Speaking of Palestine and academic freedom

Middle East
on 18 Comments

In the past few years, I’ve become something of a counselor.  I have no formal credentials and a bad track record at the very thing I’m supposed to help others avoid.  How can I be critical of Israel, friends and strangers ask, without losing my job or getting into trouble?  I’m flattered to be approached in this way, I am.  But I can’t help but think:  me?  You’re asking me how to manage a career in academe while being critical of Israel?  I’ve lost two jobs in the past three years because of my sharp criticism of Israel and I’m a month away from being unemployed again.  I mean, I’ll try, but if you want to ask me about how to get into trouble in academe, I’m on better footing.

I recall one such inquiry from a colleague last month.  It was a routine, even banal, question, nothing that would normally require a halting answer.  And yet, as is often the case with ordinary things, the question was filled with a world of complexity.

My colleague wanted to know if she should join a delegation of scholars to Palestine.  A well-respected organization offers a development seminar on Palestine for US professors, including a short visit to the country.  It’s a nice opportunity:  participants get a trip to the Mediterranean, where they will be treated to visual beauty, warm hospitality, and wonderful cuisine.  They will have an opportunity to interact with sharp intellectuals and activists and to visit the holy sites so grandiose in humanity’s imagination.

This kind of trip is common for scholars, who visit places around the world with sponsorship from research groups or universities.  There is only one instance where the question “should I go?” needs to be raised:  in relation to Palestine.  My friend wasn’t concerned about safety or other fantastical perils, but about the possibility of being condemned by Zionist groups and damaging her chances at tenure.  She was right to be worried.

We had a long conversation weighing the benefits of the trip against its potential pratfalls.  It’s a fun adventure.  You’ll come back with plenty to write about.  This is important to your research.  The networking possibilities are attractive.  But.  A number of organizations torment anyone who goes to Palestine unless it’s to serve in the IDF.  Incorporating Palestine into a program of radical scholarship has potential to tip the balance from “I’m wary of her” to “she’s gotta go.”  Universities are filled with individual faculty who relish punishing colleagues who don’t express adequate fealty to Israel.  They certainly exist on your campus.

I had no easy answer.  Palestine has a way of reaffirming a person’s most empathetic sensibilities, so I was confident my friend would come back invigorated.  But I wasn’t certain she would remain unscathed.

“Just go,” I finally declared.  Then I felt guilty for the next two days.

It was an exemplary moment of existential silliness.  After all, why is it even a question if somebody should go to Palestine?  It’s a terrific place to visit.  Overzealous Israeli authorities are the only real threat to visitors.  Travel, however, isn’t neutral.  It’s always a political choice even when it has hedonistic ambitions.  The question, then, isn’t rhetorical.  Understanding why going to Palestine is inadvisable allows us to discard the silly notion that we’re free to do as we please because of pluck or protocol.

The episode illuminates the special status to which Palestine is subject in US academe.  Professors will be lauded and rewarded for visiting certain places, but Palestine isn’t one of those places.  It doesn’t offer the sort of war porn that titillates the political imagination.  How countries and regions come to be understood as worthy of adulation or sympathy depends on a constellation of policy conventions, institutional cultures, power dynamics, narrative orthodoxies, and economic interests, all of them variously in concert and at odds with one another.  That the possibility of visiting Palestine evokes consternation suggests we have a case where those phenomena are largely aligned.

It also illuminates the depth of pressure certain students and faculty experience on campus.  Two years ago, a joint report by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights found nearly 300 cases in which speech or activism around Palestine was suppressed.  Those cases included disciplinary action for campus activists, the suspension of student groups, employment termination, and the cancellation of course sections.

This suppression goes beyond campus, too, though its tentacles manage to slither into our well-manicured spaces.  Numerous states have introduced legislation criminalizing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS], a highly effective, nonviolent strategy for opposing the Israeli occupation.  Whatever one makes of BDS, it is indubitably a form of protected speech, as affirmed by dozens of court rulings.  That so many politicians and legislative bodies are willing to make it illegal shouldn’t be understood simply as constitutional negligence, but as evidence of a political culture that values power over mobilization.  Countries such as France and the UK, not to mention Israel itself, have pushed to criminalize BDS.  Suppressing Palestine is a transnational industry.

