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Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism

9 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my written text for a public presentation on the theme of “Edward Said’s Humanism and the Rejection of the State Department’s Definition of Anti-Semitism” at a conference at Fresno State University, Nov. 6, 2015 bearing the title “Universities at the Crossroads: The Assault on Academic Freedom,” which was the last event of the “Edward Said Lecture Series” organized by Professor Vida Samiian of the Department of Linguistics at FSU. My talk as given departed considerably from this text.]

 

Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism 

In these remarks, I will present the following analysis: (1) the most ardent Zionist forces have longed tried to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with hatred of Jews, the traditional understanding of anti-Semitism, but this effort has intensified recently, and even has been endorsed by the US Government and is currently under consideration by the University of California and elsewhere; (2) examine the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, and discuss briefly why it has pernicious implications for academic freedom, and indeed even for an understanding of the genuine nature of anti-Semitism; (3) show why Edward Said despite his intense opposition to anti-Semitism would nevertheless be vulnerable to allegations of being an anti-Semite if the State Department definition were to be applied to his writings and activities; (4) and finally to point out that according to the imperatives most influentially expressed by Noam Chomsky and Said, the ‘responsibility of the intellectual’ would perversely require them to be ‘anti-Semitic’ according to this pernicious wider conception.

 

 

My personal experience with this theme of anti-Semitism and Israel can be summarized by recalling two different occasions: The first was in Greek Cyprus more than a decade ago at a meeting of the Inter-Action Council (composed of ex-heads of states) devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I had been invited as a resource person. At a session devoted to Israel/Palestine the Israeli ambassador to Greece spoke at some length, insisting that it was anti-Semitic to express strong criticisms of Israel and Zionism. As the only other Jew at the table I felt it to be almost a duty to clarify what I believed to be a mischievous manipulation of ideas. In my intervention I explained that Zionism was a project or ideology, Israel was a state, and that Jews were a people or persons. I attempted to explain that to disagree with Zionism or to criticize Israeli policies and practices as a state was not at all anti-Semitic, but to exhibit hostility, hatred, and discrimination against Jews as a people or as individuals was indeed anti-Semitism. Recall that Hitler did not persecute Jews for being Zionists, but for being Jews, for partaking of a race or ethnicity. After the meeting recessed, several participants thanked me for my comments, indicating that only a Jew could offer this kind of clarification, which they found persuasive. In contrast, the Israeli ambassador and his NGO sidekick came to me to complain vigorously, insisting that Zionism had become synonymous with Jewish identity through the establishment of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, making the three ideas interchangeable. In effect, their separation was now deemed deeply hostile to the Jewish experience, and was properly viewed as ‘anti-Semitism’; I walked away unconvinced, yet disturbed by the encounter.

 

This trivial incident still seems relevant as it illustrates what I believe has been an effective effort by unconditional Israel supporters to stifle criticism of Israel by inappropriately playing such an anti-Semitic card. It is inappropriate as it merges what might be called genuine hate speech with an attempt to intimidate freedom of expression in a domain where it seems needed, that is, in justifiable questioning of Israel’s state behavior and the colonial nature of the Zionist project as it is playing out in the 21st century. It is a doubly unfortunate and dangerous tactic as it tends to weaken and confuse opposition to real anti-Semitism by this misleading linkage of a contentious political argument with a condemnation of racism.

 

My second experience was to receive an email a couple of years ago informing me that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a non-governmental organization devoted to unconditional support of Israel, had issued its annual list of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in the world, and that I was listed as third. I found it quite astounding, especially after discovering that #1 was the Supreme Guide of Iran and #2 was the then Prime Minister of Turkey. Others on the list included such notable authors as Alice Walker and Max Blumenthal. It was obvious that I was placed on the list as a consequence of my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period between 2008 and 2014. In the fulfillment of this role, I had indeed written very critically from the perspective of human rights and international law about the manner in which Israel was administering the occupation, which involved elements of annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. But nothing in my reports directly or indirectly exhibited hatred or hostility toward the Jewish people or toward Jews as Jews. My prominence on the Wiesenthal list at first troubled me deeply, fearing that it would damage my credibility as well as be a painful and unjustified attack on my identity that would be humiliating and probably ineffective to oppose. I never overcame these feelings, but they became somewhat balanced by my realization that highlighting my name in this way could only be explained by the degree to which my UN reports were exerting some influence on the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict was being more generally perceived, especially within UN circles. I continue to feel a certain pride in bearing witness as best I could to the realities under law of Israel’s occupation policies, and the extent to which prolonged Palestinian suffering has been the result.

