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The academic/political context of the Salaita affair

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University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise

University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise (photo at U of Washington)

This article serves to provide some first-hand background, context, and references regarding the case of Steven Salaita and his aborted employment by the University of Illinois. The Urbana-Champaign campus is certainly no hotbed for the Palestinian rights movement, in spite of the best efforts of many students and local activists during the 16 years that I’ve lived in this community. Nor in recent years has there been an exceptionally aggressive Zionist mentality manifested on campus; it is no longer a regular destination for the likes of Alan Dershowitz or Daniel Pipes and their ilk, as it was a decade ago.

Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita

Nevertheless, the university—with the encouragement of local Jewish institutions—seems to provide an exemplary case of all that is wrong with neoliberal academia in relation to U.S. imperialism in general and Israel/Palestine in particular—not to mention overt repression of any hint of leftist/radical politics on campus, the noble example of Professor Francis Boyle on our campus notwithstanding.

In recent years I’ve documented the relationships of the university and state government with Israel and the Israel Lobby on the Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss websites. While the Zionist “old guard” that established Jewish/Israel-related academic programs has moved on, and current leaders foster reputations as being relatively more open-minded and even “post-Zionist,” none of this leadership has entered the fray regarding BDS, academic freedom, the Salaita case, or the massacres in Gaza. Some dine out on the “trauma genre.” An undistinguished Israeli originally hired by the Israel Lobby/Schusterman Family Foundation has remained on as the only faculty member teaching a course on Israel/Palestine, predictably from a “balanced” perspective of “competing narratives.” Institutionally, this campus remains under Zionist lockdown.

Cary Nelson

Cary Nelson

It has thus apparently been left to professors of Native American studies to argue the case for Palestine and BDS. Meanwhile, as I’m sure most readers know, retired but verbally active English professor Cary Nelson has become the poster child for academic hypocrisy and the worst sort of liberal Zionism. At a panel discussion in May sponsored by the local AAUP chapter regarding academic freedom and BDS, this “tenured radical” expressed his opposition to BDS and defined his stance on Israel’s occupation of Palestine as “hoping” that it would some day end as a result of unilateral action by Israel. What might be understood as the political economy of academic freedom thus determines Nelson’s opposition to Salaita’s hiring, his alleged and apparently ineffectual support (as national president of AAUP in 2007) for Norman Finkelstein notwithstanding.

It’s also important to note the rabid local/state political context for the Salaita affair. This includes Chris Kennedy, son of Robert Kennedy and head of the Board of Trustees, who has in the past opposed emeritus status for Bill Ayers and retention of James Kilgore. It also includes the editorial board of the local daily newspaper, the News-Gazette, which has over the years promoted a Fox News-like venomousness and vindictiveness in relation to such individuals, including Angela Davis. Subsequent to Salaita’s hiring, the editors coordinated with the right-wing blogosphere and local letter writers to sound the alarm.

But the one person ultimately responsible for the Salaita travesty is Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who has occupied the position for the past three years. She succeeded the more openly pro-Israel Richard Herman, who was ousted for petty admissions-related corruption; and, prior to Herman, Nancy Cantor, who was driven off to Syracuse for her successful effort to eliminate Native American minstrelsy from football game halftime shows—a fundamental issue for many Illini boosters, especially those on the lookout for those who commit both actual Native American studies and pro-Palestine advocacy. (I’m unaware, however, that Cantor has ever publicly expressed reservations about Israel.)

In the wake of a decade of such turmoil (and of course dramatic funding cutbacks from state government), Wise was hired as corporate CEO. At the University of Washington she was reprimanded by the AAUP chapter for being on the board of Nike. She continues in that capacity to this day. She has, of course, celebrated “diversity” on the U of I campus, and received much sympathy for being the brunt of some misogynistic and anti-Chinese tweets from disgruntled students this past January when she ordered that classes not be cancelled on a very cold day; there is nothing quite like cost-free victimhood to burnish one’s reputation as a paragon of multicultural virtue, notwithstanding lack of sympathy for dead Palestinian children.

