Israel’s Dead Soul: Steven Salaita’s critical scholarship explains his dismissal from the University of Illinois

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Steven Salaita’s Israel’s Dead Soul (2011) merits serious attention and ultimately effusive praise. It contains five critical essays that not only offer brilliant insight into the cultural and ideological practices of Zionism in both Israel and the United States, but implicitly explain why his conscientious efforts would be denigrated and rejected by the ostensibly liberal aspects of this culture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Israel’s “dead soul” is not Salaita’s own accusation or conclusion; it is his way of framing the blatant and gruesome ironies entailed by Jewish Israelis’ own obsessions, and laying bare their pretentions to moral purity and political righteousness.

He concludes the introduction with two points central to the book’s argument:

First, discussion of the state of Israel’s soul has been common for so long that it constitutes a relevant political and moral discourse of its own, one that illuminates numerous important features of Zionist identity and strategy. Those who chatter about Israel’s declining soul long ago killed it by agonizing it to death. However, in doing so they have brought other matters to life, most notably a commitment to protecting Israel from recognition of its inherent iniquities, which I endeavor to contextualize here. Second, I am working form the belief that Israel’s soul died at the moment of its invention. I do not believe that states have souls, metaphysically or metaphorically. There is no soul of Palestine, of Iraq, of Papua New Guinea, of Canada, or of any other geopolitical entity with a central government and an economic apparatus. (p. 10)

At the modern corporate university, and especially at public neoliberal high-tech research universities like UIUC, multiculturalism and diversity constitute the official ideology of identity (as opposed to class) politics; civility and respect, as they have been evoked by administrators and trustees in the Salaita affair, constitute its bureaucratic and disciplinary practices. In the Chapter 1, “Israel as a Cultural Icon,” Salaita explores Zionists’ exploitation of multicultural spaces on campus:

What are the ethical consequences of the coterminous relationship of Israel and Jewishness? They are many, none of them positive. First of all, it means that Israel cannot be included in multicultural celebrations without reflecting negatively on Jewish people, many of whom do not want to be identified in any way with the nation-state or who do not want the national-state to be their primary cultural identity.

Second, it entraps Jewish people in an unsavory paradigm, one in which they perform gruesome acts because of their culture. … Herein lies the main problem of conjoining culture and national character. Hillel and other Jewish civic organizations render themselves distinctly responsible for Israel’s violence by proclaiming themselves guardians of the state’s consciousness. … It is never a good idea, even though the trope of strategic essentialism, to link an ethnic group to a military apparatus. Such a move automatically justifies discourses—in this case anti-Semitic ones—that should never be justifiable. (p. 23)

In a manner that is rarely articulated in the belly of the beast, Salaita proceeds to place this critique in a larger educational/corporate/power context:

The frequent inclusion of Zionism in multicultural spaces, both physical and metaphorical, enables us to think more closely about the utility of multiculturalism as a discourse and a practice. Zionism represents centers of power financially and politically. It is an ideology (or set of ideologies) deeply inscribed in state power all over the world. It supports an enormous military economy and an imperialism whose reach is capacious. It partakes of the capitalist structures of neoliberalism that expropriate resources from the Southern Hemisphere into the Northern. Zionism is inseparable from the forms of structural injustice that occur throughout the world.

My point here is not to suggest that Zionism corrupts multiculturalism, though that is likely the case, at least in the abstract. I suggest instead the possibility that multiculturalism itself is problematic because it so easily accommodates Zionism (and other troublesome ideologies). Is the point of multiculturalism to oppose unjust power and racism? Or is it to provide spaces within institutions where ethnic minorities can escape racism? What is the point of using multicultural apparatuses to promote Israel as the apogee of Jewishness?

Although I have rarely heard it stated that multiculturalism is supposed to oppose power, it frequently appeases it, a judgment I base on nothing more than its continued existence. Academic and corporate institutions are set up to regulate and efficiently eliminate both internal and external challenges to their modes of governance and authority. In many ways, the promotion of multiculturalism is a diversion or a delusion … deep seated racism still exists in the institutions wherein the idea of multiculturalism was invented. (p. 28-29)

41XN-ipMuQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Salaita accurately and ironically describes the institutional context of his own demise at the University of Illinois, embodied in Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s assertion that “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” Institutional power has spoken, claiming that Salaita has not just challenged “viewpoints,” but demeaned and abused them.