 

These personal experiences relate to the current debate nationally, internationally, and here in California. The essential argument is that Jews in Europe feel threatened by what they describe as a new wave of anti-Semitism, which is deliberately linked to the rise of anti-Israeli activism, and was dramatized by several recent terrorist incidents, especially the 2014 attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The European migration crisis is undoubtedly giving rise in Europe to a strengthening of the political right extreme, including its neo-Nazi fringe that does express real anti-Semitic hatred, but it is far less virulent in its racism toward Jews than toward Muslims. One problem with this focus on anti-Semitism is to treat Jews as accorded extra protection while at the same time immunizing hostility to Islam by reference to freedom of expression. There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo, while victimized for its opinions, was disseminating toward Muslims the kind of hate images and messages that if directed at Jews would be regarded by almost everyone as anti-Semitism, including myself.

 

It is somewhat understandable that Europe would be sensitive to any return of anti-Semitism, given that it was both the scene of the Holocaust, the historic center of anti-Semitism, and in many ways provided the historic vindication of the Zionist movement. We should not forget that the international validation of the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland received its first formal encouragement in the notoriously colonialist letter written by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, in 1917. As well, during the 1930s, prior to Hitler’s adoption of the Final Solution, the preferred solution of the so-called Jewish Problem in Europe was mounting widespread pressure on Jews to emigrate to Palestine or even to face forced expulsion, and this was not solely a consequence of Nazi policies. Timothy Snyder in his important recent book, Black Death, documents the extent to which Polish anti-Semitic political leaders collaborated with Zionist leaders, including even providing military training and weapons that developed the Zionist militias that laterchallenged the British mandatory presence in Palestine and then successfully waged a war of independence. In effect, many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.

 

The contemporary American argument and debate has less historical baggage compared to Europe and is more subtle, mainly focused on campus activity and is a reflection to some extent of the U.S. government’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. It is evident that Israeli officials definitely project the view that hostility to Israel or Zionism is indistinguishable from what the State Department calls ‘traditional anti-Semitism,’ that is, hatred or persecution of Jews because of their ethnicity. What is most troublesome in the State Department approach is its incorporation of what it calls ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which “manifests itself in the guise of opposition to Zionism and the existence and/or policies of the state of Israel.” [Contemporary Anti-Semitism: A Report Provided to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; See also fact sheet of U.S. Dept of State, June 8, 2010, on defining anti-Semitism] This “..new anti-Semitism, characterized by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism that is anti-Semitic in effect—whether or not in intent- [and] is more subtle and thus frequently escapes condemnation.” As many of you know the Board of Regents of the University of California is currently considering whether to adopt such a conception of anti-Semitism as official university policy. The principal arguments advanced in its favor are that pro-Palestinian student activism, especially around calls for boycotts and divestments, are making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, even under threat, with the further implication that such insecurity should not be present in any academic community. This rationale skirts the issue that the BDS campaign has been gaining significant traction in recent years, and this effort to brand the activist dimension of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as anti-Semitic is motivated by a major multi-pronged Israeli effort to weaken BDS by having those who support such an unacceptable campaign as guilty of ‘anti-Semitism.’

 

Such developments go back to my experience in Cyprus, and reflect this determined effort to meet the rise of Palestinian solidarity efforts with its suppression being justified as opposition to the new anti-Semitism. [See also to the same effect, Michael Oren’s Ally that depict Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. making an effort to render unacceptable any public utterance of criticism of Israel] Note the features of this negative branding: only the sensitivities of Jews are singled out despite the far greater discomfort confronting Muslim minority students and others on campuses and throughout America; the initiative is overtly designed to weaken popular support for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine given the collapse of diplomatic efforts to produce the two-state solution; the BDS campaign is being challenged in ways that never occurred during earlier comparable campaigns, especially in the American civil rights movement and the BDS movement contra South African apartheid, both of which relied on boycott and divestment tactics. Part of the context that is rarely mentioned in debating the scope of anti-Semitism is the degree to which this surge of pro-Palestinian nonviolent militancy is in reaction to two developments: Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and persistence with such unlawful activities as settlement expansion and the completion of the separation wall.

