When I was growing up in the late fifties and early sixties, my best friend’s mother was an outspoken Jewish liberal who embraced every progressive cause. She would drag my friend and me to civil rights protests and talk about the issues of the day with great liberal passion.
Once I told her that my older brother was considering buying a Volkswagen, and she replied, “I simply cannot buy anything from Germany, certainly not a Volkswagen.” I pointed out to her that Volkswagen cars were sold in Israel, that Germany had paid reparations to Israel, and that many Germans had volunteered to work in Israeli kibbutzim. But she wouldn’t budge; she could not bring herself to buy anything German, even though this was twenty years after World War II, and it was a different generation.
Her position bothered me at the time, since I had been taught that we shouldn’t blame the children for the sins of the parents. Her personal boycott of Germany and Germany goods didn’t jibe with her liberalism. I never talked to her about it; had I done so, she probably would have conceded that she was acting from her gut. But she was my best friend’s mother, a close family friend whom I loved dearly, and so I just kept quiet. Even today I will excuse a holocaust survivor who feels that way. Still, not buying from the Germans today simply because they are German strikes me as bigoted, and while I may excuse somebody who acts in a bigoted manner because of some extenuating circumstance, I have to understand that it is the only extenuating circumstance, and perhaps the principle of charity, that excuse that person. The bigotry itself is worthy of moral condemnation, though in the greater scheme of things there are worse sins than not buying products from a certain country because of a historical grievance.
Which brings me back to Prof. Salaita’s tweets. Though I was offended by them less than others, I did find some of them coarse, unenhanced, and demeaning for a university professor. I particularly didn’t like the one that wished that all the settlers would disappear like the three kidnapped Israelis had disappeared. Don’t misunderstand me. I consider the settlement movement a moral abomination; through the systematic theft of land it not only destroys the lives of particular people, it destroys the life and aspirations of a people. The settlement movement is not merely an “obstacle to peace”; it is a crime against humanity and to the extent that I am an Israeli citizen, and pay taxes, I am complicit in that crime.
But at the same time, settlers are human beings and cannot be just wished dead. So like Prof. Klug who will not march in the company of somebody carrying a sign equating a Jewish Star with Nazism, so too I will not retweet those tweets that I find offensive, not just to Jews, but to any decent being.
That said -- and said loudly – let us not forget that in the greater scheme of things the crudeness of a few tweets pales behind the enormity of the crime of Israel against the Palestinian people, a crime that ebbs and flows from the banal evil of the day-to-day occupation to the demonic evil of its periodic outbursts where Israel feels it has to “establish deterrence” by collectively pushing the Palestinian people into the mud. (I am sure that I have just offended many of my coreligionists. I have tenure, but I do not plan to tweet that remark, and I ask you you not to retweet it.)
And when a member of the group who has suffered, and continues to suffer, says something that is offensive to the group responsible for that suffering (or who supports the group responsible for that suffering), then by all means call out that person for his offensive remarks – but cut him some slack and get over it.
The only reason I have spent this much time on the subject is that every month there is a Finkelstein or Blumenthal or Abunimah or Salaita who says something that may strike some Jews as offensive. Instead of rushing to condemn these people, who speak for the victim, perhaps intemperately at times, it would be better to invite them to explain their harsh words.
That was what the President of the University of Illinois should have done at the outset with Prof. Salaita. Had he been a tenured member of the faculty he would not have been treated in this dismissive manner. At my university, when professors say something that is considered out of line, they are given a hearing in the appropriate forum.
That’s what she should still do now. And until she does, the university will suffer the consequences for her insensitivity.
As for my liberal Zionist friends who have been pummeling Prof. Salaita; may I suggest that they all take a deep breath and keep things in proportion. Reject the tweet, if you like, but try to cut some slack to the tweeter. And invite him to explain his position.