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Boycotting University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

08/29/2014 02:05 pm 14:05:57 | Updated Oct 29, 2014

The latest melee in the academic war zone focused on the Israel/Palestine conflict is taking place at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where Steven Salaita had a written offer for tenured employment in American Indian Studies revoked by Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

The call has now been issued to boycott the university. Since I was invited to give a keynote address at a conference at Illinois in October and also asked to discuss my work with the Program in Jewish Culture and Society while on campus, I want to articulate my reasons for refusing to speak there until Salaita's job offer is re-instated.

While the background and reasons behind Chancellor Wise's decision remain somewhat unclear, it appears that the proximate cause for effectively dismissing Salaita was that in a series of tweets written during Operation Protective Edge, Salaita's outrage was so vehement and hostile that a number of students, alumni, and others believed he crossed the line from criticism of Israel to anti-Semitic discourse.

When I read Salaita's most quoted line, it was like a slap in the face: "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza."

It was not because I support the Israeli government's justifications for their latest offensive into Gaza that I was initially stunned. As a scholar familiar with Judeophobic imagery, Salaita's one-liner veered dangerously close to the myth of blood-libel. For a thousand years, Jews have been accused of desiring the blood of non-Jewish children. If the depiction of Netanyahu as savage and barbaric was applied to President Obama (as it has been) the racism would be patent.

I understand Salaita's point was to shock his readers out of indifference, to wake them from the somnambulism that allows them to stand idly by as hundreds of children are effaced in the objectifying military lexicon of "collateral damage." But his choice of words was horrifically crude in some of his tweets.

So I will not speak at Illinois not out of solidarity with Salaita. At best, his tweets on Israel/Palestine are one-sided and lack nuance. At worst, they drag the entire discussion to the lowest level of public dialogue, which is too mired in polemics. Etymologically the word comes from polemikos and this is the language of war. It is about the construction of enemies and Salaita's enemy is Zionism depicted as a colonial ideology.

One thing scholars ought to model in fraught situations like the one in Israel/Palestine is how to address the situation in a way that does not devolve into narrow-name calling, reducing a complex situation to sound bites. This does not preclude the possibility that when we witness outrageous actions, we should respond in a language that is commensurate with our outrage, as Michael Rothberg, head of the department of English and director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at Illinois, has justifiably remarked.

One organization hosting a website calling for the boycott is the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. This links the two boycotts in ways that I do not support. I am ambivalent about calls for boycotting Israel, especially academic boycotts like those supported by the American Studies Association in the name of academic freedom.

The freedom of Palestinian academics and their students to attend colleges and universities without the harassment of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in the West Bank or what is better termed "non-democratic Israel" is the basis of the ASA boycott. The irony, of course, is that many of the most important dissident voices in Israel are academic critics of Israeli policies, which is part of the reason why the American Association of University Professors does not support an academic boycott of Israel.

I will not speak at Illinois until Salaita's job is re-instated for the reasons the AAUP originally banded together to defend academic freedom. Watchdog groups monitoring academic speech have become more pernicious in the last two decades. This has a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and inquiry upon which colleges and universities depend. When this is combined with threats to withdraw funding and the priorities of fundraisers influence administrators, another pillar in the corporatization of American education is set in place.

Chancellor Wise's recently issued defense of her position to faculty justifies her decision on the basis of what we might term a "civility test" on what is appropriate speech even on social media like Twitter. She maintains that if Palestinian or Jewish or any students feel so uncomfortable that their views or viewpoints may not be respected, this is grounds for using administrative levers to dismiss the professors that make these students or other faculty uncomfortable.

The grounds of the academic war zone that surrounds Israel/Palestine are booby-trapped and they are shifting. Chancellor Wise's position on the Salaita case make this clear. Her decision perhaps began with speech about Israel deemed by the Chancellor as hate speech.

Her new doctrine of civility ostensibly created to foster a climate where open dialogue, discourse, and debate must be respected has actually planted the latest land mine in this academic battlefield. The result will be opposite of what she intends. Now faculty and students will feel more anxious than ever that views or viewpoints that go beyond the policed confines of what administrators -- or worse, the lapdogs of the watchdog groups -- define as the norm, will be able to be expressed as part of an open conversation.

It is consequently on the basis of the principles of faculty governance, academic freedom, and freedom of speech that I will not speak at Illinois until Salaita's job offer is upheld.

This all could have been avoided if Chancellor Wise trusted faculty governance procedures. The faculty who hired Salaita were fully aware of his position on Israel and Zionism and fully equipped to determine if it would negatively impact his ability to teach his classes. There are international experts on the faculty who could have aided the administration in assessing Salaita's tweets. It is faculty as the leaders of the communities of inquiry in universities and colleges that are best equipped to judge in such cases.

Contrary to the muddled ways it is being used today as a political cudgel, academic freedom is about the right of academics to say what they will without the interference of groups outside the academy policing their positions. Faculty governance is about giving faculty the right to make all decisions within the academy pertaining to their domains of expertise, most significantly hiring decisions. And freedom of speech is our most basic right as Americans.

Campus watchdogs who monitor the academy claim they do so to uphold what is best in higher education. But Salaita's case shows once more that they threaten to turn campuses from refuges of critical inquiry into battlegrounds of political correctness and narrow norms.