 

It is in this atmosphere of endowing anti-Semitic smearing with respectability that outrages to academic freedom such as the revocation of a tenure contract issued to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois was revoked because of some allegedly anti-Semitic tweets written during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza that would make his students uncomfortable. In fact, Salaita possesses an outstanding performance record in the classroom, his teaching is greatly appreciated by his students, including those who were Jewish and pro-Israeli. Undoubtedly more serious than high profile cases are the invisible effects of this inflammatory and aggressive use of anti-Semitism, exhibited by the reluctance to hire or promote individuals who have engaged in Palestinian solidarity activity or even to invite speakers that would be attacked as bringing an anti-Semite onto campus. Again my experience is relevant. During the six years that I held the UN position, everywhere I went to speak, including at my former university, Princeton, or in foreign settings as remote as Beirut or Sydney, Australia concerted campaigns were conducted by Zionist groups to persuade university administration to cancel my lectures. The claim being made was that I should not be allowed to speak because I was a notorious anti-Semite. These efforts were backed up by threats to withhold contributions to the university if the event went ahead as scheduled. These efforts failed, and my talks went given without incident, but what the campaign did accomplish was to shift media and audience attention from the substance of my presentation to the utterly false issue of whether or not I was an anti-Semite, which of course, required me to deal with accusations that were hurtful as well as false.

 

II.

 

It is against this background that I wanted to mention Edward Said’s humanism, which in the context of this State Department approach, would clearly qualify as an unacceptable, if disguised, form of the ‘new anti-Semitism.’ As many of you know Edward Said was the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation. His books, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism continue to be read all over the world more than a decade after his death. I was privileged to have Edward Sasid as a close and cherished friend who over the years nurtured my interest in and engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and whose remarkable life remains an inspiration to many of us. His views are peculiarly relevant to the theme chosen for my remarks as he was both a fierce opponent of the old anti-Semitism and an exemplary exponent of the new anti-Semitism, which as I am mainly arguing should not be considered anti-Semitism at all, and these attempts to discredit criticisms of Israel and Zionism should themselves be discredited, especially in view of recent behavior.

 

As his colleague and close friend at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, an Indian professor of comparative literature observed, Said “..despised anti-Semitism as much anyone I know.” [Kilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2014) Humanism was the only –ism with which Said was comfortable. His circle of identification embraced the human species, although rooted in the particularity of his Palestinian background. His academic training, publications, and career were situated firmly in literature until awakened by the 1967 Six Day War to take up the Palestinian struggle in a dedicated manner for the rest of his life.

 

Said’s writing on Palestine was always informed by fact and shaped by his deep grasp of history and culture, initially in his important The Question of Palestine. What is striking about Said’s approach, despite his anger about the refusal of the world to appreciate and correct the terrible injustices done to the Palestinian people in the course of establishing the Israeli state, is his steadfast appreciation that Zionism did what it did beneath the shadow of Nazi persecution, especially culminating in the Holocaust. In other words, his sense of the conflict with Israel is conceived in inclusive terms as pertaining to Jews as well as Palestinians. In his words, “I have spent a great deal of my life during the past thirty-five years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention to the reality of the Jewish people, and what they suffered by way persecution and genocide.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) He never endorsed a solution to the struggle that was not sensitive to both Palestinians and Jews, and in a sense his approach embodied a principled rejection of the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were intent on pushing the Jews into the sea.

 

While insisting that Jews must never experience in Israel the sort of dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionist project, Said was unrelenting in linking a sustainable peace to acknowledging the justices of the past. As he expressed it Ari Shavit in one of his last interviews, “[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.” He goes on to add, “[W]hat is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967[Power Politic, 446] In effect, the injustices of the past can be superseded but only if they are acknowledged in an appropriate format with due solemnity. On at least one occasion Said seems to suggest a truth and reconciliation process modeled on what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.

 

Said central contribution of developing a critique of West-centric views of the Arab world are most influentially set forth in Orientalism, one of the most widely studied and seminal books of the past century. Among many other facets of the analysis in the book it led Said to offer this surprising convergence: “Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) This convergence is explained by the dual effort to achieve “a better understanding of the way cultural domination have operated.” (Orientalism 27).

