A Civil Salaita

Today is the publication of Steven Salaita’s new book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books). Salaita’s book is smart, charming, funny, intense, civil, and sincere—and it’s a powerful argument for just how wrong the University of Illinois trustees were to fire him.

Salaita’s book may not persuade those who supported his firing and enclosed themselves behind a barrier of rationalizations. But it is a thoughtful book destroying the portrait of a mindless ideologue that so many of his critics have desperately painted.

As with any collection of essays written quickly during a time of turmoil and published soon after (it even includes an epilogue about Wise’s resignation and the release of her secret emails less than two months ago), Uncivil Rites is a book that lacks cohesiveness. Salaita’s story of how he learned he was fired, and the traumatic months that followed, shows up in the middle of the book. Salaita’s critiques of civility fill several of the essays. Salaita admits that the book emerged from his “sporadic doodles.” But this book is much more than the sum of the its parts; it’s an important argument for why we need advocacy and engagement and incivility, and why we need academic freedom to protect it.

Salaita describes the experience of being fired by the University of Illinois trustees who simply referred to him as “Item 14, page 23, number 4.” What Salaita regards as a de-humanization is really just an accident of bureaucracy, Because the trustees treated faculty appointments in a pro forma manner, they had no mechanism for considering cases or rejecting them. As a result, all they could do is identify Salaita from a long list of other faculty appointments that were approved on a purely routine basis. His firing wasn’t individualized because the trustees never evaluated faculty on an individual basis—until Salaita’s political opinions made him a target.

Salaita is less persuasive when he tries to defend the Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) movement. He argues that BDS targets institutions, not individuals, but claims, “only individuals who consciously participate in advocacy for the Israeli state would be affected.”(88) Of course, academic freedom is supposed to protect conscious participation in advocacy.

So, is Salaita guilty of hypocrisy? Maybe on a tiny scale, even though he’s never called for firing the defenders of Israel. The real hypocrites, of course, are those who defended Salaita’s firing or stood by silently, like the hundreds of college presidents (including Phyllis Wise) who denounced BDS as an attack on academic freedom, and then never speak out against real threats to academic freedom such as Salaita’s dismissal.

Salaita’s book makes a powerful rejection of the accusations of anti-Semitism and “blood libel.” He writes thoughtfully about his own complicated history as a Palestinian-American growing up in Appalachia, and defends both Twitter and cussing as valid tools of expression.

But the core of the book is about academic freedom, in the personal and the abstract. Salaita displays great depth in understanding the issues: “It’s not just finances that compel administrators to rely more heavily on untenured labor. It’s a mechanism of plutocratic control, ensuring a power balance that strongly favors the administration.”(59) Salaita even confesses, “I’m tepid about academic freedom as a right,”(91) which is not surprising considering that so far, that right hasn’t gotten him his job back.

The truly insurmountable argument in defense of Salaita comes from his discussion of teaching:

“In eleven years as a faculty member, I have fielded exactly zero complaints about my pedagogy. Every peer evaluation of my instruction—the gold standard for judging teaching effectiveness—has been stellar. Student evaluations ranked higher than the mean every time I collected them.”(44)

Here is how Salaita describes his treatment of students:

They like my teaching because I refuse to infantilize them; I treat them as thinking adults, instead. I have never disrespected a student under my charge. I have never told a student what to think. Nor have I ever shut down an opinion. I encourage students to argue with me. They take me up on the offer. I sometimes change my viewpoints in return. My philosophy is simple: teach them the modes and practices of critical thought and let them figure out things on their own.

It’s difficult to imagine how any of Salaita’s critics can denounce him for this statement. And so far none of the critics have presented even a sliver of evidence that Salaita’s discussion of his teaching is wrong.

We all know that the real reasons why Wise and the trustees fired Salaita were because they disliked his political opinions or they feared retaliation from donors. But those reasons are illegitimate to anyone who believes in any conception of academic freedom. Instead, the excuse given by Wise and the trustees for firing Salaita was based upon his teaching, and their belief that Salaita as a teacher would violate the unspoken rule that “any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner.”

