Sunday, November 2, 2014

Jodi Byrd's response to Bruce Robbins

Targeting the Targeted

About a month ago, Lauren Goodlad contacted me to see if I might be willing to participate tonight as a respondent. She felt that I could, as a member of American Indian Studies, bring a valuable and compelling perspective to the conversation, that my participation might help contextualize the administration’s exhortations towards civility at that site where they encounter, embrace, and cajole savagery. A month ago, I said yes; a month ago I had volumes I still wanted to say into the world and to anyone who would listen about what was happening on this campus, in this community, and especially to my home unit of American Indian Studies in the aftermath of Chancellor Wise’s decision to undo the work I had done on behalf of my colleagues in AIS to hire Steven Salaita last year. Over the course of that month, many of us attended faculty senate meetings, raised our voices alongside students and staff, and offered teach-ins on the meaning of academic freedom in the face of the devaluation of certain lives lived and lost at the harsh borders of territory, race, class, gender, religion, and sexuality. Thirty days and we have heard from a cacophony of voices—some insightful and others not so much, some passionate and fiery, and others fearfully appealing for ways to bring some sense of normalcy back to what was supposed to be just another dreary workaday end to just another Indian summer. Each of those voices raised, regardless of their pitch and tenor, sought to weigh in on the upper administration and Board of Trustees’ decision to revoke Salaita’s tenure and summarily dismiss him from this campus before he even set foot on it. A month ago, it still felt like saying something might actually matter in this situation, that being heard, even if from the tiniest of tin-can-strung-telephone-communiqu├ęs, might cast a line of clarity through the noise and clamor and point a way out of the quagmire. A month ago, it seemed like we still had a chance to shore up the damage, to salvage the reputation of our campus, and to turn that cacophony into a polyphonic chorus demanding justice for a number of disenfranchised constituencies across this campus if not across this state, this nation, and this world.

Certainly the logics of speaking up and acting out have deep genealogies within the communities of those of us who, to borrow from Paula Gunn Allen, are like Indians and endure. Breaking silence, giving voice, signifying, making oneself heard, and raging against have been vital means to confront hatred, intolerance, abuse, condemnation, and despair delivered by the hands of power in the name of protection, safety, and care. “What are the words you do not have yet?,” Audre Lorde asks us to vocalize. “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” Your silence, she warns, will not protect you. If you don’t have anything nice to say, my mother told me, don’t say anything at all.

At last year’s DRIVE workshop (Diversity Realized at Illinois through Visioning Excellence), the Chancellor gathered faculty from across campus and asked us to reflect on why it has been so difficult to recruit and successfully retain faculty and staff from underrepresented minorities. American Indians are always the nadir in the metrics, and we collectively spent the morning contemplating what might be the possible reasons faculty from these groups might choose another campus if they have a choice to make at all. In the hallway during one of the breaks, and in conversation with an ally from one of the many diversity initiatives this campus sponsors, I was told that the University’s mascot history was a non-starter in such discussions and that the issues of diversity on this campus are older than Chief Illiniwek. As a Chickasaw, I wondered how that could be possible. This university, after all, is a land-grant institution made possible through the violently coerced dispossession of the Miami, Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomie, Chickasaw and Sac and Fox peoples who knew, cared for, and learned on these lands and in their own institutions long before settlers arrived.

Of course these issues go beyond a dancing headdress, but the fact that the Chief is now verboten, a conversation killer, an incivil reminder of a community abuse that no one wants to admit happened at all now that it has, for the most part anyway and aside from some halftime music and t-shirts, stopped, illustrates the deep divide between indigenous scholars and students on this campus and our colleagues. Steven Salaita’s hire was part of a capacious vision for our unit as we strove to emphasize the global implications of what that land grant obligation meant to us. His work on the circulation of indigeneity as a concept across Israel, Palestine, and the United States offered, we felt, a necessary intervention to the current prominence of settler colonial studies within the discipline of indigenous studies. In refusing false equivalencies, Salaita’s work challenged indigeneity’s applicability to Israel and Palestine at the same time that he asked us to consider the epistemic investments the colonizer and colonized both have in making claims to being indigenous to a contested space and to the histories of oppression that might entitle each to that space as reparation. Instead of easy answers, Salaita asked us to reflect on the scale and scope of the work we do in the spaces of the dispossessed.

Each of us are asked to make our own the tyrannies of sexual harassment, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and the daily aggressions large and small as a matter of course in the name of making this campus inclusive and in pursuit of those spaces and forums where we might, momentarily, be heard. And meanwhile, power speaks back to us through the same strategies of refusing to be silent. In the last thirty days, twitter has seen a rise in misogyny, racism, and hatred in the name of defending a small but threatened enclave of young, privileged and primarily white, men who feel that their culture and identity are under attack by feminists critiquing representations of women in videogames. Using death threats, doxxings, and a daily barrage of noise under the hashtags #gamergate and #notyourshield, these gamers have taken to twitter to raise their voices against what they feel is a tyranny they have been asked to swallow. The logics of #gamergate are the logics of our campus. In the name of ethics and civility, those with power accuse those drawing attention to structural violences and inequities of being bullies, of ruining something vital, of attacking something precious only power can fully appreciate and truly protect. In the contest of voices, the win has always been to make it seem as if both sides are equally matched in their opposition. There are, after all, two sides to every story.

