By now, many COMMENTARY readers will have heard of Steven Salaita, about whom I wrote here. Salaita resigned from his position in Virginia Tech’s English Department to take a job at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, in its Department of American Indian Studies. But Salaita’s job offer was contingent on the approval of UIUC’s Board of Trustees, and last month, after being made aware of a series of incendiary anti-Israel statements Salaita had made on Twitter, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise declined to send Salaita’s appointment to the Board. The Board has stood behind Wise.
In my previous post, I gave a sample of the tweets in question, so I’ll mention just two here: in one, Salaita responds to the kidnapping of the three Israeli boys that ignited the most recent Gaza conflict: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” The second mocked young American men who died in the conflict fighting for Israel: “No wonder Israel prefers killing Palestinians from the sky. It turns out American college kids aren’t very good at ground combat?”
I don’t know whether the university administration should have stepped in so late in the game—Salaita was already scheduled to teach courses in the fall—to refuse to approve Salaita’s appointment. Sensible people are worried both about the implications for the academic freedom of conservatives and about the influence of donor money on academic appointments. But whatever the merits of the administration’s position, at least one line Salaita’s defenders are taking should be, as Liel Leibovitz has shown, viewed with great suspicion.
According to a petition, now signed by over 17,000, Salaita is a “brilliant, ethical, and prolific” professor, blacklisted for “his political views on Israel.” He is, says one of his academic defenders, a “world renowned scholar,” exercising his “ freedom to found new knowledge, which is often only possible by . . . continually retesting norms and assumptions, without fear of reprisals from entrenched interests.” According to this complaint, Salaita, chosen by a department using scholarly standards to judge his scholarly work, was ousted by non-scholarly Neanderthals who dislike his politics.
Is Salaita a “world renowned scholar?” Although he has published works with university presses, including Temple University Press and Syracuse University Press, his resume, which also includes work for deeply politicized presses like Zed Books and Pluto Press, is not the stuff of which international scholarly renown is made. But Leibovitz has done more than read Salaita’s resume; he has read Salaita’s book, Israel’s Dead Soul.
In it, he finds the same propagandistic streak that one finds in Salaita’s tweets. For example, in a chapter devoted to showing that the Anti-Defamation League should be regarded as a hate group, Salaita says, “it is worth noting that numerous cases of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2007 and 2008 were found to actually have been committed by Jews.” Salaita provides four examples of such vandalism and claims that one of the vandals was “trained by the Mossad.” In fact, the New York Times, which Salaita cites, says only that the evidently deranged suspect claimed to be trained by the Mossad. Never mind. Salaita implies, not at all subtly, not only that anti-Semitism is exaggerated but also that this exaggeration is the deliberate result of, well, a secretive Jewish—I mean Israeli!—plot.
I don’t want to rest my case on Leibovitz’s reading of Israeli Dead Souls. But it is disingenuous for Salaita’s defenders to make so much of the distinction between scholarship, which Salaita and the department that chose him supposedly practice, and politics, which Salaita’s detractors supposedly practice. Leibovitz wonders how it can be that Salaita, who has done little work on Native Americans, was hired by a Department of American Indian Studies in the first place. The answer is that American Indian Studies, or Native American Studies, emerged as part of the movement toward Ethnic Studies in the late 1960s.
This movement explicitly sought to break down the wall between scholarship and politics. This statement from the Critical Ethnic Studies Association sums up the view well: “Ethnic studies scholarship has laid the foundation for analyzing how racism, settler colonialism, immigration, imperialism, and slavery interact in the creation and maintenance of systems of domination, dispossession, criminalization, expropriation, exploitation, and violence that are predicated upon hierarchies of racialized, gendered, sexualized, economized, and nationalized social existence in the United States and beyond.”
From this point of view, whether you study the domination of Palestinians by Israelis, the domination of blacks by whites, or the domination of Native Americans by the descendants of Europeans is neither here nor there. What matters is that you are judged capable of making a contribution to the anti-colonialist program. Steven Salaita, who has been best known for his role in the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement, in which the chair of UIUC’s American Indian Studies department is also engaged, certainly filled that bill.
Yet Salaita’s defenders are shocked, simply shocked, that politics may play a role in academic appointments. I think that the specific character of those tweets, not Salaita’s political views, sunk Salaita. Many professors who favor a boycott of Israel have been hired, tenured, and promoted without incident, and anti-Israeli sentiment is far more visible at our colleges and universities than pro-Israel sentiment. But even if the trustees did decide to reject Salaita because they disagreed with his politics, how can Salaita’s crowd blame them? They merely would be taking seriously the idea that there is no distinction between politics and scholarship and concluding, properly, that scholars deserve no special deference.