Thursday, September 11, 2014

Some Short Takes on the Salaita Affair

Since Corey Robin has done such a fine job of reporting and commenting on the Steven Salaita affair (Prof. Salaita’s job offer was revoked by the President of University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign after some pro-Israeli donors had complained about some of his tweets that offended them), I have only a few things to add.

1) First, I have yet to see a single person defend the President’s decision who is not pro-Israel.  One would expect that advocates of civility codes would be the first who feel that universities have a right to monitor the social media of professors to see if anything they say or write is deemed offensive to a particular group of students.  Mind you, I am not talking about what they say in the classroom, although I tend to be fairly conservative here in my commitment to freedom of expression.  I am talking about what they say and write outside the classroom.

2) Prof. Steven Plaut at Haifa University denies that there are Palestinians (he places the term in “quotes”) but considers them all to be terrorists!  Does that offend some Palestinian students? I suppose it does. But the offensive claptrap that Plaut writes  is his own damn business – unless it presents an imminent danger to individuals or groups. I realize that this is my American meshugas, that there are hate speech laws in European countries (and in Israel).  But what can you do, I’m an American and believe in those values. That is why I opposed banning Meir Kahane’s Kach party many years ago, and I still oppose banning it today. That is why I opposed banning the vile book Torat ha-Melekh or Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

3) I have no way of assessing Salaita’s quality as a scholar, but two universities have offered him tenured positions based on his teaching, service, and scholarship. So even his critics have to admit that he is admired and respected within his profession (or at least I haven’t heard anything to the contrary). 

4.  Finally, I would like to address the content of what one writer considers Salaita’s “most hateful tweets”, and, as an intellectual exercise, pose the following question to his detractors.

Had Salaita tweeted or blogged the following:

a. By conflating Jewishness and Israel, Israel is partly responsible when their disproportionate attacks on civilians are followed by regrettable anti-Semitic incidents in Europe.

b. If criticizing Israeli treatment of and attitudes towards  Palestinians is anti-Semitic, then insofar as that criticism is justified, and indeed, commendable, so is anti-Semitism.  But of course, criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; it is “anti-Semitism” only in the eyes of the Zionists, who conflate Judaism and Zionism.

c. The IDF spokesperson appears to justify violence committed against the Palestinian people, using techniques that are reminiscent of apologists for ethnic cleansing.

would his detractors still have argued that he is unfit to teach at the University of Illinois? No doubt many would. But I agree with much of those sentiments. So why do they go after Salaita and not go after me?

Either because Salaita’s language is more blunt and vulgar than mine, or because he is a Palestinian American, rather than an American Israeli. I have the creds that he lacks, and so I am protected in ways that he isn’t. 

I have the feeling that the latter explanation is more accurate. Being part of a powerful minority, with Jewish and Israeli creds,  has its advantages.

17 comments:

Michael W. said...

Salaita tweet: "You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing."

It's the former.

David Perry said...

This is very helpful, thanks. I incorporated it my post on language, power, and Israel this morning at http://www.thismess.net/2014/09/language-and-power-israel-and-salaita.html

flamestar said...

I doubt that any comment will get through but "Prof. Steven Plaut at Haifa University denies that there are Palestinians (he places the term in “quotes”) but considers them all to be terrorists!" You say he considers then all terrorists but provide no citation. You provide a link and it's true that Mr Plaut goes on about Palestinian terrorists but he wouldn't or shouldn't have used both words unless he rejects the idea that all Palestinians are terrorists. You may have a millions quotes where he says what say he said but not providing even one is a serious breach of ethics. 2. To hold the Israeli academics to the same standards as Americans makes no sense unless Israel say it has the same standards. In Bob Jones University all it's professors claim that Jesus is the only begotten son of God, Is it you claim that all Israeli professors must proclaim the same thing? 3, If you are going to compare academic standards why don't you look at schools in the Arab dictatorships?

michael braverman said...

