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Steven Salaita keynotes conference on academic freedom in Ireland

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This conference, organized by the MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at Trinity College Dublin, and supported by Trinity College Dublin (TCD), aimed to explore the paradoxes and limits of free speech and academic freedom under the conditions of the neoliberal university.  The academic boycott of Israeli higher education institutions was taken as an example of the limits on dissenting activity in the modern university.  Fifteen speakers from seven different countries ranging from the Middle East, to the United States, Ireland, the UK and continental Europe spoke at the conference.

Given its contentious nature, PACBI represents a perfect example against which it is possible to test the limitations of academic freedom — limitations that are imposed by university and institutional authorities through formal and informal channels. From the United States, to Lebanon and Germany, institutional responses to the call for the boycott or to events critical of Israeli policies were examined. The confrontational attitude widespread among university authorities vis-à-vis BDS was perfectly illustrated during the conference, as debates around BDS and PACBI have been banned or silenced, rather than authorized and encouraged, in many of the national settings considered by speakers.

The conference was opened by the head of the Department of Sociology at TCD, professor Richard Layte, who laid out the fundamental questions the conference would consider.

Mark LeVine (L), Kathleen Cavanaugh (C), and Paola Rivetti (R). (Photo: Ronit Lentin)

The opening round-table panel, “University governance and the possibility for discussing BDS. Comparative perspectives,” brought together case studies from the U.S. (Mark LeVine, University of California, Irvine), Ireland (Kathleen Cavanaugh, NUI Galway) and Italy (Paola Rivetti, Dublin City University). The speakers introduced the issues underpinning the conference, from blatant censorship to the subtle disciplinary power of grant committees and appointment boards, and discussing national variations of the general animosity against on- campus pro-Palestine activism. While LeVine and Rivetti observed that censorship, police violence and threats against less powerful colleagues are commonly deployed in the U.S. and Italy to discourage or shut down voices critical of Israel, Cavanaugh pondered how, given the generally sympathetic Irish academic environment towards the Palestinian cause, discipline and censorship happen at a different level, and reflected on the power of the language usually deployed to talk about the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

The first keynote, Steven Salaita (independent scholar) gave a powerful presentation on “Freedom to boycott: BDS and the modern university.” Salaita, who lost a promised tenure track position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), withdrawn, allegedly because of his forceful and emotional tweets during the 2014 Gaza War, has become a cause célèbre and an icon in the struggle to protect academic freedom, and his keynote revealed the institutional and the human ramifications of his dissent.  Despite winning his legal case against UIUC, precipitating the resignation of the university’s provost and revealing a concerted campaign to deny him a position that went well beyond his Twitter activity, Salaita has been unable to secure ongoing academic employment, in spite of a productive and exemplary level of scholarly activity, and must now resign himself to working and living as a freelance writer and lecturer.

Referring to his own experience, Salaita began by reflecting on why there is a general assumption in favor of Israel’s colonial project, while arguments in favor of Palestinians’ rights often run into “benevolent contempt” and need to be (endlessly) proven as valid. While support for the hegemony of the dominant classes goes unquestioned, oppositional statements have to meet standards of civility to become fully adequate. This often means the removal of emotions, such as anger, from our arguments to make them “civil,” even when anger is arguably a legitimate or humane emotion. The anger and the content of his tweets were not only ruled illegitimate because of their incivility, but ended up being used to define him.  This is what happens, he suggested, to colonized subjects, who are defined by the colonizers and who are ordered in hierarchies based on the level of the ‘discomfort’ they cause to the colonizers. Anger was then the feeling defining who he was, Salaita said, as well as the feeling he was required – and will forever be required, in a Sisyphean manner – to excuse himself for.  

Salaita concluded his keynote speech by returning to the theme of academic freedom. Located in this broader context, academic freedom is not a goal but a means we should defend because it allows for un-civil arguments to be made, he said, such as defending Palestinians’ human rights. Academic freedom and freedom of speech remain unaccomplished until we remove the conditions that make them necessary. Considering the impossibility of criticizing Israel, Salaita stated that academic freedom remains more of a myth than an actual possibility in modern universities.

The second day of the conference was opened by TCD Senator Ivana Bacik, who is also Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity.  Welcoming the initiative, Bacik compared contemporary dissenting struggles in the university system to those which animated Irish society in the 1990s.

In the first session, “The neoliberal university and freedom of speech,” Hilary Aked (Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath) addressed the topic “Whose university? Neoliberalism, counter-extremism and the academic boycott of Israel,” and gave a fascinating account of the rise of “Israel Studies” as a new sub-discipline in the United Kingdom, designed to act as a “positive” counterweight to modes of academic discourse and research perceived to be critical of Israel.

Aked revealed the intricacies of the relationship between leading academic authorities, high-level administrators and external donors and foundations. Focusing on pro-Israeli foundations and their relations with academic authorities, Aked displayed documents revealing the politics behind appointments, job offers and confirmations. While offering a worrying insight into the power of external donors in piloting the university’s teaching and research agendas, Aked reflected that the ideological project underpinning the establishment of chairs in Israeli Studies is often subverted as the courses and teaching activities taking place in that frame paradoxically become sites of critical thinkers, students and researchers.

