The pressure on the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign over the firing of Steven Salaita increases with a long essay published two days ago in the New York Times “Stone” section– a forum for contemporary philosophers — by University of Massachusetts professor Joseph Levine, describing Salaita’s firing as “a straightforward violation of intellectual and academic freedom.”
But Levine then goes on to puncture the “civility” standard that the university has put forth as a standard for discourse at the school. That standard has caused 34 department heads to rebel at the restrictions the administration is placing on efforts to attract excellent professors. Levine says, so what if Salaita was not civil, that is a vital means of changing attitudes on a moral question.
He begins by quoting one of Salaita’s controversial tweets.
Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014
At that point, Levine notes, “Israel had begun intensive bombing of Gaza, and quite a few civilians had been killed, including children.” Ultimately Israel killed 2100 Palestinians, 500 of them children.
Levine aligns himself with Salaita totally on the immoral character of Israel’s actions, in view of the fact that the people of Gaza were “trapped and totally vulnerable”:
I myself am in complete agreement with Salaita… I can’t mount a full defense of this position here, but let me just say that careful attention to the actual sequence of events over the summer, alongside the vastly disproportionate violence visited on the trapped and totally vulnerable Gaza residents, renders the Israeli claim that they were acting in justifiable self-defense completely unreasonable.
I am reminded of something Daniel Ellsberg said in that wonderful documentary about the Vietnam War, “Hearts and Minds”: Speaking of the revelations about systematic government lying in the Pentagon Papers, he said that it was a tribute to the American people that our leaders felt that they had to lie to us and hide their horrendous actions; but it was no tribute to us that it was so easy. In a related manner, I say, unfortunately, given the state of the general social-political atmosphere here about the conflicts in the Middle East, people can support United States and Israeli military attacks that cause terrible suffering and still be decent. But, I ask again, what does it say about us that this is so?
Not pretending to know what was behind Salaita’s tweets (I have never met him or corresponded with him about this issue), I can see two reasons for being so “uncivil” as to impugn his opponents’ moral character. First, there is just the need to express outrage at the state of our discussion on this matter. While the people targeted by the tweet are not actually awful human beings, it’s about time we came to generally see things from the perspective from which they certainly seem to be. Having to listen to justifications for bombing children can wear you down, even if you know very well where it’s all coming from. (An op-ed by the Jewish actor and singer Theodore Bikel captures this sentiment well. )
But more important, expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.
When Levine cites Theodore Bikel’s Jewishness in noting his outrage at Israel’s actions last September (Bikel said “The shameful apologies trying to justify the death of Arab children with trite explanations of ‘collateral damage’ and ‘use children as shields and they will die’ fill me with anger”) and when he says that “it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack,” he is addressing the reactionary power of the organized Jewish community over this issue, its ability to inhibit clear thinking by smart people. In short, he is using Salaita’s case to do some consciousness-raising. You will see that comments on the piece are both supportive and outraged; it is in the end yet another sign of the end of consensus inside the establishment on the Zionism issue. Still at the edge of the establishment. But this is moving fast.
P.S. Yes, Steven Salaita has endorsed our fundraising drive.