I would add that Salaita’s tone throughout Israel’s Dead Soul is one of engaged, thorough, fair, feisty, honest, and incisive critique, the power and persuasiveness of which are never mitigated by personal or abusive attacks on the targets of his criticism—even Abraham Foxman.

In Chapter 2 Salaita asks the question: “Is the Anti-Defamation League a Hate Group?” To answer this question is to shoot fish in a barrel, but Salaita bends over backwards to be factual and fair. He uses the ADL’s own ten criteria, and finds that it clearly qualifies in six instances: The group’s ideologies and activities perpetuate extremism and hatred; its beliefs can lead to violent acts or terrorism; its actions can affect entire communities, or even nations; it can believe in racial superiority; it seeks to harm perceived enemies or to undermine American democracy; and it engages in systematic holocaust denial (in relation to Armenia). Salaita judiciously concludes:

I cannot say conclusively that these factors make the ADL a hate group, but it is indisputable that the ADL satisfies its own conception of a hate group. … The ADL is not exceptional. There isn’t, as most people want to believe, a large gap between a civil rights and a hate group. One of the main reasons that the two sometimes shade into one another is that the affectations of radicalism by civil rights groups often conceal an unimaginative reliance on the mechanisms of juridical intervention, which are influenced by a completely different set of goals and imperatives (those of protecting the elite). There is no good way to reconcile these divergent interests no matter how insistently civil rights groups sermonize about kinder and gentler policing techniques. (p. 69-70)

In reference to civil rights as well as multiculturalism, Salaita challenges liberal complacency and rationalization. He continues this pattern in Chapter 3, “Ethnonationalism as an Object of Multicultural Decorum,” in which he considers the cases of African-American scholars Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson as public intellectuals in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict:

The main problem with West’s point of view is his insistence, like that of his political collaborator Michael Lerner’s, that there is an equivalence between Israel’s violence actions and all forms of Palestinian resistance that in some way use physical violence. … West constantly fails to rein in Lerner’s rehearsed discourses of victimization that tacitly position Jews as eternal scapegoats of Arab and black aggression. Nearly every time West asserts a thoughtful position, he is made to moderate it or retreat from it altogether. Israel therefore becomes a protected space… (p. 73).

Salaita deals more harshly with Dyson, whom he accurately accuses of spending more time on punditry than scholarship.

Dyson’s shortcomings, as so many others’, are exposed by the topic of Palestine. It is not a topic that Dyson discusses frequently, and one that he almost never invokes voluntarily. However, given his widespread punditry, his viewpoint on the Israel-Palestine conflict is sometimes requested. His responses are uniformly mealy-mouthed and conciliatory. (p. 81)

Salaita frames both West and Dyson in a larger critique of public intellectuals in relation to multiculturalism and media punditry:

An intervention needs to occur to challenge Israel’s status as an essential component of multicultural conviviality, a status West and Dyson have played a considerable role in maintaining. Their role in its maintenance cannot be separated from their prominence as public intellectuals, though I again point to their rare intervention, despite their public eminence, in the reorganization of unjust social and economic structures. Perhaps their lack of radical intervention has enabled their public eminence. In any case, their complicity in the conflation of Israel and Jewish culture, or in the conflation of recognizing Israel as a recognition of Jewish culture, is questionable ethically and careless intellectually. For West and Dyson, accepting the premise of Zionism is a source of multicultural decorum.

In a broader sense, we need to complicate the perception that diversity and multiculturalism are intuitively valuable phenomena. … their practice is problematic because it is manifestly exclusionary. … Multiculturalism is a propitious element of West and Dyson’s market niche, not an object of their critical attention. (p. 90-91)

I would add that in the case of West it remains to be seen whether he will apply the integrity that he has clearly demonstrated in his rejection of President Obama to future pronouncements on Israel-Palestine.