 

At the same time, Said felt that Zionist exclusivism sought to keep the issue as one of what Jews had endured in the Holocaust as a sufficient vindication of Zionism and the creation of Israel, with the adverse effects on the Palestinians as self-inflicted or irrelevant to this hegemonic Israeli narrative. Said writes that “..all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” [Question, 59] Long before the present debate he believed that such an informal tactic prevented truthful conversation as non-Jews were inhibited by “..the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.” [59] Writing in the late 1970s Said felt that criticism of Israel was often insensitive to the background of its establishment as a last bastion of defense for the Jewish people after the ordeal of the Holocaust.

 

Almost 40 years later the context has altered, but not the effect of treating anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Because of the failure to establish some kind of solution, and given Israeli defiance of international law through the settlements, separation wall, reliance on excessive force and collective punishment, the issue has captured the imagination of many people around the world, especially students, to become the leading unresolved moral struggle of our time, a successor to the South African struggle against apartheid a generation earlier, as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now the government itself intrudes its influence on American society to make sure that the extended definition of anti-Semitism as incorporating strong criticism of Israel and Zionism is treated as hate speech. This is not only threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom, it is undermining the capacity of American citizens to fight nonviolently for what they believe is right in the world. When the government adopts punitive measures to discourage the BDS campaign or even academic conferences addressing the conflict, it is behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic manner. Such behavior follows directly from the understanding given to the ‘special relationship’ binding Israel to the United States in a manner that often contradicts proclaimed national values and even national interests. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, boasts of the hundreds of occasions where the U.S. has blocked votes critical of Israel within the UN without even bothering to consider whether any of such initiatives were justified or not.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III.

 

Let me finally raise the questions as to why this debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitism relates to the responsibility of the intellectual as understood, especially by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. In his 2003 Preface to Orientalism Said writes these telling words: “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or anther approved enemy.” [XXII] Frequently, Said reinforces the role of the intellectual to remain on the margins, an outsider, whose only weapon is bearing witness and truth-telling, a role authenticated by the absence of any claim to have expert knowledge, more a standing in solidarity with those being victimized by oppression and injustice, a normative posture that rests on moral and legal foundations of respect for the value of all persons and peoples. Said’s succinct expression is memorable. He characterizes the public intellectual “as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power.” [Representations, XVI]

 

The irony of this orientation of the intellectual is that it collides directly with the State Department conception of the new anti-Semitism. In other words, to avoid the blanket charge of anti-Semitism as now officially defined Said would have to renounce his chosen identity as a public intellectual. This would weaken the quality of academic freedom as well as undermine public discourse. No resource of higher education is more precious, in my judgment, than the presence of those all to few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness. It is the foundation of vigilant citizenship, already recognized by Thomas Jefferson as indispensable for sustaining democracy, and it is also the basis for challenging vested interests and mistaken policies. This role of public intellectuals is threatened by this assault on freedom of expression wrapped up in a false effort to discourage anti-Semitism, and it relates to such broader concerns as the stifling of political discourse due to the corporatization of the media and higher education.

 

On no issue is this unfettered dialogue more needed in the United States than in relation to Israel/Palestine. As Michael Oren showed in his memoir Ally the special relationship bonding Israel and the United States implies the absence of any public acknowledgement of policy disagreements and a policy of unconditional support. Israel did its bit to uphold its end of this unseemly bargain recently by being the only country of 194 in the UN that supported the United States determination to maintain sanctions on Cuba despite the Obama renewal of diplomatic relations. After all American taxpayers have long sent annually billions of dollars to Israel, as well as a range of weapons and munitions. They are entitled to know if this money is being spent in a manner that accords with international law and American national interests. The overriding of Israel’s objections to the Iran Nuclear Agreement illustrated the extent to which Israel can challenge vital policy

initiatives undertaken by the elected leaders of the American government.

 

Never have we more needed to protect and celebrate our public intellectuals, and never more so than in the context of Israel/Palestine. For this reason we

should be celebrating the legacy of Edward Said, a world famous public intellectual, and the person, who more than anyone on the planet fulfilled the role of responsible public intellectual. Instead of defending him against these incendiary charges of anti-Semitism we should be honoring his memory by studying his ideas and enacting the values of resistance and struggle that he commends in the face of injustice.

