Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, Steven Salaita, Haymarket Books, 2015
A little more than two years ago, on September 27, 2013, Steven Salaita got an enviable offer: a tenure-track professorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Interim Dean Brian H. Ross’ initial letter to Salaita was effusive: “Please let me express my sincere enthusiasm about your joining us … I feel your career will flourish here.” After a brief salary negotiation, Salaita signed a contract on October 9 and indicated that he would leave his job at Virginia Tech, move his family to the Midwest and begin teaching in UIUC’s American Indian studies program in fall 2014.
Then, on August 1, 2014, just weeks before Salaita and his family planned to head west, he received a terse missive from UIUC Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise and Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre: “We write to inform you that your appointment will not be recommended for submission to the Board of Trustees in September, and we believe that an affirmative vote approving your appointment is unlikely. We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”
Salaita unmasks the so-called civility and collegiality standards that are supposed to protect academic discourse, and calls them what they are – forms of control.
This, of course, is academese for “you’re fired.” Salaita had not taught a single class at UIUC when the message landed in his inbox, and he, his wife Diana and their young son were suddenly and without warning left in the lurch. Both Salaita and his spouse had left their previous jobs in anticipation of the move, had sold their Virginia home and had begun searching for a suitable residence and preschool in the Urbana-Champaign area. The letter from Wise and Pierre, he writes, was completely out of the blue, and when he and Diana stopped reeling, they began to dig for information about the reasons for the university’s abrupt turnaround.
They quickly discovered the culprit: a series of tweets Salaita had posted earlier that summer outlining his opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and more generally denouncing Israeli brutalities committed since the founding of Israel in 1948. One particular tweet, he learned, had aroused intense antipathy when circulated to UIUC faculty, donors and board members. He had posted it in June 2014, shortly after the disappearance of three Israeli teens: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not. I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” he wrote.
In retrospect, Salaita concedes that his words were ill-chosen.
“I didn’t mean kidnap or murder,” he writes in his newly released book, Uncivil Rites, an emotional – and angry – look not only at his dismissal but also at the ways in which criticism of Israel has been silenced or even disallowed in most academic settings.
In the pages of Uncivil Rites, Salaita explains his tweets further:
Had I desired either of these outcomes, I would have used the terms appropriate to that desire. At this point of my life, I’ve shared more than ten thousand tweets, published six books and many scholarly articles, and written dozens of essays. Nowhere in that body of work do I endorse abduction or murder. If folks want to weigh one tweet whose meaning is unclear against a career-spanning sample size, then it would help their case if they could find at least one more thing I’ve said that endorses or implies violent commitments. We also need to consider that the threat was interpreted in the worst possible light by people who had targeted me for recrimination long before I ever composed it.
Although people familiar with Salaita’s case will find little new in Uncivil Rites, his exegesis will be eye-opening for anyone who has either neglected to follow the ins and outs of his ongoing case or paid little attention to the pro-Israel bias of most teaching institutions in the United States and other Western countries.
Salaita is certainly not the first or only academic to face institutional wrath for opposing the occupation, criticizing Israel or supporting the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. In fact, he’s in good company, joining Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Rabbi Michael Lerner and others in being smeared for critiquing Israeli policy and the role Israel plays as a US ally in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, perhaps Salaita should have been used to his place in the crosshairs. After all, at the time of the tweet-storm, he had already spent more than a year on the receiving end of criticism over an article, posted on Salon, about the ubiquity of knee-jerk support for US troops. The article, which was published on August 25, 2013, a month before UIUC offered Salaita the job, noted that “‘support the troops’ is the most overused platitude in the United States, but still the most effective for anybody who seeks interpersonal or economic ingratiation.”
As you likely imagine, the article kicked up anger and resentment, but to Virginia Tech’s credit, Lawrence G. Hincker, associate vice president for university relations and himself a Vietnam veteran, issued a statement upholding Salaita’s right to speak his mind. “However much we may disagree with Associate Professor Salaita’s opinions, we also recognize one of the nation’s most cherished liberties ensconced in the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution and embedded in the principle of academic freedom. He has a right to his opinions, just as others have a right to disagree,” Hincker wrote.
Ah, yes, academic freedom. Salaita unmasks the so-called civility and collegiality standards that are supposed to protect academic discourse, allowing people to agree to disagree without rancor, and calls them what they are – forms of control. “Critical thinking is fundamentally incompatible with conformity, which is collegiality’s primary desire … Collegiality is the etiquette of submission,” he writes. “It is impossible to be collegial when challenging the common sense of corporate domination, no matter how politely you state the criticism.”
Truth be told, overt opposition to business as usual is routinely presented as proof of a faculty member’s unwillingness to be a team player, something I have seen play out time and again in my 25 years of on-and-off teaching in both public and private universities. But back to Salaita. As he sees it, “siding with Israel is ultimately about political ambition, conformity, establishment bona-fides, state power – in other words, maintaining the status quo. It’s about keeping power consolidated among the elites. It’s about not setting the terrible precedent of allowing the colonized a say in their own futures.”
Had true civility been desired, he continues, the academy would have challenged the racist and incendiary comments uttered by numerous respected luminaries. For example, when former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said, “Palestinians are beasts walking on legs,” there was silence. Similarly, there was no outcry when another Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, declared that there was no such thing as a Palestinian or when former Israeli President Shimon Peres stated that “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred.”
The thing is, Palestinians are real and the Armenian genocide is historical fact – realities Salaita refuses to ignore or deny. On one hand, he has certainly paid a high price for his outspoken activism. On the other, he appears to have come out on top. He is an in-demand public speaker and according to the cover of Uncivil Rites, he now holds the Edward W. Said chair of American studies at the American University of Beirut. The text does not tell readers how this came to pass, perhaps because Salaita’s firing by UIUC is still winding its way through the court system.
At this point it remains to be seen if Salaita will prevail – and win a financial settlement – or if the academy will extend free speech safeguards to protect criticism of Israel and Zionism. Either way, the case has important implications that extend far beyond the campus green.