I’ve been following the Salaita affair with some consternation, as it seems to me that my colleagues and friends on the Left are becoming increasingly self-deluded. It seems that questions regarding Israel lead many of us to abandon our intellectual habits and to plunge directly into incoherent moral rage. The results lead me to question whether those intellectual habits themselves do not in some fashion contribute to, or tacitly rely on, moral incoherence. That would be troubling indeed, since these are my own intellectual habits and moral commitments.

At any rate, since the Salaita case is both temporally and practically linked to Israel’s recent misbegotten misadventure in Gaza, one’s position on the invasion is likely to color one’s view of Salaita. It seems pretty obvious that the urgency with which scholars, especially leftist Jewish ones, have rushed to Salaita’s defense is less a function of their commitment to the fiction of academic freedom than of their wish to exemplify moral courage. The resulting arguments are often perplexing, to say the least. With this mind, here are a few sundry thoughts prompted by your post.

Chancellor Wise acted unwisely. About this there is no dispute, and it may ultimately cost her dearly. However, it is a naïve misprision to see her decision as an attack on academic freedom, for several reasons. First, much of the error is simply procedural. Had Wise simply indicated to the hiring program that Salaita is not an acceptable candidate, there would be no question of his academic freedom. This sort of thing happens routinely; just this past year our Dean vetoed a candidate selected by our search committee, without substantive explanation, and we had to move on to another. Put differently, when extracurricular activities raise doubts about candidates who are then rejected, no one complains about violations of academic freedom—even if, in many cases, that is technically what happens.

Second, then, the difference is not one of substance but of process. Does this vitiate the argument for academic freedom? Not at all; it simply means that the latter is selectively applied and is therefore not a genuine governing principle but a convenient rhetorical device.

Third, the principle itself ought to be applied correctly. Salaita’s job would be to teach about the ethical and political implications of ethnic history and identity. It seems his credibility on those issues is rather directly at stake in his public comments. They are not merely his personal political views but—at least arguably—overt expressions of ethnic antagonism. Just as a biology department would have to be troubled by a candidate tweeting doubts about the actuality of evolution, scholars in Salaita’s field ought to be troubled by what his tweets imply about his work. Raising such doubts is not an attack on academic freedom but an expression of legitimate—if belated—concern about professional competence.

Now, permit me a few observations on your four enumerated points.

michael braverman said...

I’ve been following the Salaita affair with some consternation, as it seems to me that my colleagues and friends on the Left are becoming increasingly self-deluded. It seems that questions regarding Israel lead many of us to abandon our intellectual habits and to plunge directly into incoherent moral rage. The results lead me to question whether those intellectual habits themselves do not in some fashion contribute to, or tacitly rely on, moral incoherence. That would be troubling indeed, since these are my own intellectual habits and moral commitments.

At any rate, since the Salaita case is both temporally and practically linked to Israel’s recent misbegotten misadventure in Gaza, one’s position on the invasion is likely to color one’s view of Salaita. It seems pretty obvious that the urgency with which scholars, especially leftist Jewish ones, have rushed to Salaita’s defense is less a function of their commitment to the fiction of academic freedom than of their wish to exemplify moral courage. The resulting arguments are often perplexing, to say the least. With this mind, here are a few sundry thoughts prompted by your post.

Chancellor Wise acted unwisely. About this there is no dispute, and it may ultimately cost her dearly. However, it is a naïve misprision to see her decision as an attack on academic freedom, for several reasons. First, much of the error is simply procedural. Had Wise simply indicated to the hiring program that Salaita is not an acceptable candidate, there would be no question of his academic freedom. This sort of thing happens routinely; just this past year our Dean vetoed a candidate selected by our search committee, without substantive explanation, and we had to move on to another. Put differently, when extracurricular activities raise doubts about candidates who are then rejected, no one complains about violations of academic freedom—even if, in many cases, that is technically what happens.

