BDS is to cause Israel to "reform" itself, then one suspects that the type of "reform" BDS contemplates would involve Israel going out of existence as a Jewish state, with the Jews of "foreign" origin returning to Europe, Russia, Africa or whatever, and the Arabs restoring their control of the land of Israel.

(A revealing study one should make concerns how that control was exercised historically; indeed, one need only look to how Jews are treated today in the Arab countries that surround Israel to get a sense of it. And, let's flavor the discussion with the way that the Arabs embraced the Nazis.)

Yes, BDS thinks it has a laudable and modest goal: the destruction of Israel.

Boycott away! Israel, one suspects, will continue to defend itself until and unless the Arabs (and Iran) have their way and drive all the Jews in Israel into the sea (their pledge for more than half a century).


Incidentally, the blind hatred and rage of the those who support BDS is just a small piece of the same set of attitudes that infect most of the left in this country: they are in a constant state of hysteria and outrage, and bound and determined to destroy those persons (most of the population, it turns out) who don't adopt their extremism.

It is easy to hide in academia and nurture one's out of control hatreds. But, in the society at large, these persons must limit their interactions to those with whom they agree, lest they lose control completely and actually find themselves interacting with the lesser humans they consider so inferior.

It is truly a disgusting intolerance that epitomizes the modern left in this country. Before someone proclaims "I'm proud to be intolerant of evil" this commenter would answer:

"that, my friend, is the problem."

Ellen Wertheimer

It is possible that refusing to write a letter of recommendation and rescinding a commitment to write such a letter should be viewed differently, whatever one's opinion about the underlying merits of the matter. When a commitment to act as a reference or to write a letter of recommendation is made, it is more than possible that the student has as a result listed the professor's name as a reference on his or her resume or even included the name in a cover letter to the prospective recipient to the effect that a letter from that reference will be forthcoming. If either of these has occurred, rescinding a commitment to write such a letter with no cataclysmic reason for the rescission (health reasons, for example) could easily cause harm to the student.

This rescission hypothetical surely changes any balancing of interests that may apply to a situation involving an initial refusal. I of course am not familiar with all the facts in the scenario under discussion; I am merely speaking hypothetically about how two different scenarios might yield different results.

Steve L.

Ellen Wertheimer: I agree that rescinding his agreement makes it even worse, especially since he made no effort to determine the effect on the student's application (as is apparent from his email).

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