We need academic freedom to criticize Israel, but it takes more than academic freedom to contest the sites of power invested in protecting Israel from criticism.  Most commentators, however, are too scared to name Zionism as a problem.  People spend considerable time these days arguing about speech and disruption on campus, yet Palestine is shockingly absent from the conversation.  Exploring the repression of ideas at universities while ignoring Palestine is like discussing LeBron James without mentioning basketball.

Palestine isn’t the totality, or the crux, of today’s debates about speech and resistance on campus.  There’s too much repression preceding Palestine, and now in existence alongside it, for that to be true.  But Palestine deeply informs the substance of those debates, and by recovering this sunken reality we can better understand the disputes around free speech and academic freedom that generate so much attention.

*****

It is impossible to speak, or be heard, with a set of impartial senses.  Free speech, in both philosophy and practice, is attached to structures of power (seen and unseen, discernible and oblique, steady and unstable).  Despite the state’s professions of fairness and benevolence, free speech is never fixed or disinterested.  It is prosecuted according to circumstance.  It is reified based on the needs of the audience.  And it is conditioned by race, gender, nationality, class, religion, ideology, culture, sexuality, and so forth.

Take UC-Berkeley, a longtime testing ground for these matters.  Its administrators proclaimed that nothing short of a near-riot would compel them to cancel a recent lecture by right wing provocateur Milo Yianopoulis.  Yet last semester the same university shut down a legitimate course about Israeli settler colonization offered by a Palestinian instructor.  In the end, Milo’s lecture was disrupted and the course was allowed to proceed.  It wasn’t the infallibility of a concept that changed the outcome of each situation, but an organized shift in relationships of power.

Free speech, in short, is a limited commodity pretending to be a universal ideal.

We can’t understand the importance of free speech in civic or academic settings unless we also engage the politics that precede its invocation.  Rallying around free speech is easy, which is why arguing about it never solves any problems.  Nobody opposes free speech as an ideal.  The term is often a slogan or shaming device that can be summoned in order to safeguard a viewpoint or ideology without having to confront its ethical anatomies and material consequences.  Free speech isn’t the actual site of contestation in our cantankerous debates.  What we talk about matters more.

Here we can pivot back to academic freedom because its function on campus mirrors free speech in US society more broadly.  The preservation of academic freedom as an end in itself isn’t the best allocation of intellectual energy.  We still have to discuss, and, ideally, resolve, the issues that generate controversy because they supersede academic freedom.  Given the serious problems now facing academe—corporatization, receding faculty governance, donor influence, decreased public funding, administrative bloat, systemic racism, obscene student debt, sexual violence—our campuses won’t survive current trends if we refuse to analyze the structural conditions that often get reduced to frames of ahistorical disagreement.

Suppose we desire any of the following:  to liberate Black people, decolonize North America, destroy a neo-Nazi resurgence, get some economic justice, free Palestine.  If we treat those desires merely as rights to be practiced in controlled environments, then academic freedom becomes a pretext to normalize conventional politics.  It has potential to supplement transformative writing and organizing, but that potential must be created.  Academic freedom isn’t inherently radical.

*****

For Palestinians, any type of freedom, including the academic variety, is acutely unavailable.  Living under military occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and as second-class citizens inside Israel, their lives are controlled by an unequal legal system that proffers rights according to religion (as defined by the state).  Palestinians suffer extrajudicial assassination, limited movement, arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, home demolition, restricted speech rights, harassment and torture, land expropriation, and forced exile.

There are currently 6300 Palestinian political prisoners.  700 of them just began a hunger strike, in fact.  300 of them are children.  The unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip is nearly fifty percent, the highest in the world.  Real per capita income is $970.  Eighty percent of the population receives some sort of social assistance.  Almost forty percent live below the poverty line.