In thirty days, I have gone from shaking with wanting to speak to now not knowing what would be useful to say—to validate, on the one hand, the reality that some on this campus fear Salaita’s voice and a raising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, and to remember on the other hand that his voice was speaking into a barrage of missiles aimed at a brutalized and entrapped people. In the fifty days between June 8 and August 26 this summer, the state of Israel was able to silence the voices of over 2200 Palestinians. If we are facing a neoliberal revolution in the form of a new red scare that uses the ethics of speaking as a means to silence, then we are also in a fraught clash over meaning, signification, and interpretation. The answer may not be found in the speaking, but in the spaces of not speaking, of inhalation, of pause. The last two nights have seen the annual peak activity for the Orionid meteor showers and for Southeastern American Indians—of which the Chickasaw are a part—the next thirty days are what’s left of this cycle’s time for the souls of the dead to prepare for their journey through the door to the afterlife. While everyone knows that this land once belonged to Indians who were, alas, somehow and regrettably removed a long, long time ago, I would invite you each to step out into the night air tonight and really think about what the silence of those who cannot speak means to us now. What words might we have yet to find through which to confront the ongoing implications of that loss on this land and in this community?

Bruce Levine's response to Bruce Robbins

Steven Salaita had his job here snatched away on the grounds that he engaged in anti-Semitism during the Israeli assault on Gaza.  Jewish students, we are told, have a right to be shielded from exposure to such words and such a person.
I doubt anyones much more Jewish than I am, culturally if not religiously.  And as it happens, I did grow up in a heavily anti-Semitic neighborhood.  Catcalls and fistfights were a staple of my early childhood.  I know what anti-Semitism looks and sounds like.  So I think I can say with some authority -- certainly more authority than our chancellor and board of trustees! -- that what Prof. Steven Salaita wrote in his famous tweets was not anti-Semitic.  They were, of course, fiercely anti-Israel.  But that stance does not offend me at all.   Being a Jew does not make me automatically one with Israel.  In fact, at the time of Prof. Salaita's tweets, I was saying and writing much the same thing, if to a much smaller audience.

   And just what did he say in those tweets?  That people who can support Israel in the midst of the slaughter it was perpetrating in Gaza are terrible people.  That he wished the so-called "settlers" would disappear from the West Bank. 

That is hate speech! -- so declares the University leadership --  It's anti-Semitic!  And there's no place for such words on our campus -- and no room for people who speak them, even if they speak them off campus!
   That specious claim is entirely based on a deliberate and dishonest conflation of Jews as people and the state of Israel and its policies -- pretending that criticism of that particular state and its government is ipso facto equivalent to denunciation of Jews for being Jews.

  But, our chancellor, UI president, and trustees all assure us, barring Steven Salaita from our faculty isn't censorship.  This isn't punishing political opinions.  It's just the language and the tone that Salaita used, you see, that makes him a pariah, that justifies overriding the decisions of a University department, a college dean, and the campus provost to hire him.

   Really?  Can you imagine someone being punished for expressing similar opinions about, say, Vladimir Putin?  Or Al Quaeda?  Or Hamas?  Or ISIL?  Or Cuba?  Indeed, can you imagine someone being punished this way for denouncing in similar terms nearly any country, government, or movement that is not in public favor in this country?
   No.  Because it’s obviously not strong language that the university's administrators and non-academic trustees object to.   It’s the fact that Prof. Salaita employed that language and tone against a target (a state and government) that they and their friends like.  Which means, in turn, that the abuse of Salaita's rights -- and the rights of the AIS dept., and the Liberal Arts & Sciences College, and -- whether they all acknowledge  it or not -- the faculty as a whole -- is precisely driven by a determination to silence and punish political opinions that they and their friends do not like.

   The Salaita case is part of a much larger, national campaign to repress criticism of Israel.  In 2007, De Paul University arbitrarily denied tenure to political science professor Norman Finkelstein, a Jew, because he had the gall to take on publicly the fiercely Zionist professor Alan Dershowitz.

Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern University was banned last spring, a ban that was rescinded only because of a powerful fightback on that campus and nationally.
   On a number of campuses of the University of California, Zionist groups and individuals have trumped up claims over the last 15 years or so of Jewish students being intimidated by Israel's critics on those campuses in an attempt to have selected organizations and faculty members silenced.  And in 2012 the California State Assembly did pass a resolution defining anti-Semitism to include “language or behavior [that] demonizes and delegitimizes Israel;” suggestions that “Israel is guilty of heinous crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and genocide;” describing Israel as a “racist” or “apartheid” state; and “student-and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns against Israel.

Most recently, the new "civility" code word has been invoked by Ohio University president Roderick McDavis; Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley; and Penn State University.

