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The Uncritical and Intemperate Partisans of the Boycott-Israel Movement

In a case that has roiled the academic community, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has rescinded an offer to Stephen Salaita, who had, for reasons unknown, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech before his new appointment had been confirmed. Salaita, now out of a job, is a leading figure in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.

I do not want to weigh in here on the question of whether the Chancellor at UIUC did right to refuse to forward Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees. Salaita was reportedly undone by a series of comments he made on Twitter. In one, he says that “too much of Israeli society is cheering the bloodletting in [Gaza] for me to make a firm distinction between the government and the people.” In another, responding to the kidnapping of Israeli boys, he says, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” In another, he asks, “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” He also reposted this statement, in a context that left no doubt he endorsed it, on journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who has evidently been too critical of Hamas: “Jeffrey Goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.” William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection has done us the service of collecting these and other statements.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether refusing to hire Salaita on the basis of statements like these is a threat to academic freedom. The excellent Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is worried about it. Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors and an authority on academic freedom argues that the chancellor made the right call.

But speaking of authority, a number of pro-boycott professors, have signed on to a letter demanding that the UIUC hire Salaita. Their argument is that administrators have no business interfering with scholarly “experts”: “It seems that popular knowledge about the Israel Palestine conflict in the US public space has overwhelmed what is well known by academic experts. This cannot be allowed to happen in a serious university.” They go on to quote the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure to the effect that boards of trustees should stay out of matters “in which the conclusions expressed are the tested conclusions of trained scholars.”

That’s rich. First, Salaita, like a number of the letter’s signers, is a scholar of literature with no special claim to expertise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, the boycott movement in academia has been engaged primarily in getting scholarly organizations with no claim to expertise in the conflict, including the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, and (unsuccessfully) the Modern Language Association, to declare their opposition to Israel. The 1915 Declaration is based on a separation between expertise and political action that academics in the boycott movement emphatically do not endorse. The authors of that Declaration anticipated that those who politicized the academy could expect precisely the reaction the BDS movement is now complaining about: “if this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”

Salaita is, his public utterances suggest, an uncritical and intemperate partisan, and the letter I have referred to, which, among other things, declares it a matter of settled expert opinion that Israel is targeting Palestinian civilians, is itself an example of uncritical and intemperate partisanship masquerading as a deference to expertise.

Academics are right to be concerned about threats to academic freedom because academic freedom is, as the 1915 Declaration tells us, is an essential defender “not of a propaganda [institution], but of a non-partisan institution of learning.” But their concern should be directed at the professors who have for decades worked to efface the distinction between scholarship and politics and who have more recently worked to persuade scholars who know next to nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to use their scholarly credentials to advance their personal conceptions of justice.

It is a wonder that the backlash has not been more pronounced.



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