Gaza has been under a land, air, and sea blockade for ten years, which has reduced its GDP by half:  Israel, in cooperation with Egypt, determines what comes in and what goes out.  Israeli politicians speak of “putting Gaza on a diet,” that is, allocating a certain amount of foodstuff for the territory based on minimal caloric requirements.  At other times, those politicians speak of “mowing the lawn” in Gaza, which means exactly what it sounds like.  The cancer rate is unusually high.  Life expectancy is dismal.  Fishing boats, one of the lifelines of the economy, are sometimes destroyed, or their occupants are shot at.  Citizens deal with extended power cuts.  Schools and hospitals are undersupplied.  According to both local and international doctors, the psychological damage from the blockade and Israel’s periodic war crimes has been extraordinary.  The children of the territory suffer abnormal levels of trauma and anxiety.  There is no developed medical apparatus to mitigate these problems.

Narrowing the focus to academe, Palestinian students and professors experience forms of institutional repression that on US campuses are virtually unimaginable.  For decades, universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been bombed, invaded, looted, and closed for extended periods.  Students, staff, and professors often can’t make it to campus because of checkpoints and unexpected curfews.  Their political activity is closely monitored.  Professors sometimes meet class in their living rooms.  It is difficult to get permission to travel abroad for conferences and research symposia.  And when students graduate, they enter into an economy devoid of skilled jobs.  (In this, at least, the comparison to US academe is striking.)  Compounding this problem, Palestinian citizens of Israel face significant discrimination in the labor market.

I studied at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, in the summer of 2000.  My best friend there was from Gaza, but didn’t have permission to study in the West Bank.  Both territories, mind you, are said to comprise the same country.  As an “illegal” student, he couldn’t travel to Ramallah, just down the road.  The Israelis sometimes erected a mobile checkpoint between the two towns.  In turn, he was stuck in the hamlet of Birzeit.  Getting home to Gaza, fewer than a hundred miles away as the crow flies, would have required illegally crossing three borders, as he did to get to Birzeit in the first place.  Many of the students from Gaza faced the same hardships.  Plenty of students from the West Bank couldn’t travel abroad, or even to nearby Jerusalem.  Those with Western passports were free to explore.  The foreigner had greater rights than the native, a condition to which Palestinians were accustomed.  Strangers, after all, have transformed their lives into a simulation of existence, where one merely bides time, with no place to go, while impatiently narrating the dream of actually existing.

These brutal realities inhabit campus speech and they are blithely minimized when scholars make Palestine contingent on Western sensibilities.  In short, we shouldn’t compromise the seriousness, or the severity, of our investment in certain political sites, both geographical and imaginative, in order to accommodate the strictures of academic freedom as a self-contained phenomenon.  Doing so actually limits the effectiveness of academic freedom by providing it a kind of philosophical autonomy that restricts its immersion into material politics.  Academic freedom is only meaningful in relation to the sites of contestation that necessitate its presence.

When we think about the difficulties that Palestinians face in academe, then, it’s crucial to orient critique around the hostile conditions of repression rather than merely safeguarding ourselves against hostility.

*****

My maternal grandmother died last year.  She was my connection to Palestine, having lived through the nakba, the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, and the messy histories that followed.  Her family’s home in Palestine was forever lost to Israeli settlers and she wouldn’t return to the country for four more decades, this time on a tourist visa.

She could be a difficult woman:  stubborn and blunt and imperious.  She wasn’t one for shows of affection, but from my childhood I remember very well the protective and efficient quality of her supervision.  Neither I nor my cousins dared to disobey her, but we relished the fact that in her care nobody would dare to cause us harm.  When I was in high school, she regularly visited us in rural Appalachia, a place ill-suited to her cosmopolitan predilections.  We never spoke much, though she was delighted when I became competent enough in Arabic to hold a conversation.  She adamantly disapproved of my fledgling attempts at facial hair and nagged my mother to buy me proper clothes.

Like all memories of this variety, they’ve evolved from moments of annoyance to subjects of affection.  The original sentiment of one memory, however, has only intensified with time.  I had driven my mom and grandmother to the grocery store.  My grandmother unexpectedly opted to wait with me in the car.  “My daughter talks too much,” she explained after my mom had left, a tacit condemnation of small-town culture.  My fingers tapping the steering wheel provided the soundtrack for our tense silence.  Then, out of nowhere, she began talking about Palestine.  About 1948.  About her village.  About her displacement.  About the pain that had never gone away.  “These things, I never forget,” she concluded matter-of-factly.  “No.  I never forget.”