Second, then, the difference is not one of substance but of process. Does this vitiate the argument for academic freedom? Not at all; it simply means that the latter is selectively applied and is therefore not a genuine governing principle but a convenient rhetorical device.

Third, the principle itself ought to be applied correctly. Salaita’s job would be to teach about the ethical and political implications of ethnic history and identity. It seems his credibility on those issues is rather directly at stake in his public comments. They are not merely his personal political views but—at least arguably—overt expressions of ethnic antagonism. Just as a biology department would have to be troubled by a candidate tweeting doubts about the actuality of evolution, scholars in Salaita’s field ought to be troubled by what his tweets imply about his work. Raising such doubts is not an attack on academic freedom but an expression of legitimate—if belated—concern about professional competence.

Now, permit me a few observations on your four enumerated points.

michael braverman said...

First, I am puzzled by what you mean by the designation “pro-Israel.” I hope you don’t mean “people who support the existence of Israel,” as that would be profoundly disturbing. If you mean “those who support Israeli policies toward the Palestinians,” I wish you would make that clear. But even in this case you are mistaken. Cary Nelson defended Wise’s decision immediately, and while he may count as “pro-Israel,” he certainly does not support Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Nor was he alone in his view or his stance on Israel.

Second, the comparison to an Israeli professor is immaterial, since Salaita’s work is in the US.

Third, I happen to work in a field adjacent to Salaita’s, so I opted to peruse his published work. I found it merely competent by the relevant standards. It is certainly not distinguished by its intellectual contribution. His book, in particular, was published by a second-tier press, and, like his tweets, the style of its argument borders on that of a racist rant. Certainly had the subject matter been a different conflict, it would be roundly dismissed as just that. But since hyperbolic criticism of Israel is fashionable, it passes as simply “committed” political critique. To be sure, this is neither here nor there as far as the hiring process is concerned, but it does underscore the fact that mediocre scholarship underpinned by the “right” political impulse can yield disproportionate career benefits—up to and including the solidarity of the very people his work castigates.

Fourth, two key points are worth making. On the one hand, I wonder if you actually read all the tweets collected on the various Facebook pages devoted to Salaita. If you had, you would find that his views extend well beyond political objections and include rather explicit anti-Semitic remarks. Of course, you’ve already stipulated that this is no bar to his employment (and I disagree), but it is intellectually dishonest to select for discussion only his more politically defensible posts. On the other hand, I very much like your reformulation of those posts. Your argument is that these reformulations are substantively indistinguishable from Salaita’s own. What differs, in your view, is their style. But this is precisely the Chancellor’s point! Style matters; it has substance of its own; it is not merely supplementary of the propositional content. I happen to think that in this case, the content itself is problematic, and that your reformulation of it actually whitewashes its more troubling presuppositions. But if civility has any meaning, it is precisely that style is politically salient. Wise’s defense of civility is ham-fisted and untenable, but the answer to your question is: Of course not! Had Salaita made his case as you outline it, no one would object to his posting at Illinois.

Finally, the debate has been framed from the Left as a confrontation between David and Goliath, where the latter is the “pro-Israel” lobby. In this framing, Salaita is a voice in the wilderness crying out in defense of a marginalized minority. But criticism of Israel is not only widespread; within Salaita’s professional domain, it is de rigueur. His is the majority view. As a liberal Zionist, I find myself silenced by the norms of discourse prevalent among my colleagues, who regard any form of Zionism as sheer racism. The fact that liberal Zionists like myself defend the idea of a homeland for Jews in Palestine is summarily dismissed as, at best, delusional and, at worst, disingenuous and complicit with genocide. If I tweeted my views of Israel, my career would no doubt suffer, as many of my colleagues edit journals in which I seek publication, write letters of recommendation, review manuscripts, judge conference submissions, etc. Is this surreptitious form of intellectual discipline any less dangerous than the supposed attack on Salaita’s academic freedom? I think it is far more insidious and effective, and perpetrated by the very people now so publicly proclaiming solidarity with a view to which they a priori admit no defensible alternative.

