Steven Salaita and Zionist McCarthyism

9 Sep

 

 

I have been following the controversy swirling around the dehiring of Steven Salaita by unilateral fiat of the Chancellor of the Urbana Champaign campus of the University of Illinois, Phyllis Wise. As is now widely known, Steven was a tenured professor at Virginia Tech until he resigned his position some months ago to accept a tenure offer in the Department of American Indian Studies from Illinois. By past practice and reasonable expectations, it seemed a done deal until the Chancellor shocked the community by invoking her rarely used prerogative to withhold formal approval before forwarding the appointment for rubber stamping by the Board of Trustees, but was it her prerogative? It would seem that she did have some ill-defined authority to act, yet university governance procedures assume that any initiative of this sort be exercised in a consultative manner. This would have required the Chancellor to discuss her misgivings about forwarding the appointment with relevant faculty committees and administrators, as well as with the appointee. She has more recently acknowledged that she acted unilaterally, contending that she was acting unilaterally to avoid the embarrassment of having the Board reject the appointment.

 

Steven’s sole offense was to use his Twitter account to send our numerous tweets highly critical of Israel, especially during its military operations Gaza in July and August that killed over 2100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including about 500 children. Steven is Palestinian-American born in the United States, but his grandparents were dispossessed by the nakba in 1948. According to unconfirmed reports his tweets angered some donors and alumni of the University of Illinois and several Jewish organizations to such an extent that they threatened to withhold funding if Salaita became a member of the faculty. Apparently, it was this kind of pressure that led the Board and the Chancellor to sacrifice Saleita, along with the principles of academic freedom and faculty participating in the hiring process.

 

Steven’s tweets were not gentle, and did express his abhorrence over Israel’s behavior in the strongest language at his disposal. Among the most frequently quoted of these tweets are the following:

 

By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionist are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit in response to Israeli terror.

 

Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948.

 

If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian child, would anybody be surprised

 

I should make several assertions to explain my view of the issues at stake: 1) I would never adopt this kind of language even in the venue of social media, although I share the sentiments and the accompanying moral passion that prompted such tweets; 2) it is highly inappropriate to take tweets into account in appraising the appropriateness and wisdom of an academic appointment; 3) I share Steven Salaita’s outrage over Israel’s unchecked violence toward Palestinians, and identify especially with what he calls the conflation of ‘Israel’ and ‘Jewishness’ so as to treat people who criticize Israel as if they are by this alone ‘anti-Semites,’ and made to pay a heavy price in career and reputation; 4) I believe that Salaita’s appointment should be reinstated, and that Chancellor Wise should make a public apology, offer compensatory damages, and provide an assurance that his performance at Illinois will not be adversely affected by this incident; 5) my own examination of Salaita’s record as a classroom teacher and scholar confirms the judgment of the University of Illinois’ faculty process that his appointment was highly deserved, and that his presence in the Department of American Indian Studies would be a positive development for both students and the university community. 

 

Steven is a productive and talented scholar and a charismatic teacher, and any university should be thrilled to have him on their faculty. It is a sad commentary on the times that such an appointment should even be viewed as ‘controversial.’ It is also a regrettable indication that pro-Israeli forces are playing the anti-Semitic card to shield Israel from critics. This not only punishes a citizen’s right to speak freely but it tends to send a chilling message of intimidation throughout the academic community that it is better to be silent about Israel’s crimes than face the calumny and punitive effects of a Zionist backlash.

 

The main rationale for questioning the Salaita appointment was hidden beneath the umbrella of ‘civility.’ The recently notorious anti-boycott activist, former AAUP President, Cary Nelson, who happens to be a professor of English at the University of Illinois, unsurprisingly applauded the Chancellor’s move on these grounds. Somehow someone who sends around tweets that would likely be viewed as offensive by some Jewish students and might make them feel uncomfortable in his classes provides ample ground for the university to reverse what had the appearance of being a consummated appointment. In other words, the typical ‘bait and switch’ tactic of hiding the real grievance of anti-Israel fervor behind the pseudo neutral rationale of civility was relied upon. More than a decade ago Ward Churchill was similarly disciplined by the University of Colorado for the text of an undelivered speech (“On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”) that seemed to provide a justification for the 9/11 attacks, yet he was actually sacked not for the offending remarks that were clearly protected speech but for faulty footnotes in scholarly articles conveniently uncovered after more than a decade of distinguished service at the university (also ironically enough in a program devoted to ethnic studies and indigenous peoples that he headed).