 

IV

 

In concluding, there is an obvious tension that exists more vividly than when Edward Said was alive, and commenting on the Palestinian struggle. Israel has created on the ground a set of circumstances that seem irreversible and are institutionalizing a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine (minus Jordan). The Israeli leadership has made clear the inappropriateness of establishing a Palestinian state, and given the insistence on making even the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ the dye seems cast. At the same time, the international Palestinian solidarity movement has never been stronger, with the BDS campaign leading the way, moving from success to success. And so as ‘the battlefield’ has shifted to a legitimacy war that the Palestinians are winning, the Israeli tactics have retaliated with an all out effort to demonize as anti-Semitism these new forms of non-violent resistance. This is the essential objective of the new anti-Semitism, and it is scandalous the U.S. State Department has endorsed such demonization with its newly adopted formal definition of anti-Semitism. To defeat this effort is essential not only for the Palestinian struggle, but to keep America safe for democratic discourse and universities hospitable to the kind of critical thinking that Edward Said’s scholarship and activism exemplified.

 

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An Open Letter to Rabbi Ira Youdovin

11 Sep

(Prefatory Note: Rabbi Youdovin has written a lengthy response in the form of a comment, which I now append here so that readers of the post can judge for themselves the nature of our disagreements, and reach their own conclusions.)

 

 

An Open Letter to Rabbi Ira Youdovin:

 

We have exchanged views frequently in the last few years, most often by way of adversary comments written in reaction to posts published on this website. I write now a post in the form of an ‘open letter’ because I think your most recent comment objecting to my support for Steven Salaita in his campaign to have his tenure faculty appointment reinstated in the American Indian Studies Department at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. Phyllis Wise, the Chancellor, now with the formal approval of the Board of Trustees, refused to forward the appointment to Board, because of private tweets highly critical of Israel that she relied upon for making a unilateral decision that Salaita would be a disruptive presence on campus and that someone holding such strong views would likely make Jewish students in courses he offered uncomfortable. She later clarified her decision as prompted by the realization that the Board under pressure from university donors would have rejected the appointment in any event and admitted that she should have consulted further before reaching her decision. I indicated my view that not only should Salaita be reinstated, but also he deserved a formal apology from the chancellor and reimbursement for damages sustained, including to his academic reputation.

 

Our most fundamental disagreement is exhibited by the opening sentences of your comment responding to my earlier post suggesting that the dehiring of Salaita amounted to an assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression. You start your comment this way: “The Salaita case is not about free speech. It’s about hate speech. The examples of Salaita’s comments cited by Prof. Falk constitute a carefully collected and unrepresentative sample of the dozens on record.” You go on to choose tweets that you find more offensive than those contained in my post:

 

“More typical of his “body of work” are:

“Fuck you, Israel. And while I’m at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi –

“The IDF spokesperson is a lying motherfucker.”

“If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”

“If Netanyahu appeared on TV wearing a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised?”

 

Actually, the last of your examples was among those that I included in my post, but this is a minor quibble. My real disagreement centers on your insistence that the Salaita case “is not about free speech. It’s about hate speech.” There is no doubt that these tweets are instances of extreme invective, making use of profane language, but are they properly construed as ‘hate speech’? I would hope not. These tweets, which were not expressed in the language of the dinner table or polite parlor conversation, are directed at Israel, not Jews as a people or Jews as individuals. Israel is a state. The state is an abstraction. You cannot hate an abstraction except as a language trope. If I shout “I hate the color brown” or “fuck all brown cars” it would be absurd to consider this kind of emotive language as hate speech. The same distinction should hold in speech on matters of political opinion.

 

It is here where the essential controversy between us lies. Israel’s first defenders seek to make everyone feel that Israel as a self-proclaimed Jewish state is, in effect, the personification of the Jewish people, and that using profane language of criticism about the state amounts to hate speech. Such efforts to personify the state are themselves destructive of democratic discourse, and do impact upon academic freedom as well as muddy the waters as to the character of anti-Semitism. To be angry at a state may reveal an intemperate personality, perhaps even extreme alienation, but by itself has not ventured into the forbidden domain of hate. And many of us, including Steven Salaita, draw a sharp line separating our attitudes toward Israel as a state and the Jewish people as a people.