Jerry Haber said...

flamestar:

"Around 25,000 Jews have been murdered by Arab fascists and terrorists in the various Arab Israel wars and by "Palestinian" terrorism. So why is the American Administration so abhorred by the ISIS atrocities while demanding that Israel make concessions to and negotiate with the "Palestinian" terrorists so they can have their own state?
Why is PS (Palestinian State) any less repulsive or more acceptable than IS (Islamic State) ??"

The clear implication here is that all Palestinians who every opposed Israel or want their own state are terrorists. He is not referring to Hamas, or even to Fatah. He talks of 25,000 Jews being murdered by Arab fascists

Jerry Haber said...

flamestar,
your allusion to "Arab dictatorships" suggest that you treat all Arabs the same, generalizing the way Plaut did about Palestinians. Or maybe you just want to change the subject. But the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la, have nothing to do with the case.

Jerry Haber said...

Michael, you make so many thoughtful points that I don’t know where to begin. Let me be brief.
First point: the issue is what weight a person’s expressions of political views on a blog or social media or books should have in that person’s employment. Had the President indicated to the hiring program that a candidate is not an acceptable person because, say, he is a Zionist, or gay, that would not technically be an infringement of academic freedom – but it would be improper for reasons that are more than just procedural or process. She claimed without any evidence that Salaita tweets raised serious doubts as to whether students could be comfortable in his class or whether there would be a climate of civility or something like that. I don’t need to tell you that this is a very dangerous area, and I have consistently opposed attempts to legislate civility codes or policing politically correct speech. Maybe leftists will reconsider my credentials as a result.
As for your third point, I think it is somewhat of a stretch. Surely we can both agree that if Salaita had a history of airing his views in his classroom – and he certainly would not be the only one – in a boorish and insulting manner, that this would have come up in the past and could be taken into consideration. Yet none of his critics can point to that, as far as I know, and everything boiled down to the tweets. You are entitled to your views on his scholarship, and I may even agree with you on that. There are tenured radicals out there. But that is not relevant in this particular case, is it?
Pro-Israel. No, I was not saying that to be pro-Israel you have to support everything the government does or did. There are pro-Israel people who harshly criticize the treatment of Salaita. All I was saying is that Salaita’s detractors seem to be pro-Israel, or, if you prefer, Zionist. Now you are right to say that people get involved in things for their own particular reasons, but I have yet to hear anybody defend the President’s decision who is not an active supporter of Israel. And his defenders are by and large critics of Israel. And those who are conflicted are left-leaning liberal Zionists! (Sorry for the generaliations!) But this particular critic of Israel would feel the same way were Steven Plaut be dismissed from his job because of some of the things he writes.

Jerry Haber said...

As for the tweets, I linked to a reader’s letter to the Guardian that criticized the paper for not publicizing his most offensive tweets, and those are the ones I picked to discuss! (I deferred to his authority!) Point me to others that are more offensive, by all means.
I understand the president’s point, but I wasn’t replying to the president; I was replying to the donors who would not be happy with even a more moderate expression of the same views. With respect to the president, I simply don’t agree with her argument or her position. Again, I am willing to give a certain weight when hiring to matters that are not entirely scholarship-related, like collegiality, for instance, though a only a certain weight. But I was as disturbed when Yale reneged on its offer to Juan Cole because his views and their tone as expressed on his blog did not find favor in the eyes of, yes, some of the liberal Zionist faculty at Yale. (But that’s another story.)
Salaita’s views are not that of the majority, certainly not the empowered majority on campus. The majority is liberal Zionist. The minority can make noise, but I am surprised at what you write –show me a university that has not hired a professor because of his liberal Zionistic views. Outspoken rightwing Zionists have difficulties, to be sure, but J Street, Peace Now, and others of its ilk are de rigeur.

Jerry Haber said...