 

This theme has now been echoed by a sudden outpouring of enthusiasm for civility on the part of university administrators, most prominently by University of California at Berkeley Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, who had the audacity to applaud the 50th anniversary on his campus of the Free Speech Movement, one of the enduring glories of the 1960s, with a concern about the anti-Semitic overtones of criticism directed at Israel. Granted for the sake of discussion that Salaita’s social media tweets can be reasonable regarded as uncivil, should that provide grounds for banishment, or even censure? Of course, not. If a lack of civility is severe, and exhibited in relation to staff, colleagues, and students, it would raise relevant concerns. In Salaita’s case, his experience at Virginia Tech reveals an opposite profile, one of popularity and respect among students and an admirable reputation as a promising young and engaged teacher/scholar among colleagues. At this stage the final disposition of the case is up to the Board of Trustees, which has already swung strongly to the side of the Chancellor’s decision to stop the appointment.The Chair of the Board is Christopher Kennedy, son of Robert Kennedy and born on the 4th of July. This adds an Americana dimension to the ongoing battle of values. So far, this particular Kennedy offspring seems to be determined to bolster the illiberal side of the family legacy.

 

The battle lines have been drawn, and the war goes on. For the first time since the Chancellor’s decision became known, Steven Salaita is speaking today in public, holding a press conference in Champlain, Illinois where the university is located. There are rumors that he has been offered a settlement by the university, presumably in the hope that the storm unleashed by his rescinded appointment will abate. There are uncertainties as to whether he will be offered a comparable academic post elsewhere, which will show us how wide the net of Zionist influence is cast. It is not encouraging to recalling the case of Norman Finkelstein, who despite scholarly excellence and productivity, has not been offered an academic job elsewhere after being denied a permanent position at DePaul University. This denial was supposedly due to the administration being persuaded by defamatory ‘anti-Semitic’ allegations evidently contained in a letter and media blitz by that redoubtable Zionist stalwart, Alan Dershowitz.

 

Under these circumstances, then, it seems likely that the outcome of the Salaita case will clearly exhibit the current balance of influence as between Zionist McCarthyism and academic freedom in American universities. That such a struggle should be taking place is itself a national disgrace that suggests the worrisome fragility of academic freedom in relation to the potency of money and the baneful impact of  well-funded and unscrupulous pressure groups. Steven Salaita’s own public statement at the start of a press conference admirably sets forth his own response to the crisis, is definitely worth reading:  <http://mondoweiss.net/2014/09/commitment-teaching-american&gt;

18 Responses to “Steven Salaita and Zionist McCarthyism”

  1. rehmat1 September 9, 2014 at 6:16 am #

    Dr. Phyllis M. Wise, Chancellor University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) fired professor Steven Salaita of Palestinian descent for posting tweet messages condemning Israel’s war crimes in Gaza. Two of the tweets found most offensive by the 70 Jewish individuals, fundraisers for the UIUC, and Israel lobby group Simon Wiesenthal Center read: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” And: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”

    Phyllis Wise had an old grudge with Salaita, who campaigned for the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Phyllis Wise voted against the boycott.

    Brown University professor Bonnie Honig in a letter slammed Phyllis Wise for her unwise decision. “Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel,” She wrote.

    Iyle Jeremy Rubin, a doctorate candidate at University of Rochester, in a letter to Dr. Wise that Dr. salaita did not say anything different than what Jewish scholars like Rabbi Henry Siegman, Rabbi Michael Lerner , Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein had said earlier.

    http://rehmat1.com/2014/08/28/uiuc-fires-professor-for-insulting-netanyahu/

  2. Fred Skolnik September 9, 2014 at 6:53 am #

    With all the academic boycotts against Israel and Israeli academics being cooked up by the Israel haters, it is the height of chutzpah to complain about Zionist “McCarthyism.”

    • rehmat1 September 9, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      With all the economic and arms boycott of Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, Syria and their NAM supporters by the Israeli western puppets – it’s hilarious to see you whining Fred Skolnik.

