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Whether you fire him or not, condemn Salaita’s words

by David N. Myers

September 2, 2014 | 2:20 pm

<em>The University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Image via Wikipedia</em>

The University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Image via Wikipedia

For the past month or so, the academic world in this country has been abuzz with impassioned debate about Professor Steven Salaita, whose proposed appointment as a tenured professor in American Indian studies at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana was rejected by Chancellor Phyllis Wise on August 1.   The key issue in this case is Salaita’s anti-Israeli and, some say, anti-Semitic speech, which Chancellor Wise characterized as “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

Supporters of Professor Salaita have seen the decision to withdraw the offer made by the UI’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as a gross violation of the principle of academic freedom that stands at the heart of the American university system.   The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the central policy-making body for American academics, has made clear in its 1940 Statement of Principles that freedom of expression in research and teaching is essential to the proper functioning and success of universities. http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure.  Drawing on the AAUP principles, Cornell law professor Michael Dorf asserts, without endorsing Salaita’ words, that the case is an easy one: “Academic freedom and freedom of speech protect all viewpoints, even those that are hostile to academic freedom or freedom of speech.”

Meanwhile, those who endorse the University’s decision to retract its offer note that Salaita’s case is actually different from instances in which an institution attempts to fire a current faculty member for offensive speech.  Such a case would be an unmistakable deviation from the bedrock principle of free speech.  Rather, supporters of the retraction such as UI professor Cary Nelson, a former president of the AAUP, note that Salaita’s appointment was never given final approval by either the University of Illinois’ Chancellor of its Board of Trustees. 

This may seem confounding to the outsider.  Either Salaita was offered an appointment or he wasn’t.  In fact, academic institutions of the size of the University of Illinois are large and labyrinthine bureaucracies with many layers of scrutiny for academic appointments.  One may receive the endorsement of a home department, the dean, and the provost, but without the final authorization of the chancellor or president and board of trustees, the appointment is not final.  Salaita’s case is one of the rare instances in which a university CEO has overturned the affirmative decision of the lower reviewing bodies.  The more cautious among academic appointees would never resign their positions at previous institutions until they received final approval from the chancellor and board, as Steven Salaita did from Virginia Tech. 

The question of whether we can meaningfully distinguish between firing a professor already in the employ of a university and withdrawing an offer to one who is awaiting the last sign-off from the chancellor is a difficult one.  It is especially difficult because of the importance of creating a safe, inclusive, and welcoming campus climate for all.  Do we want to welcome as members of our campus community those who extend beyond acceptable bounds of civil speech and conduct?  It is a very tricky call.  I must confess that I am not certain where I stand in balancing the right to free speech vs. the right to exclude from one’s campus community those whose speech is disrespectful.  Indeed, I think a decent case could be made for either side.  As a result of my own uncertainty, I have sat on this piece for weeks.

But there is something that must be said without equivocation.  It is stunning to behold the near-total silence of Salaita’s supporters about the content of his speech.  Petitions that excoriate the University of Illinois for its decision have garnered thousands of signatures with passing reference only to the controversy around Salaita’s speech.  Letter writers extol Salaita without any mention of his offensive words. In the few cases where his harsh speech is discussed, his defenders dismiss those who take Salaita’s words at face value by insisting that the real issue is the behavior of Israel. 

Let me be clear.  What is objectionable here is not criticism of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.  Many of us have joined in calling Israel to task for the trail of destruction it has inflicted, most recently in Gaza.  It is the sophomoric, intemperate and, dare I say, hateful quality of Salaita’s speech.  Even if one shares Salaita’s passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause and believes fervently in his right to free speech, it is imperative to call out his irresponsible words.

To what am I referring? It is a series of recent Twitter postings during the unfolding Gaza conflict that reveals an almost compulsive tendency to suggest that Zionism not only induces, but justifies anti-Semitism.  To wit, his most infamous tweet from July 19 declares that Zionism bears responsibility for “transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable.”  Supporters of Salaita have tried to parse this sentence to argue that by placing “antisemitism” in quotes, he was indicating his distance from the concept.   Really?  One can argue that Israeli behavior toward Palestinians has provoked antisemitic responses.  But what possibly could be “honorable” about such responses?  When is antisemitism ever honorable?

Would we accept any analogous assertions about other groups?  That the actions of Hamas justify Islamophobia?  I doubt it.  Salaita, with pyromaniacal persistence, seems incapable of avoiding the fire of antisemitism.  In another tweet from July 19, he offers this: “If it’s ‘antisemitic’ to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have?”  Here again, some will argue that the use of quotes insulates Salaita from the phenomenon itself--that he’s referring to the tendency of Israel’s supporters to tarnish any and all critics with the designation “antisemitic.” But if he’s not saying that “any person of conscience” must ultimately choose antisemitism, he certainly comes close.  At a minimum, he’s guilty of extraordinarily sloppy locution that can lead reasonable people to assume that he sees antisemitism as an unavoidable and justifiable outcome of Zionism—and therefore an acceptable and “honorable” consequence of the fight for justice for Palestinians.

One also wonders about his tweet from July 14: “Zionist uplift in America.  Every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime.”  Defenders will say that he simply seeks to point to the impact of Zionist ideology on the organized Jewish community in this country.  But the language he uses rests on the troubling elision between  Zionist and Jew—and the ascription of culpability for all of Israel’s and Zionism’s actions to Jews as a collective.  Whether or not Salaita’s intent here was antisemitic, I can’t say. What is clear is that the Zionist/Jewish elision is a common antisemitic move. 

Also unnerving is his claim that “the sequence of letters” in the word Israel—the word “Israel” itself--should read “child murder” or that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wears “a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children.”  This kind of language eerily echoes the medieval blood libel directed against Jews.  The blood libel assumed many forms, most of which focused on the claim that Jews killed Christian children in order to use their blood for ritual purposes (or to poison wells).  Perhaps the resonance is unwitting, but the effect to anyone who knows the history of antisemitism is chilling.   

I have no idea what is in Steven Salaita’s heart.  Maybe he is a well-intentioned critic of Israel and supporter of the right of the Palestinian people to justice and self-determination.  His choice of language suggests otherwise.  Indeed, his lack of modulation and sound judgment seems to fail the standard laid out by the AAUP in 1940 for university faculty members: “As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” 

Salaita’s speech is far from respectful.  I honestly don’t know whether his disrespectful speech trumps the principle of free speech on which the great American university system rests.  But at a minimum, and it is indeed a minimal response, we must condemn Salaita’s offensive words.  The failure to do so is itself a failure of courage, discernment, and intellectual integrity.  

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

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