When Salaita demolishes the only possible academic reason for dismissing him, on the grounds of his teaching ability, his critics are left with sad and desperate attempts at distraction. Cary Nelson and many others attempt (and fail) to attack Salaita’s research abilities because he can prove nothing bad about Salaita’s teaching.

Salaita was fired by administrators and trustees who knew nothing about his teaching because they simply assumed he could never be an adequate teacher. Uncivil Rites shows exactly the brilliance and thoughtfulness that makes Salaita an admired teacher, and it adds a personal story to the mountain of evidence that Salaita’s firing was unjustifiable.

Steven Salaita is on a book tour for Uncivil Rites, including stops in Chicago on Oct. 12 and in Urbana on Oct. 13.

28 thoughts on “A Civil Salaita

  1. John you continue to duck the issue here. The issue is not whether Salaita will be rude to Jewish students or not. If that were the extent of the threat, there wouldn’t be a real problem. Jewish students would just know he was a bigot and avoid his classes. Problem solved. Salaita has a track record of teaching, while Salaita may not-so-secretly hate the Jewish students in his classes by all accounts he does treat them professionally to their face.

    The question is not his personal rudeness but whether Salaita will via. political activities create a situation where American campuses are unwelcoming or outright dangerous to Jewish students. “Anti-Zionist” movements have a now 65 year track record of very successfully ethnically cleansing universities over a huge percentage of the planet of their Jewish student and Jewish faculty population. Salaita is a long time advocate for bring the anti-Jewish tactics that have worked so effectively in other countries to American campuses. And more than just advocating from the side for anti-Jewish movements to form, he has personally formed at least one and played a leading role in helping to grow others. Salaita already has a following among a non-trivial group of students on campuses throughout the country.

    So don’t focus on whether he is personally rude to Jews but rather would he have been able to convince a few hundred students or more on UIUC to start engaging in harassment and social ostracism towards campus Jews. Would he have been able to convince a likely even smaller group to go beyond petty harassment to truly effectual actions? In schools with substantial Salafist movements the issue is not just that some professors are rude to female students but the male students who demand restrictions which make it harder for them to get an education and then engage in attacks up to acid attacks female students and thus drive them off campus. We were talking about Modi 2 days ago so let’s use the technique he cultivated in his region of India to keep a minority he didn’t like down. How many times force feeding a Jewish student gasoline and then setting them on fire would it take before there were no Jews at UIUC? 2, 3, 5? Certainly not 10. Salaita, like Modi, wouldn’t be in the room when that happened, he wouldn’t have picked out the particular student nor would he directly have picked the particularly perpetrators for each incident. All he would have done is have spent the the majority of his time over the previous decade cultivating the infrastructure to make sure something like that happened.

    The UIUC Indian Studies Department could care less what happens to UIUC’s Jewish student population. The UIUC Board of Trustees however did care and took one step towards nipping the incipient anti-Jewish movement they have growing in their University in the bud. Maintaining a campus that can provide a safe and effective learning environment for all the students of Illinois is the Board’s job. That has nothing to do with donors other than perhaps donors made the Board aware of who Steven Salaita was. Steven Salaita has a lifetime track record which shows an ever increasing desire and effectiveness in undermining the Board’s goal in providing such an environment where all students, including Jewish students, can be educated.

    Salaita’s teaching ability in some abstract sense is not the question. He’s clearly quite able. His research is dreadful and that’s certainly a valid reason to reject him regardless of his politics. But his life’s work is not teaching and pretending it is just avoids the central issue in this case.

    • CD-Host, you are making assumptions about Trustee motivation that are completely unwarranted. There is no way you can know what they were thinking. Also, you clearly have not read many of Salaita’s tweets–or, if you have, you deliberately mis-characterize them. Also, it is not the job of the Trustees to police the campus.

      Why don’t you read Salaita’s book? If you do, and are able to open your mind just a little, you might learn something. You would certainly learn that his research is nowhere near as dreadful as you have led yourself to believe.

      • I have read Salaita’s books. They are bad propaganda and not remotely close to the level of precession and depth of understanding one would expect of an academic. What’s to learn from them? You tell me, what great contribution to human understand has Salaita made? What fact about Israel Palestine am I going to learn by sitting at the feet of this oh-so renowned scholar?