I was a kid in that moment, sixteen and preoccupied with teenage drama, but I understood exactly what she was telling me:  that I could never forget, either.  Academic freedom doesn’t preserve this memory.  But it damn sure gives me the right to remember.

About Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita's most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.

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18 Responses

  1. Scott
    April 24, 2017, 6:27 pm

    I’m not an academic, but have been to Palestine with peace/two state solution inclined delegations, have written about proudly, and demonstrated for it. But I certainly don’t agree with your biased attitude about free speech–that it’s good when it concerns Palestine but bad when exercised by Milo or some right winger you disapprove of. That’s not a commitment to free speech at all.

    • johneill
      April 24, 2017, 8:59 pm

      i don’t detect that attitude at all: he seems to be making a similar point to yours.

      “Free speech, in both philosophy and practice, is attached to structures of power (seen and unseen, discernible and oblique, steady and unstable). Despite the state’s professions of fairness and benevolence, free speech is never fixed or disinterested. It is prosecuted according to circumstance. It is reified based on the needs of the audience. And it is conditioned by race, gender, nationality, class, religion, ideology, culture, sexuality, and so forth.”

      “Free speech, in short, is a limited commodity pretending to be a universal ideal.

      We can’t understand the importance of free speech in civic or academic settings unless we also engage the politics that precede its invocation.”

    • Mooser
      April 24, 2017, 10:06 pm

      “That’s not a commitment to free speech at all.”

      Scott, you seem to be having a hard time telling when the hand of
      governmental censorship closes over somebody’s mouth, and when the big hand of the free market kicks somebody in the ass.

    • RoHa
      April 24, 2017, 11:52 pm

      As with John Neill, I don’t detect any bias between speech by Milo Whosis and speech about Palestine. Salaita is simply pointing out that the outcome depended on power structures.

      For my part, I am in favour of very free speech. Freedom to question the authenticity of Anne Frank’s Diary, and freedom for Yonah to rant about it. I regard the current fashion for making “hate speech” illegal to be an assault on the principle.

  2. JWalters
    April 24, 2017, 8:23 pm

    “nearly 300 cases in which speech or activism around Palestine was suppressed”

    It seems to me the time is right to shift the main focus of the debate on Zionism and Israel from the crimes and atrocities of Israel, which have by now been thoroughly documented at Mondoweiss and elsewhere, to the suppression of discussion by Israel and its agents. This suppression of discussion is a crime in itself, and a crime which affects a great many more people. Because it is a direct attack on all Americans’ Constitutional right of free speech. It is a glaring case in which Israel does NOT share America’s values. It is a glaring case in which Israel is attempting to sabotage democracy, in direct opposition to America’s values.

    A follow-on focus, or perhaps companion focus, would be on Israel’s extensive disinformation campaign, filling the public debate with falsehoods of all sorts, including historical myths, lies and distortions about current events, and smears against people who challenge their arguments and actions.

    Thank you Steven Salaita for this excellent and important article.

  3. JosephA
    April 24, 2017, 10:51 pm

    Steven:

    Thanks very much for sharing this article, it was chock full of useful information, but also deeply personal.

    May you remain gainfully employed.

  4. RoHa
    April 24, 2017, 11:56 pm

    “This suppression of discussion is a crime in itself, and a crime which affects a great many more people. Because it is a direct attack on all Americans’ Constitutional right of free speech. It is a glaring case in which Israel does NOT share America’s values.”

    This is ambiguous.
    Do you mean
    (a) “it is a crime because it is an attack on the right”
    or
    (b) “because it is an attack on the right, it is a case of Israel not sharing values”
    ?

    • JWalters
      April 26, 2017, 8:12 pm

      I meant that undermining the Constitution is criminal (at least in spirit), and that shows a stark difference in values. So, both.

      Apologies for the delay in responding.