 

Let us choose a clear example to highlight the point. To hate Nazi Germany became not only an accepted attitude, but surely the politically correct position during and after World War II. To extend that hate, however, to the German people crosses the dangerous line, and to treat a particular German as automatically of Nazi persuasion would similarly be hateful. There has been useful debate as to what extent the German people went along with Hitler’s Nazi program, especially occasioned by Daniel Goldhagen’s challenge directed at the claim that ordinary Germans were unawares of the fate befalling the Jewish people. [See his Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997)].

 

I recall my own experience in North Vietnam in June 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War, when person after person, whether a peasant in the countryside or a high official in Hanoi, told me that they hated the American government but had positive feelings toward the American people. They attributed this sentiment to the teaching of Ho Chi Minh, the revered Communist leader of their national movement, but it was said with such heartfelt sincerity by the people I met in Vietnam as to make me aware of the deficiencies of American political culture that routinely conflates an enemy state with the citizenry of the country. Such a lethal confusion may reflect the survival of racialism, and be one of the continuing costs imposed by the terrible heritage of slavery, which was also accentuated by the genocidal treatment of the indigenous population of North America by the early generations of settler colonialists. The Zionist conflation works in the opposite direction, insisting that those who challenge Israel beyond a certain moderate point are racists, a species of anti-Semite, however much they protest against the derogatory label.

 

More to the point, expressing anger toward Israel seems well within the protected boundaries of free speech, and so the only reasonable question is one of tone, including the use of profanity to express such anger, and its relevance to academic performance. As Salaita himself explained, his tweets were mainly written in the context of the recent Israeli massacre of Palestinian civilians, including over 500 children, during a period of acute frustration undoubtedly heightened by the sense that his own government here in the United States was mindlessly supportive of what Israel was doing to a vulnerable and entrapped civilian population.

 

It is also relevant to know whether the tweets should be taken as an ominous indicator of how Salaita would behave in the classroom and within the university community. On the basis of abundant testimony from colleagues and former students, as well as Salaita own very clearly articulated views, there is every reason to be confident that he would welcome and treat fairly diverse viewpoints with respect and sensitivity, including those supportive of Israel’s behavior. It is also is helpful to know that in the course of his six published books on a variety of topics involving the abuses experienced by marginalized peoples, including Palestinians, there is no hint of racism or indulgence in hate speech as an acceptable response. Quite the contrary, there is a rejection of all forms of profiling whether of the oppressor or the oppressed.

 

Of course, an accusation of hate speech in the context of criticizing Israel has as its objecting the implication that the speaker is guilty of genuine anti-Semitism. As I have tried to argue in a recent post [Sept. 1, 2014], Zionist propaganda seeks to merge anti-Israelism, denominated as a form of racial bigotry, with anti-Semitism as hatred of Jews and the Jewish people. The widespread deliberate use of this technique by organized Zionist forces in the United States is convincingly documented in The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), 125-225 by Ali Abunimah. It forms part of the wider Israeli effort to defend a rising tide of anti-Israeli student activism on American university campuses, and more broadly what Israeli think tanks call ‘the delegitimation project’ associated with such initiatives as the BDS campaign.

 

I found your gratuitous swipe at the Palestinian quest for national heroes particularly nasty and unjustified. You make this strange assertion: “The Palestinians and their supporters are woefully short on heroes. The five most often mentioned—Arafat, Saladin, Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King are dead. Moreover, three weren’t Arabs and only one was a Palestinian.”

 

I have been around Palestinians for a long time and I find this statement out of touch. Aside from Arafat, who is controversial even among Palestinians, and Mandela, who is invoked quite often as an inspirational figure, the other three are only rarely, if at all, mentioned. Much more appreciated as heroes by Palestinians is Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, and to a lesser extent, Jimmy Carter, both of whom are very much alive and remain engaged. Most surprisingly your list omits Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, both Palestinians and by far the most influential members of the Palestinian pantheon of heroes, and among the most eloquent of anti-colonial resistance voices who have ever set foot on planet earth.

 

Yes, Steven Salaita is a casualty of the long struggle to achieve Palestinian rights, and a victim of what I have called Zionist McCarthyism, but hopefully never a martyr to the cause. When you mock his passion with the demeaning words, “what kind of honest discussion could emerge from his obscene adolescent ranting?” Rabbi Youdovin, Salaita was certainly not seeking ‘honest discussion’ by sending these tweets to friends and followers, but expressing his righteous disgust about what was happening to the people of a shared ethnicity, and what you dismiss as “obscene adolescent ranting” others, including myself, hear as screams of pain and anguish. There are times and places for honest discussion, and there are times and places for screams of pain and anguish.