I grant you that there is a bon ton in some departments that is very critical of Israel. I haven’t seen any of that at the administrative level. Can you point to one college president that isn’t supportive of a liberal Zionist position? Look at the reaction to the ASA decision, or to the divestment calls of a few years ago, much less academic boycott.
It may be that Salaita benefited at the departmental level because of his outspoken views and scholarship but lost out at the university level for the same reason.
But I would like to hear from you about the liberal Zionist Salaitas and Finkelsteins that the Palestinians have successfully gone after.
Best
Jerry

Michael Brenner said...

"First, I have yet to see a single person defend the President’s decision who is not pro-Israel"

Actually, Cary Nelson has stood up for pro-Palestinian faculty in the past. And most of the people leading the movement to support Salaita are almost members of the BDS movement, including Robin, Katherine Franke at Columbia, and Robert Warrior at UIUC. I think it's very hard to argue that Salaita's case is about academic freedom while arguing that the academic freedom of Israeli academics doesn't matter.

2. I can't stand Plaut, but he is a professor of economics, not a professor of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of the problem, at least for me, is that Salaita's most offensive tweets overlap with his subject area. I doubt the BoT would care if Salaita was hired by the Biology department. There's sort of a double problem. First, there's the obvious question of how a guy who tweets that supporters of Israel are "awful people" and that all Zionists are "trolls" regardless of whether they identify as Labor or Likud, can reasonably be fair to the majority of Jewish kids, since they are in some way supporters of Israel. The second problem is that Jewish students may just deprive themselves of taking Salaita's class because they know him as this guy who seems to hate them. I know of Jewish alums of Columbia from the 1970's who were told not to take Edward Said's class because they wouldn't receive a fair shake there.

I don't place a great deal of stock in student evals for two reasons. The first is that I used to be the student rep to the faculty committee on tenure at my college, and I gradually learned that student evals take a major back seat to scholarship. The second is that student evals sometimes are a function of how easy the class is, and also, professors who are ideological in class but highly entertaining, can get high evaluation because they make students feel like self-righteous challengers of the system.

3. I find a bit amazing the idea that the pro-Palestinian viewpoint is suppress on campus. It just does not comport with the reality. You have professors writing petitions on Salaita's behalf. You have many, many outspoken pro-Palestinian professors on campus, with tenure, particularly in Middle East Studies, where I think it's fair to say that not only are they well-represented, but they dominate.

Michael Brenner said...

"First, I have yet to see a single person defend the President’s decision who is not pro-Israel"

Actually, Cary Nelson has stood up for pro-Palestinian faculty in the past. And most of the people leading the movement to support Salaita are almost members of the BDS movement, including Robin, Katherine Franke at Columbia, and Robert Warrior at UIUC. I think it's very hard to argue that Salaita's case is about academic freedom while arguing that the academic freedom of Israeli academics doesn't matter.

2. I can't stand Plaut, but he is a professor of economics, not a professor of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of the problem, at least for me, is that Salaita's most offensive tweets overlap with his subject area. I doubt the BoT would care if Salaita was hired by the Biology department. There's sort of a double problem. First, there's the obvious question of how a guy who tweets that supporters of Israel are "awful people" and that all Zionists are "trolls" regardless of whether they identify as Labor or Likud, can reasonably be fair to the majority of Jewish kids, since they are in some way supporters of Israel. The second problem is that Jewish students may just deprive themselves of taking Salaita's class because they know him as this guy who seems to hate them. I know of Jewish alums of Columbia from the 1970's who were told not to take Edward Said's class because they wouldn't receive a fair shake there.

I don't place a great deal of stock in student evals for two reasons. The first is that I used to be the student rep to the faculty committee on tenure at my college, and I gradually learned that student evals take a major back seat to scholarship. The second is that student evals sometimes are a function of how easy the class is, and also, professors who are ideological in class but highly entertaining, can get high evaluation because they make students feel like self-righteous challengers of the system.

