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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%.

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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… Read more »

“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… Read more »

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… Read more »

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… Read more »