        If I were to hand you almost any academic book with good quality academic political or sociological research on virtually any topic there would be thousands of answers to that question. Academic books on political topics contain original research or at least analysis of obscure sources that aren’t part of mainstream understanding and thus build that understanding. So let’s hold Salaita to an academic standard. What do we learn from his books other than Jews are yucky?

        His books and reviews (he’s done a tremendous number of reviews) are filled with mistakes (lies) and show a dreadful ignorance of the topics as anyone whose evaluated them immediately recognizes. The reason John is trying to avoid Salaita’s actual research, is because he knows how dreadful it is. That’s why AAUP keep having to make such a blatant appeal to authority “he was evaluated by a faculty committee” rather than pointing out all the awards and contributions to knowledge he has actual made. Real tenured academics at UIUC have contributions to human understanding, Salaita doesn’t which is why unlike you they shy away from his research record.

        Salaita is a political activist not an academic. He writes propaganda not research. There is nothing to learn from him because he doesn’t know anything about his topics. Rashid Khalidi is an example of a pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS academic whose writings are filled with fascinating analysis. One might disagree but Khalidi has contributed to our understanding of Palestinian history. Or to pick a less well known example of a BDSer whose book is loaded with fascinating studies of previously obscured documents Shira Robinson. There are academics who take a pro-BDS position, Salaita just isn’t one.

        As for his tweets, I didn’t mention Salaita tweets in the above I talked about his career in its entirety. The Tweets were typical of his hatred of Jews that expresses itself verbally as a psychopathic rage: celebrations of a triple homicide and an expressed desire that this murder be carried out on a genocidal scale (650,000 people mostly children in particular), talking about Netanyahu drinking blood… Normal people who don’t share his distaste for Jews were horrified by his writings as they should be. Julius Streicher was executed for incitement to murder for writing things on par or potentially less anti-Semitic and unhinged than what Salaita wrote on twitter.

        As for the Board of Trustee’s motives I’ve repeatedly raised the issue we don’t know why the Board did what they did. We have no evidence. John however has asserted that not only does he know but what the board members will testify were their reasons, but he is so certain in that knowledge that there can be no doubt. You want to argue that we have no idea what motivated the Board then fine. But then you have an immediate problem with Salaita’s book. Salaita’s book is pretty clear about what motivated the Board: Jews in secrecy tempted the Board into evil using one of the 7 deadly sins (in this case love of money), what you would expect from Satan’s earthly minions.

        John’s taken the position he was fired (again I don’t think he was ever hired) for Tweeter, and that his tweets don’t actually mean what’s he is clearly saying.

        There is no doubt the faculty approved him and the Board overruled them. That’s a clear cut case for the AAUP to present in terms of faculty governance. But the specifics are troublesome. The AAUP is decided to censure UIUC because the board refused to move forward with hiring a Jew-baiter with a weak research record and a clear expressed desire to use his position at UIUC for incitement. The AAUP didn’t speak to the Board to find out why they did what they did before the censure. The AAUP didn’t examine Salaita’s record. The AAUP just assumed he was qualified for the position and that his academic record was not in doubt and this would be a simple case about twitter.

        I mentioned both these things at the time as did many others, that with Salaita it would not be about Twitter.

        • CD-Host, frankly, I don’t believe you when you say you’ve read Salaita’s books. I just finished his newest and also review it here, so I know a little of his work and can certainly say that your characterization of it stems either from an unwillingness to engage (that is, read seriously) his work or from ignorance of it.

          You accuse Salaita of lying, yet you don’t point to any examples from his books or reviews. You mis-characterize his tweets deliberately, showing that your own bias is greater than whatever his may be. You make sweeping statements (“he doesn’t know anything about his topics,” for example) but never back them up. You distort Wilson’s position on Salaita’s firing and make no argument for your own (that he was never hired).

          Your comments, CD-Host, make it impossible for me (and likely many others) to take you seriously–which is why, once again, I don’t even believe you have actually read the books.

