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]

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Standing ovation for the article in its entirety!

Thank you David Green.

“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?

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… Read more »

” 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.… Read more »

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