Why this hysteria and crackdown now?   Because Israel's brutal toward the Palestinians (and not only the Palestinians) is leaving it more isolated internationally than ever before.  Even in the United States, where Israel's political stock is probably higher than anywhere else, growing numbers of Jews, too, are pulling back from the position of Israel-right-or-wrong.
The trustees, the chancellor, Chancellor, and even the University Senate's leadership can’t understand why we keep harping on the Salaita case.  Can’t we just let it go?  Can't we "let the healing process begin"?

   No.  What they don’t understand is that this is the question of the day.  This is a make-it-or-break-it issue for the integrity of this university, for anyone who believes in the right of people to speak their minds without having their livelihood taken away, for the right of faculty to hire colleagues who do speak their minds, and for the ability of this university or any other university to serve as a testing ground for a broad range of opinions.  All of that is on the line in the Salaita case, and its outcome will deeply influence all of those values.  So we will not let go of this issue until the board of trustees  and the chancellor reverse themselves and re-hire Steven Salaita!

Samantha Brotman's response to Bruce Robbins

My personal experience was very similar to those of the other American Jews in the film: A childhood in a reform Jewish community and a passive acceptance of all things Israeli as part and parcel to my Jewish identity. This came, I should add, from my community institutions, not from my family. Nonetheless, the connection I thought I felt to Israel as a young person was powerful, albeit unexamined. In college, I was confronted with confusing contradictions, then participated in a Birthright trip during the 2006 Lebanon war that catapulted me into a serious examination of my long-held ideas about the Middle East. I began to face criticism from my Jewish colleagues and peers. But I had to keep in mind that this difficult experience of "political awakening," so to speak - while it was profound for me in many ways - was minor when compared to the kinds of difficulties that Palestinians must face as they struggle to negotiate their places in academic, professional and other realms. I want to be careful to avoid what Steve Biko, writing on the white liberals in Apartheid South Africa, called "claiming a monopoly on intelligence and moral judgment and setting the pattern and pace for the realization of [in this case, Palestinian] aspirations." So, I am aware that if there is ever to be a just solution in Palestine, it will be, first and foremost, the result of Palestinian efforts. Palestinian voices - not Jewish ones - really do need to be front and center. But this is one reason why this film and the stories in it are so critical: in order to help create more space with Palestinians for Palestinian voices, American Jews need to work diligently at dismantling this notion that any serious critique of Israel is a critique of Jews or Judaism. As a Jew, I am uniquely suited to this role, and it is a role I am still trying to figure out how best to fill. 

Bearing this in mind, I have approached with cautious determination questions about Zionism as a movement, about American political support for the state of Israel, and about my role as an American Jew in this discussion. My questions have led me, for the most part, to more questions. But one thing is very clear: This is not about Jews vs. Palestinians. Looking at it as such distracts from some very important realities.

One important question I have tried to understand is: what historical processes went into and continue to shape the current discourse on Zionism? I have tried to look at what was at stake in this effort to couple Judaism and Zionism and who stood to gain from such efforts. These questions led me throughout graduate school to research the history and current manifestations of Christian Zionism, a movement that actually pre-dates Theodor Herzl - widely considered to be the father of Jewish Zionism - by hundreds of years. The relationship of the American Christian Zionist movement to Jews and to Palestinians - both Muslim and Christian - can be an odd one, at once intertwined with broader political philosophies of the American right, American exceptionalism, notions of philanthropy, and, I would argue, racist and reductive views of Jews, Palestinians and "The Holy Land". Today, Christians United for Israel is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States and boasts of strong connections at the highest levels of American politics.

I introduce this topic here to illustrate my point that the discussion surrounding Israel and Palestine is not about Jews vs. Palestinians. Zionism is not even strictly a Jewish ideology. Yet, so many Jews see Israel's relative success over the past 70 years as a result of a Jewish moral righteousness. They see an Israeli David vs. the Goliath of the rest of the world. So many believe that Israel needs to exist first and foremost to ensure Jewish survival. All of these ideas serve to silence critical Jewish voices and all of these ideas share the same blind spot: they fail to recognize that so many others out there have something at stake in Israel's success that has little or nothing to do with protecting Jews from another Nazi Holocaust, nothing to do with ensuring human rights for Palestinians, and that these people are very powerful. 

So, as Jews, if we choose to throw our hat into the ring when it comes to the conversation on Palestinian rights, we need to be prepared to account for who else is out there claiming to speak in our names. We need to remain firm in our commitment to continually opening up space with and for Palestinians to speak on their own behalves. We can do this by chipping away at the tired Zionist tropes so often used to silence them. This film is an important step in that direction. I hope it serves as a catalyst to action for others who may identify with the experiences recounted within it. For me, watching the film was cathartic and has certainly inspired me to work harder to establish a Jewish community here in Champaign-Urbana where anti- and non-Zionist views are accepted and even championed.

I am very flattered to have been invited to speak alongside the others here. And I would like to extend a special thank you to Dr. Bruce Robbins for his work on this very important topic.