Nevertheless, Wise displays no genuine or thoughtful political views or openness to debate, only a corporate and boosterish persona—what used to be called “repressive tolerance.” She is heavily scripted to the point of being opaque, and utterly inaccessible as an authentic, thoughtful, or spontaneous human being. But, to quote a line from a Seinfeld episode, I suspect that there is not more than meets the eye; there’s less. That’s the basis for upward mobility in academic administration these days, as money from wealthy donors rolls in, accompanied by generous amounts of self-congratulations.

There is no indication that Wise does not understand who her masters are, and she dutifully signed on in opposition to the ASA boycott. There is no reason to believe that she will reverse her decision on the Salaita case, or on the Kilgore case. However blatant and bold her hypocrisy regarding academic freedom, she will keep her corporate game face on throughout this kerfuffle, barring the sort of activism or direct action for which there is little or no precedence on this campus or in this community in matters involving Palestinians and the crimes against them.

David Green lives in Champaign, IL, where he engages in political commentary and activism. Earlier this year he ran for U.S. Congress in the Democratic Party primary on a platform that included support for Palestinian rights and opposition to U.S. funding for Israel. By spending $9,000 he received 14% of the votes. By spending a total of $1 million, the other two candidates received the remaining 86%.

David Green
About David Green

David Green, 67, lives in Champaign, Illinois, and is of Jewish background. Since 1998 he has been involved in the Palestinian justice movement on campus and in the community. He has published articles relevant to this movement on Mondoweiss, Counterpunch, ZNet, Electronic Intifada, and Palestine Chronicle websites, as well as dozens of letters in the local newspaper, the News-Gazette.

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15 Responses

  1. Jim Holstun
    Jim Holstun on August 11, 2014, 1:27 pm

    Referring to “his alleged and apparently ineffectual support (as national president of AAUP in 2007) for Norman Finkelstein notwithstanding.” No, Norman Finkelstein himself told me that he had no complaints about the AAUP support of his case, and Cary Nelson spoke to me of his admiration for Finkelstein as a classroom teacher. That Finkelstein lost can’t be laid at the door of Nelson or the AAUP.

    Nelson’s considerable demerits in the Salaita case need to be judged on their own. In Ali Abunimah’s initial interview with him, Nelson more or less disqualifies himself from any hint of academic decency by admitting this:

    “Another example Nelson gave was an 8 July tweet by Salaita, at the beginning of Israel’s current massacre in Gaza, stating, “If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”. . . When asked if he would oppose the hiring of a person who said that ‘someone who defends Hamas firing rockets towards Tel Aviv is an awful person,’ Nelson answered: ‘No.'” http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/university-illinois-fires-professor-steven-salaita-after-gaza-massacre-tweets

    So, Professor Nelson is a self-confessed Zionist hack and brawler. End of discussion for him. His opinion should be accorded no more and no less authority than those of, say, Martin Indyk or William Kristol.

  2. David Green
    David Green on August 11, 2014, 3:50 pm

    Here is a link to most recent “coverage” of this issue in the local press, just to give you a taste of the usual tone in these affairs:
    http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/columns/2014-08-10/jim-dey-will-they-be-working-ui-fall.html

  3. hophmi
    hophmi on August 11, 2014, 4:03 pm

    “Institutionally, this campus remains under Zionist lockdown.”

    This is just complete nonsense.

    This year, the Israel Studies program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is bringing Sayed Kashua as its visiting scholar. Kashua is not a Zionist. He’s the guy who just wrote that piece in the Guardian about why he’s not coming back to Israel. He didn’t mention that he was being paid with Federation money, if I remember correctly. Wouldn’t fit the narrative I guess. BDS has to boycott him, I guess. Awkward.

    The “undistinguished Israeli” Green refers to must be Rhona Seidelman. She is no longer there; she was a visiting professor. She taught courses on the history of Israel and on debating Israel, and not, from what I can see, on the conflict itself.

    • David Green
      David Green on August 11, 2014, 4:28 pm

      No visiting scholars in the Israel Studies Project have ever engaged the broader scholarly or local community in open discussions about the fundamental issues presented by I/P. The Program for Jewish Culture and Society has never promoted open dialogue about I/P, the Israel Lobby, etc.

      Seidelman is still here, so far as I can tell; she was at the AAUP panel in May. She has never proposed a broad discussion during her tenure here. She certainly has taught courses on “the conflict” from the perspectives mentioned above. She is most certainly “undistinguished,” which I have no problem with–she just doesn’t merit teaching I/P on this campus.