    • “The reason John is trying to avoid Salaita’s actual research, is because he knows how dreadful it is.” No, the reason I’m avoiding it is because I haven’t read it all (what I have read seems good), and because it is completely irrelevant to his academic freedom case. Even Cary Nelson admits that Salaita’s research is not dreadful, but simply not quite adequate (in his biased, non-expert opinion) for a top university. But let me emphasize again: Salaita’s research is completely irrelevant.

      So far, no one has ever claimed that Wise or the trustees ever read a word of Salaita’s research or looked at his teaching record before they fired him. All of the evidence is that they looked exclusively at the tweets. And that’s what we must believe until the slightest bit of evidence suggests the alternative is possible, that during a brief executive session the trustees all secretly looked up Salaita’s research on their phones and did a speed reading of all his work without ever telling anyone.

      Let’s get to your key argument: “Salaita will via political activities create a situation where American campuses are unwelcoming or outright dangerous to Jewish students.” By this argument, all pro-Israel professors must be fired for being unwelcoming to Palestinians. All opponents of gay marriage must be fired for being unwelcoming to GLBT students. All supporters of gay marriage must be fired for being unwelcoming to fundamentalist students. All professors who believe in anything must be fired.

      I suppose that if you’re crazy enough to imagine that hiring Salaita will lead to Jews being burned alive on campus, any amount of repression can seem justifiable.

      • And that’s what we must believe until the slightest bit of evidence suggests the alternative is possible, that during a brief executive session the trustees all secretly looked up Salaita’s research on their phones and did a speed reading of all his work without ever telling anyone.

        Executives don’t come into meeting to read stuff. They aren’t academics. They come into meetings pre-briefed by subordinates about the agenda. The purpose of the meeting is to determine if their is a consensus and if there isn’t one to determine why there isn’t a consensus not to decide on the facts. In this case there was a consensus. What happened during the briefings is relevant not what happened during the non-discussion.

        By this argument, all pro-Israel professors must be fired for being unwelcoming to Palestinians.

        That’s a false analogy. A professor who founded anti-Arab hate groups and actively worked to ferment hate crimes against Arabs would be analogous. And a board might very well, and probably often would fire such a person. Lots of professors are pro-Palestinian. Being pro-Palestinian is not the issue with Salaita. The issue is that he is a political activist in hate groups, not that he merely is a bigot, nor that he merely supports some minority cause. Which is what I said in my comments.

  2. Pingback: Among School Children: A Review of Steven Salaita’s “Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom” | The Academe Blog

  3. “But it is a thoughtful book destroying the portrait of a mindless ideologue that so many of his critics have desperately painted.”

    I agree that he is not a mindless ideologue and it is dumb to talk as if he is. It is rather that he and his defenders are very intelligent people who are totally sure they are right. The problem with the academy in the humanities is that professors as a group decide what the truth is then teach their collective truth as the truth. Top people don’t do that. But they are the few.

    People who support Salaita view him as a truth teller. They are sure Israel is to blame and the Palestinians are wholly wronged and innocent of any reason to be treated as they are being treated. They have also managed to convince themselves that Palestinians are an indigenous people and Jews are not which is absurd.

    • Many people who support Salaita’s academic freedom disagree with his views. The problem is when people oppose academic freedom for Salaita because they think his ideas are wrong. That’s an unprincipled and indefensible stand. Of course, in the academy in every field (not just the humanities, but the sciences, business, etc.), flawed people have to stake out the boundaries of what qualifies as good work, and their own views of the truth can distort that judgment. But the alternative is to let politicians and their ignorant appointees determine what’s true and fire the professors who are unpopular. The system of faculty making judgments about faculty quality is deeply imperfect, but it’s far better than any of the alternatives.

      • “The problem is when people oppose academic freedom for Salaita because they think his ideas are wrong.”

        That is not the issue I am talking about. I think those who support him agree with him about what he and they view as the truth. So they don’t think their ideas are based on prejudice towards Jews and they are sure Jews are wrong to think that. But what is prejudice? People we view as prejudiced are sure that we are prejudiced against them and they are tellers of unpopular truths. Who gets to decide that? Would cries of rage and despair from other minority communities also be righteously ignored?

        What we are all wrestling with are who shall set themselves up as supreme arbiters of truth. Professors?

        Consider Robert George at Princeton. He is well accepted because he is not crusading to make his views the norm.