Sinead Pembroke (Think-tank for Action on Social Change) gave a striking talk on the nature of academic “precarity” – the condition of many university workers, teachers and researchers in Ireland and elsewhere in the Western world.  She demonstrated how the ability of young and part-time academics to participate in dissenting activity on campus is hedged by vulnerabilities pertaining to job security, working relationships with tenured colleagues and heads of department, and the pressures of high teaching and administrative burdens without departmental support, and various other factors. And yet a majority of Irish academics who have signed the Academics for Palestine pledge on the academic boycott are themselves precarious early career workers who display a commitment often apparently lacking in persons more firmly and safely lodged in the academic apparatus.

Tala Makhoul, hailing from the American University of Beirut (AUB), where Steven Salaita had served as Edward Said Chair of American Studies, gave a fascinating account of the legal and financial complexities governing AUB. Noting the institution’s original imperial status as an instrument of American foreign policy in the Levant, Makhoul discussed the overlapping webs of American and Lebanese legislation that govern the university. This situation is  further complicated by the dependence of AUB on U.S. funding that is often hedged with political requirements touching on the university’s, and Lebanon’s, relationship with Israel. Such requirements often run counter to the sentiments of staff and students, and make dissent tricky and dangerous.

The second keynote speaker, Professor Kathleen Lynch of the Equality Studies program at University College Dublin, spoke to the topic “Academic freedom: new and old challenges.” Professor Lynch offered a devastating portrayal of the erosion of the humanistic university in the West in general and in Ireland specifically in terms legal, economic, structural, pedagogical and curricular. She drew on a variety of evidence – OECD documents and reports, EU policy documents, the Irish 1997 Universities Act, reports on working conditions in Irish higher education – to offer a shocking account of the decline of university education under neoliberal managerialism.

In the first session of the afternoon, “Intellectual praxis, lawfare and academic freedom,” John Reynolds (Law Department, Maynooth University) took his cue from Edward Said’s fourth Reith Lecture on “Professionals and amateurs” to offer a model of radical academic praxis founded on commitment rather than professional formation. Jeff Handmaker (International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University, Rotterdam) and Selma Rekik (Department of Law, University Maastricht) co-presented a talk on “Protecting academic freedom through legal mobilization.” Pitching the idea of “legal mobilization” (legitimate use of law to support political claims) against “lawfare” (the use of law by the state to suppress scholarly criticism), they looked to the transformative potential of constitutional law to protect academic campaigns for boycott.

Arianne Shahvisi (Brighton and Sussex Medical School) gave an effective talk on “‘Civil’ civility and ‘Uncivil’ civility: the social epistemology of academic freedom.”  Shahvisi showed how the discourse of  “civility” is used and manipulated to police dissenting speech in the university context.  Her talk was particularly pertinent to the Salaita case, bringing new illumination to it.

In the last session, Eleonora Roldan Mendivil (Department of Social Sciences, University of Hamburg), C. Heike Schotten (Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston), and Nadia Silhi Chahin (University Carlos III Madrid) addressed topics ranging from hate speech on campus to settler colonialism.  Mendivil spoke about her experiences as a junior academic in Hamburg, where BDS dissent has  been policed very severely.  Chahin gave a stimulating analysis, predicated on classical liberal theory, of the borderlines between free speech and hate speech. Schotten gave a fascinating history of the sub-discipline of “terrorology,” demonstrating the central place Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has had in establishing this discourse, and his success in making “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorism fundamental to any understanding of the phenomenon.  Earlier struggles around settler-colonial regimes (in Algeria, in Kenya) also showed this particular discursive formation.  Concluding her talk, Schotten argued for the abandonment of the concept of ‘academic freedom’, suggesting that it remains too implicated in a conventional and ineffective liberal framework.

The last event of the conference was the book launch by Professor Kathleen Cavanaugh of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway, of “Empire, Emergency and International Law” (Cambridge University Press, 2017) by John Reynolds, a new and exciting book on the law of emergency and the “exception.”

Conor McCarthy

Conor McCarthy is Lecturer in English at Maynooth University in Ireland. He is a founding member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and of Academics for Palestine, the Irish academic boycott campaigning group.

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3 Responses

  1. DaBakr on October 25, 2017, 8:33 pm

    The poor guys got to make a living some way. I’ll bet he curses the Israelis who made sms messaging/tweeting possible. It’s hard to not like this man personally but it’s possible.

    • Emory Riddle on October 28, 2017, 2:09 pm

      Now Israel invented twitter?

      Israel supporters are like that insecure, unpopular, outcast we all knew as kids.

      Always making these outrageous claims about who they knew, what they owned, what they had done. None of them true and none of them believe by anyone.

  2. JWalters on October 27, 2017, 8:55 pm

    It’s a great step forward to have professional researchers examining and discussing Israel’s methods of bullying to suppress facts and justice. The world needs to be awakened to this monster for what it factually is.

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