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The real issues in the Salaita case: Palestine, neoliberalism, and the corporate university

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While the articles, editorials, commentaries, and letters continue in the News-Gazette (Urbana-Champaign), I will limit myself to two links in today’s (Sunday, Sept. 7) paper. First, a front page story by a good reporter that makes clear that Steven Salaita is well-qualified and deserving of the job for which he was hired; all the rest is slander and worse. Second, an unsigned editorial undoubtedly written by the editor, Jim Dey, who has written several signed editorials that are classified as “columns” on the website but placed on the news pages as “journalism.” Dey has been the primary journalistic hit man in relation to the cases of both Salaita and James Kilgore, a non-tenured faculty member who in his youth was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Finally, from last Sunday’s newspaper, a paid ad by the local haute bourgeoisie that has been updated as a Google document and clearly demonstrates the class interests involved in our community regarding this issue, which I will address later in this account.

The outrage continues to build on campus, and demonstrations and walk-outs are planned this week. The observations I make here are meant to provide some perspectives that I haven’t yet seen being articulated or have been muted in the admirable reporting and commentary of people like Corey Robin (Brooklyn College), John K. Wilson (Academe blog), and others, as well as locally-based advocacy.

While I disagree with the notion that the Israel Lobby determines U.S. foreign policy, I’m well aware from personal experience how it shapes and stifles debate on college campuses and in communities such as mine. The Lobby in Chicago and locally has kept a firm grip on the discourse, and that has been reflected in the Program for Jewish Culture and Society (PJCS) and its broader influence on campus.

Nevertheless, there is a new guard at PJCS with the retirement of Michael Shapiro, the English scholar who also happens to be the father of Daniel Shapiro, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, and who developed strong ties between the University and the Jewish Federation in Chicago. Professors like Michael Rothberg (English), Bruce Rosenstock (Religious Studies) , and Harriet Murav (Slavic Languages and Literature)  have distinguished themselves in their advocacy for Salaita. The stances of the latter two coincide with their activism in relation to forming a faculty union, an effort that is strongly opposed by prominent faculty members who have also defended Phyllis Wise’s decision. The most vocal among these retrograde professors are Nicholas Burbules (Education)  and Joyce Tolliver (Spanish).

Usually lost in this discourse, however, is the question of Palestine. Legal discussions of administrative procedures and a broader discussion of academic freedom obviously have their places. But Salaita is targeted because of what he has said about Palestine. He is targeted because at a national level, the Israel Lobby is afraid that it’s losing its control of the narrative. He is targeted because the Board of Trustees and Phyllis Wise have shown themselves to be not only vulnerable to pressure but actively politically repressive, especially regarding Chris Kennedy (Chair of Board of Trustees) and his actions against Bill Ayers and Kilgore.

Salaita is targeted because he would represent the first voice of Palestinian background on this campus who has a record of substantial and articulate advocacy on this issue. He could have set a precedent and by his presence and voice begun to change the atmosphere on a campus that, other than Francis Boyle (International Law), has lacked a bold and persuasive advocate for Palestinian justice among its faculty, and has lacked scholars who forthrightly address Zionist colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and racism in their work. Salaita represents the return of the repressed and a harbinger of genuine openness, and on this basis he has been further and slanderously repressed.

Unfortunately the general Palestinian background and specifically the context of Gaza seem to me to have been marginalized or are perceived to be irrelevant to the arguments of many of Salaita’s supporters. Yes, this is an open and shut case of the violation of academic freedom and an abuse of “shared governance.” But the question is also and still Palestine, because that’s what’s driving the repression. Sure, it doesn’t matter from an academic freedom perspective what Salaita tweeted. But it’s the subversive and pointed nature of those tweets that need to be substantively defended. Netanyahu is the hater and the threat, not Salaita.

And of course it’s not about Salaita’s qualifications for the position per se. But supporters of Salaita seem to me to be too reluctant to defend his excellent academic record and to counter the slanderous descriptions of and attacks on that record (including by Cary Nelson, English, former head of American Association of University Professors). The substantive forces behind Salaita’s “unhiring” and the outrageous and racist distortions of Salaita’s record by his critics–from Nelson to the Lobby apparatchiks, nationally and locally–should be clearly countered rather than set aside as irrelevant. Some of Salaita’s supporters have, in my view, done a disservice to the credibility of his views, perhaps revealing their own discomfort to forthrightly confront the power relationships in Israel and Palestine and go to the heart of the matter. This repression is not about nothing.