  5. RoHa
    April 25, 2017, 12:17 am

    “I’ve lost two jobs in the past three years because of my sharp criticism of Israel and I’m a month away from being unemployed again.”

    And that’s your last warning. Next time you’ll get whacked.

    You know, only too well, that the Zionists are a bunch of gangsters and thugs. They bribe, blackmail, and bully to get what they want. Go up against them, and you risk your job, your reputation, and your life.

    I hope I’m wrong, and they let you live. They might think that you will be a better warning alive and broken than dead and gone.

    Perhaps Norman Finkelstein can give you some tips on how to be an independent scholar.

    • Keith
      April 25, 2017, 10:43 am

      ROHA- “Perhaps Norman Finkelstein can give you some tips on how to be an independent scholar.”

      Bad advice! http://www.meforum.org/blog/2015/11/finkelstein-vs-salaita

      • RoHa
        April 25, 2017, 10:15 pm

        Yes, perhaps I should withdraw that suggestion.

      • Mooser
        April 26, 2017, 12:12 pm

        “Yes, perhaps I should withdraw that suggestion”

        Yes, the suggestions of “Campus Watch” will be your watchwords.

      • RoHa
        April 28, 2017, 12:39 am

        It would be nearly as great an error to assume that Campus Watch is wrong about everything as it is to assume it is right about anything.

  6. Elizabeth Block
    April 25, 2017, 9:01 am

    Some time ago someone – Steven Rosen? – complained about academics suffering in their careers because of their SUPPORT for Israel. I asked for examples. He said he couldn’t think of any off the top of his head, but directed me to CampusWatch, which of course tracks academics who criticize Israel. Nothing. I asked a couple of people, e.g. Norman Finkelstein, if there were any people like that. Nope.

  7. Eva Smagacz
    April 25, 2017, 12:09 pm

    From my experience, the best censorship is the one where not only topic of consorship is scrubbed, but also any mention of censorship itself.

    In that respect Eastern Europe was less illiberal than the West, or, to the chargin of Soviets, “better at it (invisible enforcement of the limit of the discourse).

  8. Stephen Shenfield
    April 25, 2017, 6:05 pm

    Professor Salaita says: “No one opposes free speech as an ideal.” Maybe, but many people oppose free speech under currently existing conditions and such opposition has theoretical underpinnings that need to be challenged. For example, the idea of ‘incitement’ is easily stretched to delegitimize any strong expression of protest as conducive to violence. Another conceptual device is the paradigm that divides ideas into “moderate” and “extreme” and justifies restrictions on the expression of ideas that fall into the “extreme” category.

    For example, many people hold that academic positions should be reserved for “moderates” because university professors have opportunities to influence the younger generation. This was the argument made by Mr. Lev, the columnist for the local Jewish newspaper who initiated the campaign to get me fired from Brown University.

    Of course, people do not agree on which ideas are “extreme.” Everyone naturally regards their own opinions as “moderate” and opinions that diverge too sharply from their own as “extreme.” But by delegitimizing opinions that you detest you are affirming the paradigm itself and thereby sustaining the conditions that may well lead to you yourself being stigmatized as an “extremist.” Ultimately freedom is for everyone, including communists, anarchists, racists, and advocates of cannibalism, or for no one.

  9. MHughes976
    April 25, 2017, 10:28 pm

    I believe that there is agony and litigation at UCB at this moment about free speech for the colourful Ann Coulter. I hope she can have her and that people likeminded with us can have theirs too.

  10. gamal
    April 26, 2017, 6:48 am

    I am of the “no platform” for Fascists and Racists generation, its always been a source of argument

    “the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

    German defended the policy, but argued that it needed to be limited to its original intent – against the National Front and other fascist organisations, such as the emerging British National Party. She warned that there were two things that were to be avoided if the NUS was to maintain the policy:

    The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    It seems that student activists at British universities have not heeded German’s warning and that the strategy of ‘no platform’ employed against political opponents far removed from the original targets, the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the National Front (and the Monday Club) onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse by certain student groups”

    https://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/by-whatever-means-necessary-the-origins-of-the-no-platform-policy/

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