This week my university, the University of British Columbia, will play host to Steven Salaita, a former Virginia Tech professor who achieved notoriety this past summer when his offer of tenure was rescinded by the University of Illinois. This was a result of Salaita’s tweets about Israel during their war with Hamas in July.
Salaita received support and praise from the zealously anti-Israel column that has become entrenched in American academia, all in the name of freedom of speech. That is the feeble defense that Salaita and his cronies have clung to, and a theme that will likely take center stage during his speaking tour across Canadian universities this month, including at UBC. He may even have the audacity to compare his experiences to those of the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris, which is why it is so crucial now, more than ever, to recognize the absurdity of such a claim.
Salaita’s tweets included “I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” in response to the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas terrorists and “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” Others included the fantasy of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, donning a necklace made of the teeth of Palestinian children, repeated comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, and the claim that all those who supported Israel during the war are “awful human being[s].”
What is most abhorrent about Salaita’s tweets is his blatant endorsement of anti-Semitism as “something honorable” and his explicit support for violence against, and even the murder of Jews. The line that society must draw between legitimate freedom of expression and hate speech that should be met with legal and professional consequences is when such speech incites hatred and violence against others. Salaita’s tweets are such obvious examples of hate speech that it boggles the rational mind that there could be any confusion on the subject.
It should be grounds enough for objection that Salaita opposes the very existence of a country. However, when that country is Israel, any semblance of reason is thrown out the door. It has become acceptable and even expected in some academic circles to express vehement anti-Israel sentiment, a normalized hatred of the Jewish state alone.
Universities across Europe, the United States, and Canada are increasingly pressured by student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine or Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights to endorse discriminatory policies such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and Israeli Apartheid Week. The purpose of these groups is the systematic demonization of Israel on university campuses, and their espoused concern for the plight of the Palestinians is nothing more than a pretext.
Even UBC is not exempt from this; our local Israel-hating group, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, is hosting Salaita. His speech will be the first act in the theatre of the absurd that we will all be forced to endure this semester. Following his speech, SPHR will continue in the grand tradition of their comrades at campuses like York and Concordia, and push the university to vote to boycott and divest from Israel.
There is no shortage of irony to be found in this charade, beginning with the timing of Salaita’s speech. In the wake of a targeted terror attack at a Jewish supermarket in Paris, leaving four Jewish hostages dead, UBC and other Canadian universities will welcome an individual who has profited from the industry of anti-Semitism that is so rife in academia and who actually views the hatred of Jews as morally sound.
There are four dead Jews in the streets of Paris – dead for being Jewish – and my university will host an individual who defends the forces that murdered them.
What is perhaps even more ironic than this travesty is that SPHR — the very people who host a proud anti-Semite in the name of freedom of speech — will demand a university-wide boycott and divestment from Israel in the coming months. The act of a boycott is antithetical to freedom of speech, and, in fact, is intended to silence speech and debate. Should it succeed, a boycott and divestment of Israel from UBC would mean that no Israeli academics, professors or other speakers would be welcome. All economic or political partnerships that UBC has with Israeli companies would end and our university would bear a shameful and irredeemable stain.
By boycotting Israel, we would send a loud message to Israeli students, Jewish students, and truly all those who support dialogue and freedom of expression, that they are not welcome on our campus. If you value academic freedom, then a boycott is the first thing you should oppose.
Progress is achieved through dialogue such as the event that UBC’s Israel on Campus group and the Pakistani Student Association collaborated on in November, the upcoming joint event between Jewish student groups and the Muslim Student Association, and the ongoing communication between Israel on Campus and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
Peace and mutual respect can only be achieved through a commitment to dialogue and free speech, not the bigoted exclusion of an individual, ethnic group or nationality.
Should UBC vote to boycott Israel, our campus would be the latest successor to one of the most discriminatory and xenophobic policies that has shamed university campuses in recent years.
Our school would be party to a policy reminiscent of a seemingly long forgotten but not long past era, a time when books were burned, synagogues incinerated, and villages butchered for the crime of faith. Only now it isn’t the canary yellow star that is silenced, but a blue star on a field of white. They are one and the same, and the forces at work who are trying to impose silence now are the same ones as before.
Does Steven Salaita have the right to speak at our campus? Of course. Is it right? Of course not. While it is appalling that an admitted anti-Semite will speak at my campus, it does serve a purpose: if you support Salaita’s right to speak at UBC in the name of academic freedom, then by the same token, you must oppose Salaita, SPHR and the rest of their ilk when they attempt to foist a boycott and divestment of Israel on our campus.
It is both a logical fallacy and morally dubious to apply the concept of freedom of expression to one and not the other. If academic freedom is something you value, then do not allow BDS to hijack our university.
As someone who honestly supports academic freedom, I am not suggesting that Salaita be prohibited from speaking. However, if he must speak, then let’s be honest about one thing if nothing else: Salaita and SPHR could care less about free expression. On the contrary, SPHR actually has an “anti-normalization policy” which condemns any kind of dialogue with pro-Israel or Jewish student groups.
This is nothing more than a disgraceful ploy to utilize our university’s commitment to freedom of speech to advance a nefarious and hateful agenda. They are manipulating the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo so that no matter how abhorrent we may find Salaita’s remarks, we will be compelled to tolerate them, all in the name of free speech.
But let us be clear: Salaita is no Stephane Charbonnier, and SPHR is no Charlie Hebdo, and any comparison is an insult of the highest order.
It is to compare those who truly exalted free expression – who died to defend it – and those who have made a mockery of it, who laugh at their sacrifice. Let us not mock their sacrifice. If “I am Charlie” holds any meaning to you beyond a hashtag, now is the time to prove it.