I will conclude with a few observations on the local scene. Among Jews, it’s only a few stalwart Zionists who have publicly opposed Salaita’s hiring. While some have invoked lurid accusations of anti-Semitism, their tone has mostly–following Wise’ rhetoric–been about “respect” and “civility.” Publicly, the local Jewish leadership, including that of Hillel, is (perhaps conspicuously) silent. This is consistent with the relatively few Jewish voices that have publicly defended Israel’s actions in Gaza. My impression is that the sense of Jewish leadership is that increasing numbers of local Jews are not on board with these repressive actions in the name of Israel. My impression is that Jewish leadership hopes that this will blow over without exposing rifts within the Jewish community that have been assiduously ignored until now. Ironically, however, student support for Salaita has engendered the first organized actions among Jewish students critical of Israel that I am aware of in my 16 years in this community and on this campus.

Finally, in reference to the Google Document listing local leaders and articulating their “vote of confidence” for Wise, I would argue that this represents the conjunction of neoliberalism, the 1% in our community, the corporate campus, and the role of support for Israel in relation to all of that. Only a handful of these signatories is Jewish, and no more than one (Carol Mizrahi, a local Zionist stalwart and writer married to an Israeli business owner) has been a persistent public defender and promoter of Israel. Yet this country club class of local boosters and shakers finds its interests and the “stability” of the local corporate/university economy threatened not so much by anything that might have resulted from Salaita’s arrival on campus, but by the prospect of the Chancellor’s corporate authority being revealed as corrupt and repressive.

I will summarize and conclude with the text of a commentary that I have written and that has been submitted by myself and nine other local supporters of Steven Salaita to the News-Gazette:

Most of those of us signing this letter have been fortunate enough to spend our adult lives in a scholarly environment that has allowed us to seek truths about the human condition and the nature of social injustice, whatever our chosen discipline. We believe that the scientific progress for which this and other American universities are famous can only be laudable in a society that affirms the right of each of its members to a decent material existence as the basis for developing innate gifts and talents. It is on that basis that we, as privileged members of the richest and most powerful society in human history, must honestly look in the mirror and judge our institution’s contributions to social progress in the most universal and enlightened senses of that phrase.

It is in this light that we judge the recent events pertaining to Professor Steven Salaita’s appointment to be consistent with trends in the financing, structure, and governance of the university. Administrators have adopted a “business model” that is beholden to corporations seeking profits and wealthy donors seeking influence. The culture of the university is increasingly defined by perceptions of its “prestige,” a troubling and shallow notion that trivializes the search for truth, the complexities of human development and learning, and the moral ramifications of what has come to be called “success” in our society.

The values of “diversity” and “respect” that have been invoked by Chancellor Phyllis Wise in relation to Professor Salaita’s public political expressions seem to us, in this context, to be transparent covers for the conscious repression of an individual who has intelligently, passionately, and honorably advocated for an oppressed ethnic group—a group that has been largely excluded from these values of diversity and respect, not to mention those of truth and justice, on this campus. It seems clear to us that principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are easily abandoned in the face of a juggernaut of donors, trustees, and administrators who are invested on a number of levels in the manner in which our government projects its power in the Middle East, and in which Israel (with U.S. military and diplomatic support) projects its power in occupied Palestine, including Gaza.

It is clear to us that in such a selective and tendentious context of “diversity” and “respect,” the vital relationships among academic freedom, the search for truth, and the pursuit of social justice have no greater a chance than that of a Palestinian child in Gaza. We betray the students on this campus and the larger public interest when we allow these connections to be so boldly severed by the Chancellor’s thoughtless and cowardly behavior, made worse when rationalized by pretty words.

We not only have no confidence in Chancellor Wise; we have no confidence in a system of “shared governance” which has so casually sold its soul to repressive and reactionary forces in our society.

David Green lives in Champaign, and can be reached at [email protected]

David Green

David Green lives in Champaign, Illinois.