      • “The problem with the academy in the humanities is that professors as a group decide what the truth is then teach their collective truth as the truth. Top people don’t do that. But they are the few.”

        That is a general comment about how the humanities work. Professors do treat the consensus of academics as the truth. The obvious example is the imaginary Aryans who were invented by Germans in the 19th Century to justify European bad treatment of Hindus and other invasions.

    • @Dave

      I generally agree with you but not on this one. Salaita’s work contains too many errors he’s been corrected on. I think he is knowingly willfully lying to advance a political agenda. He’s not merely mistaken. Now he may believe in the righteousness of his cause and feel justified in generating dishonest propaganda to advance it. As for his followers they generally are remarkably dishonest people as well. Anti-Semites have been historically not terribly concerned with truth and the modern variety isn’t different. Jew hatred feels right to them so it must be right.

      The professors attracted to him as some martyr for academic freedom mostly are just ignorant about Salaita. They have such a high degree of autonomy that when the executives exercises their prerogatives to check managerial errors they freak out. Wise has done a terrible job explaining herself because she doesn’t want to make it clear what the paperwork says: that UIUC’s policy is that the Board can hire or not hire whomever they want, for whatever reasons they want and the role of faculty hiring committees is ultimately only advisory. That while there is a tradition of these committees mostly getting their way that is because the Board mostly hasn’t seen reason to override them regularly not because they have some right to spend Illinois money without the consent of the Illinois.

  4. @Aaron

    So I’ll take your comment for “no I can’t think of a single important fact or theory that originated with Salaita in his entire academic career. Rather than admit that though and address the issue of how poorly qualified he is, I’d rather distract with insults”.

    So unlike you I’ve actually read his books. So let’s take for example his definition of Zionism in a supposedly academic book Israel’s Dead Soul. Very first theory he offers. He hems and haws then comes up with this definition with 0 argument for it, “Zionism have the right to a nation state in historic Palestine that is majority Jewish”.

    1) Zionism as a political ideology predates the focus on Palestine. Many early Zionist preferred other locations including ones he discusses later in the book.

    2) There were Zionists long after who supported a Jewish homeland but not necessarily a Jewish state. One of the primary disagreements between the Zionist right and left was whether a Jewish homeland was an acceptable goal. Again many of the figures he cites later in the book were either ambiguous or mildly opposed to a Jewish state. The defining characteristic was the right of unlimited immigration not sovereignty.

    3) “majority Jewish”. This is simply false. He’s making it up. I don’t know of any Zionist who has ever used this definition. That’s not to say there isn’t strong support for majority Jewish among Zionists, but I don’t know of any Zionists who consider those indifferent to majority Jewish to be non-Zionists.

    And he’s an expert on Zionism. So was he lying or just incompetent?

    Or take the history of Palestine with his theory of continuous Palestinian occupation completely contrary to the historical and archeological record. Incompetent or lying?

    You can insult me all you want, and assert how you’ve read his books. But if you were telling the truth and didn’t notice these things that says a lot about your qualifications.

  5. @Aaron

    Before an meeting executives are briefed by their staff on those aspects of the agenda they are going to need to speak on. It creates a friendly forum for them to throw around ideas and get a better handle on what’s going on. Particularly since the official meeting has minutes. This is a “pre-meeting briefing” of “pre-briefing”.

    • That’s a briefing, CD-Host. The “pre-” is meaningless.

      Your description of this and executive meetings show that you have little experience with executives, by the way.

      I guess one of the problems of hiding behind a pseudonym is that no one can take you seriously, that everyone makes whatever assumptions they want about you. From your comments (I have nothing more), I can only assume you have never been part of a board, that you have never run an organization, that you have never taught a class, and that you have never been a writer nor an editor.

      • @Aaron —

        I get that you want to throw around cheap insults rather than engaging in a discussion of Salaita’s career. I asked a simple question of you to name one accomplishment of his and you couldn’t answer. Since then you’ve produced nothing of value in this conversation other than personal attacks against me. How am I relevant to Salaita one way or another? You can’t discuss the facts of the Salaita case because like a lot of the AAUP you don’t bother to do your research before signing your organization up to go on record backing this huckster’s claims. As we closer to going to trial and the Board members get deposed as to why they decided as they did the AAUP’s claims about a good professor getting fired for Twitter will be exposed for being inaccurate on every point. I’m not the one created the problem you find yourself in, and insulting me doesn’t fix it.

