Sunday, November 2, 2014

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!

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