In the final two chapters of Israel’s Dead Soul, Salaita turns more directly to liberal Zionist propaganda in in relation to both “pinkwashing” and cinema. Chapter 4 is titled “Sexuality, Violence, and Modernity in Israel.” Salaita, as always, places his critique in a larger and integral context of social justice:

The contestation of homophobia is of seminal importance everywhere in the world. But like all oppressive discourses, it must be contested in conjunction with an integrated focus on all social and institutional phenomena that preclude comprehensive human wellness. It is from the same set of power dynamics that racism, sexism, homophobia, and their cognates emerge. To challenge homophobia by promoting war and colonization is immoral as well as strategically ineffectual, a reliable way to ensure that homophobia continuously reproduces itself. … When StandWithUs utilizes the language of equality for LGBT people it does not extend that language to include equality for Palestinians, Muslims, and other dark-skinned victims of Israeli racism. (p. 114-115)

In the final chapter, “The Heart of Darkness Redux, Again,” Salaita critiques three films in light of Zionism and Orientalism. Again, he focuses on ostensibly liberal perspectives in relation to Conrad’s famous novel as “a psychological leitmotif of colonial self-expression”:

Zionist art has repeatedly used this sort of trope. Much of the nonfiction of well-heeled novelists like Amos Oz and David Grossman conceptualizes the Jewish encounter with Palestinians as morally stupefying or emotionally debilitating. Much of the liberal commentary in Israel recycles the same motif. The heart of darkness is prominent in Zionist cinema, by which I mean filmmaking consciously trained on the historical or ideological dimensions of Zionism or Israel.

Three recent films stand out: Ari Sandel’s West Bank Story, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. … Although these are very different films aesthetically and dissimilar politically, they all endow themselves with the burden of intense psychoemotional soul-searching. All three are deeply worried about the declining status of Israel’s soul. All three rely on anonymous Palestinians to frame their central moral questions. All three are didactic, in that they desire a type of soulful restoration that they conceptualize as an ethnic birthright. (p. 118)

In Israel’s Dead Soul, Steven Salaita proves himself an informed, articulate, incisive, courageous, and compassionate critic of Zionism and its consequences, including in relation to liberal and multicultural academia, and to Jewish-American identity. This book helps explain the threat he poses to the academy, and the nature of the overtly coercive influence that Zionist institutions have had on the academy—obviously including the University of Illinois—long before he was scheduled to arrive here.

I will conclude by quoting from the first paragraph of the brief epilogue of this book:

The anxious chattering guardians of national consciousness, composed of liberal writers and eager do-gooders, killed Israel’s soul. They did not kill it through violence, however. They killed it by inventing it. This death isn’t tragic. It is to be celebrated. Israel’s soul needed to die if the many peoples of the Near East are to continue living.

By endowing a nation-state, the progenitor of militarism and technocracy, with the most abstract but sacred element of humanity, a soul, those fretting over Israel’s encounters with darkness ensured its eternal soullessness. This paradox does not threaten Israel’s future; it portends the safety and survival of the Jewish and Palestinian people. By insisting that nation-states have souls, we prevent ourselves from tending to the humans who subsist within the institutions. The nation-state does not procure a human soul. The nation-state circumscribes the human soul. (p. 141)

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Interesting, but difficult work. Some typos and mistakes (as I read them). I’ve suggested changes in [brackets] [1] “I am working form [from] the belief that Israel’s soul died at the moment of its invention” [2] “What are the ethical consequences of the [loudly asserted by Zionists, but frequently denied… Read more »

He’s implying, but not stating outright, a conclusion others have reached, the link between multiculturalism and zionism, the former flowing from the latter: “My point here is not to suggest that Zionism corrupts multiculturalism, though that is likely the case, at least in the abstract. I suggest instead the possibility… Read more »

Pb’s last question in particular is a very good one. Salaita seems to have attended the same School of Complicated Utterance as some other cultural theorists have. He’s at his best when he puts his books on the shelf and just complains about awful people in plain words. Salaita’s idea… Read more »

I was able to attend all of Professor Salaita’s talks/events in Chicago last week and was permitted to videotape them. If anyone is interested, here’s some of the footage: (Talk at Columbia College) (University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter’s Introduction of Salaita) (Revealing Q & A… Read more »

RE: “Steven Salaita’s ‘Israel’s Dead Soul’ (2011) merits serious attention and ultimately effusive praise. It contains five critical essays that not only offer brilliant insight into the cultural and ideological practices of Zionism in both Israel and the United States, but implicitly explain why his conscientious efforts would be denigrated… Read more »