3. "First, I have yet to see a single person defend the President’s decision who is not pro-Israel"

Actually, Cary Nelson has stood up for pro-Palestinian faculty in the past. And most of the people leading the movement to support Salaita are almost members of the BDS movement, including Robin, Katherine Franke at Columbia, and Robert Warrior at UIUC. I think it's very hard to argue that Salaita's case is about academic freedom while arguing that the academic freedom of Israeli academics doesn't matter.

2. I can't stand Plaut, but he is a professor of economics, not a professor of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of the problem, at least for me, is that Salaita's most offensive tweets overlap with his subject area. I doubt the BoT would care if Salaita was hired by the Biology department, and conversely, I think it would be a problem if he were hired by Biology and then tweeted that all believers in evolution were evil. The guy tweeted that supporters of Israel are "awful people" and that all Zionists are "trolls" regardless of whether they identify as Labor or Likud.

3. I find somewhat amazing the claims that the pro-Palestinian perspective is underrepresented on campus. In Middle East Studies, it is the dominant perspective.

Donald said...

" I know of Jewish alums of Columbia from the 1970's who were told not to take Edward Said's class because they wouldn't receive a fair shake there."

This doesn't support an anti-Salaita case. If anything, it shows the irrationality of the anti-Palestinian side.

I don't happen to like Salaita's writings, from what I've seen. He wrote a piece for the Electronic Intifada comparing Norman Finkelstein to Dershowitz, which seemed ridiculous to me. But unless he's been shown to be rude to Zionist students in class, his situation is no different from that of a philosophy professor who openly mocks religion. It's hardly uncommon for professors to be outspoken in their contempt for views which are probably held by many of their students.

s. wallerstein said...

I was Edward Said's student in the year 1970, in a graduate seminar on Modern Literary Theory.

I'm Jewish. I don't recall discussing the Middle East with Said either in the classroom or outside. In no way did I feel that he was prejudiced against me nor I against him.

The seminar was an excellent introduction to mostly European literary theory and criticism.

Patrick Ryan said...

Thank you for the helpful post. Much of the discussion has been helpful to me as I try to make sense of this issue myself. I want to chime in one one point that Michael Brenner makes, and which I've heard elsewhere: that the pro-Palestinian perspective is not underrepresented, as is evidenced by the petitions, boycotts etc.

Anecdotally, I think that Brenner is right. On my own campus, those condemning Israel's treatment of Palestinian are far more visible than those supporting it. I am grateful to be at a university where both sides of the debate have voiced their position and concerns publicly.

However, there has been no uptake by the administration. I think we need to distinguish support by faculty and students, and what actually is done as a result of that support. Thus, the claim might be (and I am not endorsing this, since I don't have the relevant evidence yet), that Pro-Israel position (where that means pro-Israeli policy) is disproportionately represented at the administrative level, where decisions about the university's course actually get made. This has certainly been a huge part of the frustration at UIUC: the faculty feel that their concerns are not being considered, and this is evidenced by the fact that the issue has been framed around violations of shared-governance of universities. I think that Jerry Haber was making something like this point in noting that the proposed boycott of Israeli institutions was squashed at the administrative level, though it had some support amongst faculty and students.

So, to summarize my point is that we need to be careful to identify the right kind of evidence. In this case I think we need to look for evidence of a disconnect between faculty and students on the one hand and administration on the other. And, we then need to see which position does in fact hold more sway in terms of administrative decisions.

Thanks to those who have made very thoughtful contributions to this thread.

Ben said...

Cary Nelson actively campaigns against BDS. He's denied that Israel is an occupying power in Gaza, and that the Palestinians have any right to resist.

Whatever one thinks of any of these positions, they do put him rather squarely in the "actively pro-Israel" box, as anyone would ordinarily understand that term. The facts that in some ways he's a liberal Zionist rather than an extreme right-winger, and that he's even supported academic freedom for other critics of Israel in the past, don't make it any less true that he's very, very, very pro-Israel and that this is obviously the motivation for his otherwise inexplicably inconsistent failure to defend Prof. Salaita's academic freedom.