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14 Responses

  1. just on September 8, 2014, 11:40 am

    Standing ovation for the article in its entirety!

    Thank you David Green.

  2. W.Jones on September 8, 2014, 12:48 pm

    “While I disagree with the notion that the Israel Lobby determines U.S. foreign policy”.
    It determines it on the issue of the Israeli state, though, right? Were there no lobby, the US votes in the UN on the issue would be different, right?

    • David Green on September 8, 2014, 1:13 pm

      I feel that the protection that Israel gets from the Congress has more to do with the Lobby, but the protection that it gets in the UN has just as much if not more to do with U.S. geopolitical interests as a strategic ally in the ME. I generally agree with Chomsky/Finkelstein in this matter, FWIW.

      • American on September 8, 2014, 2:24 pm

        Well, ‘the facts’ and history of US-Isr relationship says you’re wrong.

      • W.Jones on September 8, 2014, 2:54 pm


        Thanks for replying. The fact is that when Lobbies are very strong, they play a decisive role in determining how American politics work on their issue.

        I took a class on Cuba from a Cuban exile professor. In the class, we learned how important the Cuban exile lobby is in determining US policy on Cuba. There were times when US presidents showed interest in improving US relations with Cuba, but the Cuban emigre lobby interfered. The US has positive relations with China, a key trading partner and yet it is considered by the Establishment to be a military and economic competitor (if not potential opponent). All three Latino senators in the US are Cuban emigres, while our class explained that Florida, and in particular Miami, is a key battleground state for the presidency.

        When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, why would the issue’s lobby’s role be limited to Congress, where Netanyahu gets his 28 bicameral standing ovations, and not also extend to the presidency, because of the decisive role of lobbies and campaigning in very tight elections? It’s hard to separate Congressional politics from presidential ones, when you look at how big a role it played in Hagel’s nomination. Hagel is unlikely to oppose Netanyahu openly and strongly on human rights issues after that, isn’t he?

        Further, there are multiple cases where it has not been in the US strategic interest. The IP conflict inflames the world’s Muslim population. And while the US may be interested in dominating the Middle East, the unnecessary “thorn” of the Nakba, systemic inequality, annual “lawn mowings” of Gaza, and the world’s longest, largest refugee crisis makes it harder to control or influence other Arab societies, as numerous studies have shown.

        A good case of the US national interest being hurt was the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970’s, which was put in place as a response to US support for the Israeli system. This embargo severely damaged the economy and brought commuters to wait for a Lonnnnngggggggg time at the gas pump. What strategic interest did the recession serve?

        In interviews, Chomsky himself said that his personal biases may affect his views about the Israeli state and that he was a nationalist “youth leader”. While overall Chomsky is a radical, on some issues related to IP he is not really “radical”.

        The fact is that lobbies play a decisive role in major US political issues, and that is true whether it involves Cuba, Wall Street, oil, tobacco, or one of the most contentious and provocative issues in US politics – the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

  3. seafoid on September 8, 2014, 1:17 pm

    A comment from the Guardian on another topic that is relevant to this one
    “To see the establishment so unprepared for this is significant. It reminds me slightly of the unease for the few days after Diana died and no one knew quite was happening. Of course that was contained and now all are concerned to present a sensible front. But underneath it is chaos. And rather grubby.”

  4. American on September 8, 2014, 2:34 pm

    ” My impression is that Jewish leadership hopes that this will blow over without exposing rifts within the Jewish community that have been assiduously ignored until now. ”>>>>

    Its not going to blow over. ..the rifts are getting bigger and probably on their way to the US sooner or later. I would guess it was pro Israel Jews and not Arab pro Palestine protestors in the ‘mob of 30’ who attacked this man..

    British Jew Forced From Home After Criticizing Israel’s Gaza Operation
    Car Sprayed With Red Paint, Windows Vandalized
    By JTA
    Published September 08, 2014.

    ”An Orthodox Jewish man was forced to leave his home in England after criticizing Israel’s Gaza operation at a protest rally.
    The Greater Manchester home was vandalized twice with eggs and graffiti and smashed windows, and his car was sprayed with red paint, the Manchester Evening News reported Sunday.
    The man moved out after he was attacked by a mob of up to 30 people, according to the newspaper.
    Police are investigating the incidents and are treating them as hate crimes, the Jewish News website reported Sunday.”