 

If we yearn for a world more dedicated to peace and justice, and more focused on human survival, we all need to learn to listen with our hearts as well as our heads. I find that both modes of communication have their role, and we harm our civic life as a country if we reject the relevance of screams of discontent and insist that only reasoned discourse has value.

.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

Richard Falk

 

 

*******************************

In his “Open Letter to Rabbi Ira Youdovin”, Prof Falk brands me as being among the viscous Zionists determined to ruin Steven Salaita’s career. As night follows day, the Blog Faithful pile on. One writes, “Rabbi Ira Youdovin’s views and behaviours are identical to some “mullahs” inside Iran, whose “morality” is: “The end justifies the means.” I feel sorry for Judaism.” Kata Fisher, in one of her “Reflections”, denounces me as being tunder the power of Satan and warns that I’ll be Judged, (In this and other matters, Ms. Fisher fancies herself as having a direct line to the mind of the Almighty.) But she also provides an unintentional dose of humor. Noting my frequent exchanges with Prof. Falk, she condemns me for inflicting “psychological abuse toward elderly person like that.” I’m not sure that the professor delights in being characterized as an emotionally fragile old geezer.
This is pretty scary stuff, being accused of trying to destroy a promising young scholar’s career, compared unfavorably to the Iranian mullahs and condemned to eternal damnation. The blogosphere is not always friendly place. But Prof. Falk’s blog is an especially rough neighborhood. So before I’m consumed in the fires of hell, please join me in talking a look (or second look) \at what I actually wrote.

I made a total of two posts regarding Prof. Salaita. They can be found in the two threads preceding this one. For those who don’t want to do the scrolling, here are the relevant
excerpts:
1/
“The Salaita case is not about free speech….This was not a one-time temper tantrum that might be dismissed as a momentary lapse. This is a university professor who repeatedly sounds like a potty-mouthed teenage punk. And unlike the teenager who likely is content to walk down the street muttering to himself until his anger subsides, Salaita wanted to share his animus with anybody within tweeting range.”

“I can’t make a judgment on the Salaita episode because I don’t know the inside story.”

2/
“As I posted yesterday, I won’t get into the controversy over whether Salaita’s firing is justified. I know little about the rules governing academic freedom. And, truth be told, I have more than a little sympathy for the plight of his family with neither income nor health insurance. Were it up to me, a simple apology—one that would focus on his tactics and not demanding that he renounce his underlying convictions—would have sufficed to merit reinstatement. “

“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.”

That doesn’t sound all that bad, does it? My focus is on Prof. Salaita’s language, not his ideas. I plead guilty to being committed to linguistic civility. But so was Prof. Falk until he ran into an obscenity tweeting Palestinian and changed the rules governing civility on this blog. Moreover, I clearly state that my has no relevance to his dispute with the U of Illinois. In other words, I’m not advocating anything in regard to Prof. Salaita’s job, other than saying that he merits re-instatement , and expressing my regret over the mutual failure to work things out, which likely could have been done with a little flexibility on both sides. Prof. Falk and his cohorts got their martyr, and Prof. Salaita lost his job. Doesn’t seem like a fair trade, but that’s not my decision to make.

So how do I wind up in Prof. Falk’s doghouse? The answer entails a wild adventure in sophistry and demagoguery.

Prof. Falk begins by disputing my assessment of Prof. Salaita’s tweets as hate speech. Full disclosure: having served for several years on the Illinois Governor’s Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crime, I’m aware that there are a variety of legal definitions of what constitutes hate speech, and that Prof. Salaita’s tweets do not cross the threshold prescribed by some of them. Had this been Prof. Falks objection, I would have acknowledged the error and adjusted my statement accordingly.

But Prof. Falk had something else in mind. His thesis is that Prof. Salaita’s anger not is directed at human beings—Jewish, Israeli or otherwise—but at the State of Israel. States, he argues, are abstractions, like the color brown; and nobody would construe the statement “fuck the color brown” as hate speech. Consequently, Prof. Salaita’s tweeting obscenities like “fuck you” and calling someone a “motherfucker” cannot be hate speech because he’s addressing an abstraction, like the color brown. I suspect this arcane theory comes as a surprise to Prof. Salita who personalized his tweets by specifically calling out the IDF’s spokesman a “motherfucker”, and imaging Israel’s prime minister as appearing on television wearing a necklace of a Palestinian children’s teeth.