  3. imleif September 9, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    In general while at work a person has to suppress any provocative political views or disturbing personal manners, because it’s considered bad for business and the relationship with colleagues; or (s)he will eventually be fired. If a university has a board of investors it will tend to work like any other company. Did Mr Salaita take care to separate his tweets from his position as a professor?

    • imleif September 11, 2014 at 3:30 am #

      I understand now that it was private tweets, and therefore it’s entirely wrong to cancel Mr Salaita’s appointment. However, the pattern of punishing people career wise for “uncivil” or scandalous behaviour privately is actually very wide-spread. Now with social media and electronic communication records it’s easier than ever to produce evidence that a sports manager made a racist comment or whatever.

      • Richard Falk September 11, 2014 at 3:38 am #

        Yes, an important comment on a difficult issue associated with the interplay between digital communication,
        rights of privacy, and the surveillance apparatus of the state. If Salaita’s uncivil commentary and wider context
        of his behavior had exhibited racist attitudes toward Jews or other ethnicities I would have a different view than
        these expressions of frustration and anger directed at the Israeli state and its criminal behavior toward the Palestinian people.

      • imleif September 11, 2014 at 10:52 am #

        I think hunting someone because of their personal opinions, mistakes or crimes, and then even extra-judicially punishing them, is equal to lynching.

  4. rehmat1 September 9, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    An old case of Zionists’ hatred toward freedom of thoughts at Canada’s oldest educational institution, the University of Toronto.

    In 2010, the country’s Zionist Lobby slammed the U of T for awarding a Master’s degree to a Jew female student Jennifer Peto – for her thesis which claims that the Jews practice racism against non-Jewish communities.

    http://rehmat1.com/2010/12/05/u-of-t-under-fire-for-thesis-on-jewish-racism/

  5. Rabbi Ira Youdovin September 9, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    Prof. Falk headlines his post “Steven Salaita and Zionist McCarthyism” without presenting a shred of evidence of Jewish/Zionist involvement. He cites unconfirmed reports of Jewish/Zionist political and financial pressure on the university, and proceeds to treat them as indisputable facts. Asserting unconfirmed rumors as truth is the essence of McCarthyism.

    The issue of civility on American college campuses is far different from Prof. Falk’s blaming Zionists and Jews. In fact, the shoe is on the other foot. Pro-BDS forces have made North American universities Ground Zero. Paid operatives, mostly from outside the campus community, are sent in to train students to be agitators. The results are often ugly. At the Irvine campus of the University of California, an unruly mob prevented Israel’s ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, himself a distinguished historian, from presenting the lecture he had been invited to deliver. So much for freedom of speech.

    And this past May, pro-BDS activists at UCLA demanded that candidates for student government sign an oath that they had not, nor ever would participate in an Israel trip sponsored by two leading, mainstream Jewish organizations. One can hear Senator McCarthy droning, “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

    Prof. Falk presents without factual substantiation a cynical fantasy of a “vast net” of Jewish/Zionist repression that threatens free speech everywhere. One hears Sen. McCarthy warning, “Commies are taking over the State Department.”
    This represents a disturbing turn in Prof. Falk’s campaign to eliminate the State of Israel. With his predictions of Hamas leading the Palestinians foiled by its internal divisions, its failure to make peace with Fatah, and its being abandoned by its Arab neighbors, he now turns his sights on demonizing American Jews and warning that growing Jewish power jeopardizes the First Amendment.

    I can’t make a judgment on the Salaita episode because I don’t know the inside story. Neither does Prof. Falk, but that doesn’t stop him from using the episode as grist for his ever-churning anti-Israel mill.

    But I do know McCarthyism when I see it.

    Rabbi Ira Youdovin

    • JudenChino September 9, 2014 at 4:08 pm #

      You write:

      “He cites unconfirmed reports of Jewish/Zionist political and financial pressure on the university, and proceeds to treat them as indisputable facts. Asserting unconfirmed rumors as truth is the essence of McCarthyism.”

