Humility is not generally a word associated with iconoclasts. Yet Professor Steven Salaita, speaking in the dimly-lit basement of an East Village bar last week, was nothing if not humble. He spoke little of his own career difficulties, of which most of the small audience was no doubt already familiar. His new gig – as the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut – got barely a mention. Instead, he used his short time on stage to express his unwavering solidarity with the activists fighting to end Israeli apartheid in the face of formidable barriers (both from pro-Israel groups and school administrators) – barriers that includes restrictions on speech and the attempted blacklist of anti-Zionists.
Salaita was dismissed last year from his post as a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois before he could even start teaching. The punishable crime was a series of tweets angrily denouncing Israel’s invasion of Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, written during the worst of the carnage. Though issues of freedom and power have been part of Salita’s teaching and writing for years, in the year and change since his unjust firing he has also become somewhat of a public figure and free speech advocate, visiting college campuses and talking to activists from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and other groups about their experience with similar forms of academic censorship.
Organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Palestine Legal, the discussion was planned to coincide with the recent release of a report co-written by the two organizations titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech.” A brief description of the report on the CCR website states that between January 2014 and June 2015, Palestine Legal “responded to nearly 300 incidents of suppression; 85% of those incidents targeted students and professors, on a total of more than 65 US college campuses.” In response, Palestine legal has provided legal advice, litigation support, and other services to advocates for Palestinian liberation while also tracking attempts to shut down activism on college campuses and elsewhere.
The gathering also functioned as an informal book party for Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, Salaita’s new book about the University of Illinois controversy. According to a blurb by Angela Davis, the book turns his ousting “into an opportunity to elevate the campaign for Palestine solidarity to a new level.” The aim, in other words, is not simply autobiography but rather a rallying cry to turn an unfortunate experience into one that can be publicized and learned from.
A short documentary-style video projected onto a pull-down screen served as an introduction to the night’s themes. The video featured several talking heads, including several young Palestinian activists and Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin (one of Salaita’s most tireless online defenders). Robin talked about the paranoia permeating SJP events, at which the imagined threat of terrorism led to excessive security measures.
Next up was Omar Shakir, a Fellow at CCR, who enumerated the methods by which Israel advocacy groups convince institutions to punish those who fight for Palestinian rights. These methods include cancellations of academic events, administrative sanctions, lawsuits, criminal investigations, and, of course, firings. Shakir stressed that though the report is “based on hundreds of interviews” conducted by Palestine Legal and CCR, it refers to “only those instances that were reported by Palestine Legal. It’s not an exhaustive list – plenty of incidents go unreported.” Introducing the main speaker, Shakir declared, “There is no better person to speak about these issues than Steven Salaita.”
When Salaita finally spoke, he sounded every bit the university professor, eloquently expounding on everything from the corporatization of the modern college campus to the institutional racism facing SJP members around the country. Summing up the risks of speaking out against injustice, he said, “It’s not just Israel and Palestine that get people in trouble – it’s challenging power. It’s a matter of coercion, a matter of elite remonstration and the need for capital to generate docile consumers.” Bemoaning the disingenuous emphasis on “balance,” he commented, “The very idea of a voice raised in support of Palestine must be seen through the nonsensical trope of balance with a Zionist voice.” He proceeded to communicate his heartfelt support for SJP, saying:
We see what you’re doing and we see the blood sweat and tears. We know it’s not always acknowledged but your work is crucial. You are an example to set for the rest of us, pointing to a way that does not involve inhabiting the world that they want us to inhabit.
His admiration for the student group – smeared as one of the “Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups in America” by the Anti-Defamation League – was more than evident.
Salaita was dismayed by what he described as the “chill” he felt on campus when it came to free speech. What’s clear is that the censorship that exists on campus is not government censorship, strictly speaking. It is unlikely that the U.S. would ever produce something like Israel’s “Nakba law,” which forbids teaching about the hundreds of thousands of refugees created by Israel’s ethnic cleansing in 1948. No, hegemony in the U.S. is more insidious than that. The predominant view of the ruling class in this country – that Israel must be defended in word and deed regardless of how horribly it may treat Palestinians – trickles down to college campuses in the form of baseless legal actions, disciplinary measures, and endless accusation of terrorism, anti-Semitism, and Jewish self-hatred. This is particularly true on campuses where the BDS movement and SJP activists have gained a strong foothold.
Luckily, the atmosphere at the talk was not all doom-and-gloom. BDS and the growing awareness of Israeli occupation and discrimination have provided not just a target for Zionist attacks but a base from which to grow a grassroots movement with the possibility to dismantle Israel’s structure of oppression – a structure whose influence can be felt from Tel Aviv to Berkeley. Palestine activism may face more obstacles than ever, but there is also a palpable feeling of possibility in the air – the possibility that those struggling for Palestinian liberation will not simply be heard, but will win.