        I will give in to your distraction.

        The briefing is what happens in meeting when the board members receive a report at the meeting. The briefing is on the record the prebriefings are not that’s where board members discuss. We know as a point of fact that the Board didn’t receive an extensive briefing.

        Your analysis of me is equally ridiculous. I’ve been an executive or middle management for almost two decades. I guarantee you my budget today, and this is not the highpoint of my career nor close to it, is well more than yours has ever been. Boards not so much, I don’t have the right friends so I tend to server a level or two below the board. I have served on a board for an investment group in an advisory capacity and the board of a mid sized healthcare group as a voting member. As is obvious by my LinkedIn page and the press releases where I’m named in all over the web.

        As for the writing career, there you might be right about my terrible credentials though I’m not sure what that has to do with anything we have been talking about.
        I also have one book in my name, a few hundred people really loved it and that’s about it. So you are wrong about me not being a writer, though there the insults are warranted, a bad writer is fair. Both you and Salaita are more successful writers. I write good powerpoints not books.

        You however are a guy who took 15 years between getting a BA and PhD and in your mid 60’s still haven’t gotten promoted to full professor at a not particularly good school. For you to talk about comparative resumes is simply ridiculous. Your’s is terrible. Now that doesn’t mean you necessarily have nothing to say, people’s careers get sidetracked for all sorts of reasons from alcohol to messy divorces to having a disabled child to … I tend to be the same sort of judgmental asshole you are, I check whether people are right or not when they talk about issues even if there resume has problems. I’ve seen how people get their careers derailed and I’ve seen how people advance. There is an expression about living in glass houses while throwing stones that certainly applies in your case. You may want to think about it the next time you try and play the resume card.

        • CD-Host, I did not answer your question because it is irrelevant to the discussion in these comments. If you want my evaluation of Salaita’s writing and scholarship, read my review of his new book on this blog. There, I also talk about what I see as important in what he is doing.

          A board can be briefed on a subject; a briefing is a different sort of meeting.

          I am judging you only by your comments, for you do not choose to use your name. Tell who you are, and I can look more extensively. As it is, my evaluation remains based on what you present here and nothing more. And it stands.

          Just for your information relating to my “terrible” resume, I spent many of those 15 years outside of academia–and I did not go to grad school for an academic career. I began that in 2004 (16 years after earning my PhD, including two as a Peace Corps Volunteer working in agriculture in West Africa) after a decade of running my own business, one I closed in 2008 so that I could concentrate on my academic career. I am entering my 10th year as a tenured or tenure-track professor so am right on track, in terms of promotion. I became a full-time teacher because I enjoy teaching the student population of places like City Tech. I really do not look forward to ever teaching another student population.

      • Aaron,

        This forum is set up so that those of us who are not professors and members of AAUP have to use an ID from one of three sites. So it makes no sense for you to complain about that.

        Salaita is in my view well qualified to teach Palestinian studies.

        The idea that Palestinians are an indigenous people and no Jews in Israel are was created to attack Israel for existing. It makes no sense. The politicization of universities is demonstrated by the way experts on Palestinian studies can now teach in departments set up to teach about Indian tribes and other people who lived detached lives until some great empire found them. Great empires had already found what is now called Palestine when the Jewish people enter into history. There were people there from some of them. I studied the history of that time at school so this is not some Jewish centric idea.

        Salaita is well qualified to teach about the Palestinians. That does not make him an expert about Jews. Jews and our history is a different area of study.

        Being visibly Jewish is a problem at some universities. The Hillel director at UC Berkeley told some of us at a JCRC meeting that Jewish students tended to avoid wearing kippahs or stars of David to avoid hostile incidents and scorn. So there is justified concern about making hostile environments even more hostile. I do not see encouraging hostility towards any group as a part of free speech which must be protected. With the AAUP that appears to be a matter of which group hostility is directed towards.

  6. Pingback: Steven Salaita Returns to Illinois | The Academe Blog

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