      Here’s the Simon Weisenthal Center protesting his appointment:
      http://jewishvoiceny.com/index.php?option=com_content&id=8125:wiesenthal-center-calls-ui-professors-controversial-twitter-posts-anti-semitic&Itemid=285:

      And see pages 78-94 of the FOIA’d e-mails https://www.dropbox.com/sh/fyy0x8qrt2d90by/AAC0WKONDDh4upSnzgvrxnnfa/Salaita.document.pdf?dl=0

      That person the chancellor rearranges her schedule for, is Steven N. Miller. He’s on the national board of Hillel and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. He says he’s given hundreds of thousands in the past but will not give any more in the future if Salaita is hired. Furthermore, he says he knows a few other high level donors, who will take similar action, if Salaita is hired.
      See more here:

      N.B. I took a birthright trip when I was in college. In hindsight, I felt bad because Palestinian-Americans do not get a free trip to their homeland. Also, you seem very confused by this:

      “And this past May, pro-BDS activists at UCLA demanded that candidates for student government sign an oath that they had not, nor ever would participate in an Israel trip sponsored by two leading, mainstream Jewish organizations. One can hear Senator McCarthy droning, “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?””

      Well, BDS activists can demand all they want. Being “called out by activists,” isn’t remotely comparable to “being hire-fired on the basis of complaints by donors” without any input whatsoever by the Faculty and undertaken completely in the dark.

    • Clif Brown September 9, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

      Rabbi Youdovin – you ask for additional information. I suggest you read this Untangling the Salaita case

      • Rabbi Ira Youdovin September 9, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

        Thank you for the information. FYI, it was Prof. Falk who characterized reports of Jewish pressure as “unconfirmed”, so perhaps you should send this article to him. But before you do, please understand that nothing in the article confirms the rumors. They remain a haze of unnamed people making alleged threats with no evidence testifying to their validity.

        Please note that I take no position on the propriety of the university withdrawing its job offer. But although it has no relevance to the case, I am appalled by Salaita’s language. Standards on social media may not be the same as in the classroom. (Apparently, civility in their public statements is no longer expected from college teachers.) But to my mind, someone capable of an extended and profane rant of this nature directed at anything or anyone is a questionable candidate for any faculty.

        Rabbi Ira Youdovin

  6. Gene Schulman September 10, 2014 at 12:04 am #

    Following on Richard’s excellent analysis of the Salaita case, I thought readers might like to read Saliata’s own defense, reproduced here: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/09/commitment-teaching-american

    • Richard Falk September 10, 2014 at 2:31 am #

      Thanks, Gene, for injecting a note of reasoned sanity into the discussion. Of course, Chomsky is to be trusted on
      such matters of fact, and the context of the Israeli attack on Gaza had little to do with the rockets, but reflected
      the political goals of the Netanyahu government.
      Also, I agree that it is not productive to be in discussion with those who twist the realities in such Orwellian ways
      to make Israel ‘innocent’ of wrongdoing no matter the scale and nature of its criminality.
      Hope you are enjoying Djerba, which I visited before you were born, and remember fondly.

      Richard

      • Gene Schulman September 10, 2014 at 2:49 am #

        Richard, this is one time I caught you out. Couldn’t have been before I was born. Remember; I am older than you. Anyhow, we’re not there yet. Leaving this afternoon, and will be back on 1 October. If you are again in Geneva at that time, it will be your turn to pick up a lunch check😉

      • Fred Skolnik September 10, 2014 at 3:12 am #

        You are going off the deep end with this criminality business, Prof. Falk. Isn’t that exactly what you are meant to ascertain in the Russell Tribunal? Why don’t you just mail in your views?

        I have furnished Mr. Schulman with a list of Hamas’s attacks in June. Are you sure Chomsky is to be trusted? After all, he produced a demonstrable fiction. But of course, Israel’s attack had nothing to do with the 3,500 rockets fired at it’s civilian population. What sane country would respond to such an attack? No, we must look for a better reason, and you have given in to us: political goals. That is a truly profound analysis, but it is nonsensical. It is not the defenders of Israel who twist reality and distort facts. It is you. You are, after all, the one who shamelessly likened Hamas to the French partisans. Mr. Schulman has assured us that “even the most hardened observers” (whatever that means) condemned the Arab suicide bombings, But you haven’t, you have rationalized them (“What choice do they have?”), including the Boston Marathon attack.

        Maybe we are annoying you by not going away and you would rather have a chorus of admirers responding to your posts. But you are engaging in a public act by publishing these posts and deserve to be exposed whenever you make assertions that are morally reprehensible and totally divorced from reality.

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