Not being a lawyer, I’ll accept Prof. Falk’s word that the state is regarded as an abstraction in the rarefied circles of international law faculties . But in the real world—the world in which Steven Salaita and the rest of us live—the state is not in the same category as the color brown . For one thing, the color brown is not engaged in an often violent conflict with Prof. Salaita’s people. His hatred may be understandable, but it is hatred nevertheless. As a non-lawyer, I base this conclusion on the prosaic, but familiar “Duck Test”: if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck and looks like a duck, etc…”

This is another of those inconvenient truths that rise up to bedevil Prof. Falk in his determination to delete, deny or explain away every Palestinian failing. Regrettably, the way he handles this one is pure, unadulterated sophistry.

I won’t deal with Prof. Falk’s allusion to Nazi Germany because, frankly, I don’t understand it. I agree that it was/is wrong to blame all Germans for the Nazi atrocities. But that’s not because Germany is an abstraction. It’s because the German wartime population encompassed a diversity of opinions on, and knowledge of what was happening. This is precisely what Prof. Falk demonstrates in citing Goldhagen’s book (although I don’t understand why he chose to cite a controversial book to prove a self-evident point, particularly at a time when Hannah Arendt’s theory about the ”banality of evil” is again under serious attack.)

But more importantly, at whom is Prof. Falk’s rebuke directed? All I did was criticize Prof. Salaita’s use of profanity. That’s one person, not a population. According to Prof. Falk’s theory, Prof. Salaita would be a more appropriate target. He’s cursing an abstraction called Israel, which includes many Israelis who dissent from the Likud government’s policies. But that can’t be. Hate speech hurled at a state cannot be hate speech, just as hate speech hurled at the color brown cannot be hare speech. So we go round and round. Prof. Falk often accuses me of misrepresenting or misconstruing his positions. So I’ll leave this one with a big question mark.

Now we come to a great leap of illogic which takes us from the realm of sophistry to the realm of demagoguery. Having (erroneously!) concluded that Prof. Salaita’s remarks could not constitute hate speech, Prof. Falk proceeds to roll out his theory of why I think it does: “Israel’s first defenders [that’s me!] seek to make everyone feel that Israel as a self-proclaimed Jewish state is, in effect, the personification of the Jewish people, and that using profane language of criticism about the state amounts to hate speech…Of course, an accusation of hate speech in the context of criticizing Israel has as its objecting the implication that the speaker is guilty of genuine anti-Semitism.”

Where does this come from? I make no mention of anti-Semitism. Nor do I imply that any is a factor. To the contrary, I’ve repeatedly stated on this blog and elsewhere that criticism of Israel, even harsh criticism, does not necessarily reflect anti-Semitism. I have no idea of Prof. Salaita’s attitudes toward Jews And I did say that he merits reinstatement. But Prof. Falk deliberately ignores these not incidental realities. In his view, all criticism of Israel’s critics implies an accusation of anti-Semitism. This is outrageous stereotyping. Indeed, it’s demagogic. Faced with a set of problematic tweets, Prof. Falk asserts an elaborate and totally inaccurate rendition of my beliefs as a ploy to deflect attention from the evidence at hand. As they say in (American) football: a good offense is the best defense.

But to those of us smeared by Prof. Falk’s evasive tactics, his offense is offensive.
The saddest part of this episode is that when the dust clears, it will become apparent that the melee was not over free speech, but over the propriety of a professor’s use of obscenity which added nothing to his message but cost him his job, while his cheerleaders returned to their secure jobs and comfortable homes. Yes, Prof. Falk, those undeleted expletive were screams of pain and anguish. But aren’t there better, indeed more effective ways of expressing these same emotions, ways that do not draw attention away from the thoughts and emotions being expressed by making the words, themselves, the main attraction…ways that do not drive people apart by demonizing one side or the other? And shouldn’t we look to our intellectuals, young and old, to lead the way in developing this more civilized language?

Rabbi Ira Youdovin

 

  

                       

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;