    Read more:

  5. philweiss on September 8, 2014, 2:43 pm

    I agree: it’s not going to blow over, though they might hope so; and the passage of Brant Rosen and Bruce Shipman into the grassroots community is just empowering that community the more, just as Walt and Mearsheimer’s excommunication from MSM (to one degree or another) strengthened our community

  6. uh...clem on September 8, 2014, 4:40 pm

    I’m surprised the ardent Zionists on campus didn’t welcome the appointment of Steven Salaita to a faculty position. They should have said, “Bring him on! We’ll destroy him (ooops! his “viewpoints”) in open debate on campus.” That they didn’t do that is very telling IMO. What were they afraid of?

  7. piotr on September 8, 2014, 6:46 pm

    “Unfortunately the general Palestinian background and specifically the context of Gaza seem to me to have been marginalized or are perceived to be irrelevant to the arguments of many of Salaita’s supporters. ”

    The ethnic background of Salaita is definitely less important than his views and his writings. “The Lobby” proudly displays scalps of people like Norman Finkelstein who does not have Mizrahi or otherwise Middle Eastern bone in his body. Perhaps I am quibbling, though. It reminds me a discussion of police disproportionately/exclusively kills unarmed folks when they are minorities, and in all examples of white folks killed in that way, they were homeless etc. In either case, individuals not included in collective word “people” as described by Mark Twain:

    “We blown a cylinder head”.

    “Good gracious! anybody hurt?”

    “No, madam. Killed a nigger.”

    “Well, it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.”

    The discourse on Middle East is absolutely notorious from that perspective. “Niggers” getting killed is NOT a valid consideration, and Palestinians are precisely that. And a lot of other purposeful or collateral damage. Salaita lost his civil attitude over something totally inconsequential, like slaughter of 2000 Palestinians, with no word of compassion for “people” who also got hurt. That will not do.

    Some are surprised why “ardent Zionists” went so far as slaying a sacred cow of the professorial class, professors definitely being “people” who should not be dismissed like some “niggers”. Being a professor does not give a lot of money, but if should give you decent status. What I see here is that some communities in USA got infected with the war fever, the urge to go out and collect some enemy scalps. Yeah, they could simply debate him in a less feverish season.

  8. lysias on September 9, 2014, 10:41 am

    There was a discussion of the Salaita case on this morning’s Democracy Now!.

  9. tinywriting on September 9, 2014, 12:12 pm

    Salaita’s real sin is to make Israel look ridiculous instead of just murderous.

  10. traintosiberia on September 12, 2014, 4:00 pm

    Silencing is the best weapon the Zionist has. It is very effective .

    “There are dangers in telling this truth, in breaching what Edward Said called “the last taboo”. My documentary, Palestine Is Still the Issue, was nominated for a Bafta, a British academy award, and praised by the Independent Television Commission for its “journalistic integrity” and the “care and thoroughness with which it was researched.” Yet, within minutes of the film’s broadcast on Britain’s ITV Network, a shock wave struck – a deluge of emails described me as a “demonic psychopath”, “a purveyor of hate and evil”, “an anti-Semite of the most dangerous kind”. Much of this was orchestrated by Zionists in the US who could not possibly have seen the film. Death threats arrived at a rate of one a day.

    Something similar happened to the Australian commentator Mike Carlton last month. In his regular column in the Sydney Morning Herald, Carlton produced a rare piece of journalism about Israel and the Palestinians; he identified the oppressors and their victims. He was careful to limit his attack to “a new and brutal Israel dominated by the hard-line, right-wing Likud party of Netanyahu”. Those who had previously run the Zionist state, he implied, belonged to “a proud liberal tradition”.

    On cue, the deluge struck. He was called “a bag of Nazi slime, a Jew-hating racist.” He was threatened repeatedly, and he emailed his attackers to “get fucked”.

    The Herald demanded he apologise. When he refused, he was suspended, then he resigned. According to the Herald’s publisher, Sean Aylmer, the company “expects much higher standards from its columnists.”

    from John Pilger’s Edward Said Memorial Lecture, delivered in Adelaide, Australia, on 11 September. Pilger can be reached through his website:

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