Steven Salaita, Public Critique, and Academic Freedom

ivory tower

The following paragraphs represent a composite correspondence taken from two FB exchanges with two different colleagues who are behind Steven Salaita in the collision at UIUC. The discussion touches upon two or three things regarding the poisoned politics of Israel and Palestine in relation to real and ongoing threats to academic freedom and faculty governance posed by university administrations and financial donors. The Israel and Palestine dimension of this composite considers “demands” by anti-Zionist activists to require American Jews to account in a public and transparent way the nature or character of their support for Israel, the question about what might be “demanded” of Arab Americans vis-à-vis the same re: Palestine and radical Islam, and the principle of academic freedom that has surfaced with the recent case concerning Salaita. (I am maintaining some of the second person address for stylistic effect.)

Here’s what I wanted to say: Yes, this gets tricky and the analogies don’t line up well, especially re: ISIS. But neither do the Israel=Apartheid=Nazism analogies, which are rhetorically equivalent to what the government in Israel wants us to think re: Hamas=ISIS. Yes I agree one has the right to ask or demand a public accounting from American Jews for supporting Israel, but the question is on what terms are we going to have the discussion and debate. This has nothing to do with Steven Salaita, except insofar as he is emblematic as to how the discussion about Israel and Palestine gets reduced to its lowest denominator. How do you defend yourself against unfalsifiable claims such as “you support genocide if you support Israel in any of its manifestations.” By “Israel” and “Zionism,” clearly anti-Zionists and liberal Zionists are talking about non-identical animals.

About Israel, I remain liberal center left, a position that earns more contempt in certain circles than does rightwing Zionism. But these are circles that have as little to contribute to any serious practical outcome as do the rightwing Zionists themselves. I am committed to a democratic Jewish majority country alongside an independent Palestinian state, as well as the right of Israel to defend itself. Liberal Zionism might be dead, but the alternatives are worse and unlikely to materialize short of the catastrophe that the worst critics of Israel would wish upon it and which the worst supporters of Israel only encourage. I want Jews to repudiate the 1967 occupation, and the deep seated anti-Arab racism in Israeli life and at the underside of Zionist discourse and practice from its inception. But I also want Muslims to repudiate the many things that many seem to support or tolerate or simply overlook, including Hamas, armed conflict and terrorism, and calls to eliminate Israel and Zionism, as well as the abusive anti-Semitism such positions seem to fuel. (About this you can read more in this article by Asif Zaidi that was republished at +972)

About Salaita in particular, I wonder what effect he and the example he has been made of have on “the real world” outside the university and social media. I’ve been persuaded by you and others that the hire should have gone through for institutional purposes relating to faculty governance. I am, for all that, unsurprised and unsympathetic only because I believe as well that the political judgment and moral abusiveness represented by Salaita and many like him in anti-Zionist circles have done so much to poison the discussion of Israel and Palestine on campus and online on social media.

Regarding the principle of academic freedom, much besieged in the world today, I understand completely the point about the need to dig in on this fight, that we can’t wait for the perfect poster child around which to organize that struggle.  What i can say from my own narrow perspective is that this one’s a fight I can’t join, as much as I would like to see it adjudicated fairly in court. I have to think that I am not the only faculty colleague out there who is not going to fall on his sword in solidarity with Salaita. I think it’s important to choose fights wisely, and I tend to avoid fights that I don’t think I can win. Resistance for the sake of resistance is self-defeating when you bang up again and again against a political wall.

The Salaita case is interesting, because his case can probably be won on the legal merits. At the same time I also think it would be hard to rally around him the kind of political solidarity and moral sympathy required to win the broader fight for the university in the public sphere. In part, this may be one more reason why I think BDS is such a potentially destructive and perhaps increasingly destructive force on campus these days. Last year BDS jumped the shark at Vassar. I worry that this year will be worse. There are no winners here when this happens, not the cause of Palestine, not the cause of Israel, and not the principle of academic freedom. We’re all losing together.





About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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