      There might have been one or two exceptions to the lockdown in terms of those invited under scholarly auspices over the past 16 years–Joel Beinin in 2000 comes to mind, and perhaps one or two others; Rashid Khalidi was here a couple of years ago. But Beinin was here to talk about Egyptian Jews. There have, of course, been many speakers invited by SJP or local peace groups.

      Kashua fits the pattern just fine; he won’t ruffle any feathers.

      Wise calls for campus dialogue about a lot of things, especially “diversity.” But she opposed ASA/BDS without input or discussion.

      I’ll stick to “lockdown.” After 16 years in this community, that’s pretty much what it feels like.

      DG

    • justicewillprevail
      justicewillprevail on August 11, 2014, 5:06 pm

      There goes our learned professor of orientalism again – apparently he thinks BDS boycotts individuals, and Palestinian individuals at that. I guess he has as much expertise in BDS as he has in orientalism.

    • Keith
      Keith on August 11, 2014, 5:24 pm

      HOPHMI- “This year, the Israel Studies program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is bringing Sayed Kashua as its visiting scholar. Kashua is not a Zionist. He’s the guy who just wrote that piece in the Guardian about why he’s not coming back to Israel.”

      You have piqued my curiosity. How is it that a New York lawyer is this familiar with the Israeli studies program at the University of Illinois? Is someone feeding you talking points? Just asking.

  4. Jim Holstun
    Jim Holstun on August 11, 2014, 4:36 pm

    The very fact that there is an “Israel Studies Project” as part of the “Program in Jewish Culture” is itself a bad sign. Does UI have a Belgium Studies program? Egypt Studies? A Florida or New Mexico Studies program? an Iranian studies program? How about Mongolian studies? No? Why is it, then, that somebody found the money to fund an “Israel Studies” program? Why single out a particular nation this way?

    A clue: The program is “A collaboration between Illinois and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.” This is the corruption of academic integrity by Zionist money. Studying a culture or a region (Jewish Culture, Judaism, Middle Eastern Studies) is a completely different matter.

  5. Keith
    Keith on August 11, 2014, 5:12 pm

    DAVID GREEN- “Earlier this year he ran for U.S. Congress in the Democratic Party primary on a platform that included support for Palestinian rights and opposition to U.S. funding for Israel.”

    You ran as a DEMOCRAT??? You spent $9,ooo for the opportunity to piss up a rope? The democratic party is beyond saving. Is there no Green Party in Urbana-Champaign?

    • David Green
      David Green on August 13, 2014, 12:14 pm

      Hi Keith,

      It helps to get some experience and get one’s name and views out there.
      If I do it again, it will be as a Green. But that will require 15,000 signatures, rather than 700.

      DG

  6. Keith
    Keith on August 11, 2014, 5:18 pm

    I suppose that the myth of academic freedom serves the useful purpose of providing some restraint on the corporatization of higher education, however, never doubt that it is a myth. Major universities are thoroughly enmeshed within the prevailing political economy and act accordingly. All organizations are influenced by the realities of power one way or another. It doesn’t make it right, but it does make it somewhat predictable.

  7. Gene Shae
    Gene Shae on August 11, 2014, 5:37 pm

    This is so silly. Forget the distraction of censorship and freedom of speech. This gentleman lacks the judgement, discretion, and stability to be an effective teacher and representative of the school. Of course there are plenty of non and anti Zionist educations. This person has made a number of statements that disqualify him from being in a position of authority. He is a writing professor!

  8. michelle
    michelle on August 12, 2014, 4:21 am

    .
    we really are Palestine
    we are invaded/muted
    our human rights have been taken
    we have no voice in government
    our children used to clear the land in the M.E.
    if we protest we are labeled terrorists
    our taxes go to Israel interests while we lose
    our jobs our homes our living wage incomes
    health care is becoming health fraud
    are we to be second class in the country of our birth
    .
    G-d Bless
    .

  9. joeiosbaker
    joeiosbaker on August 12, 2014, 11:18 am

    Thanks, David, for this article. When accounting for the bias against Palestine at the University, don’t forget that Pat Fitzgerald is on the Board of Trustees: http://www.stopfbi.net/events/1-24-13/protest-former-us-attorney-patrick-fitzgerald-meeting-university-illinois-board-trust

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