After Salaita: How professors can better protect their Jewish students

As America's professors rush to defend academic freedom, they should also work to keep racists off the faculty

Steven Salaita loves boycotts.

Long before his anti-Semitic statements on Twitter cost him a tenured job at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Salaita wrote the BDS how-to playbook for boycotting Israel’s entire system of higher education. And ever since his Illinois job offer was withdrawn four months ago, he’s been backing a boycott of that university too.

Now that the Fall semester is over, the Illinois faculty are taking stock of the damage done to their university by this unjustified collective punishment — the same kind of indiscriminate blacklisting that Salaita and his BDS supporters think Israel’s academic institutions deserve.

In a recent letter addressed to Timothy Killeen, the university’s newly appointed president, thirty-four department chairs and program directors describe how thousands of academics are refusing to visit the Urbana-Champaign campus, resulting in the cancelation of dozens of previously scheduled guest speaker events, colloquium series, and conferences. Faculty searches have been jeopardized, as promising candidates aren’t even bothering to send in their applications. And graduate students are frightened that their own job prospects are being compromised.

You’d think, given this litany of woes, that Salaita would call off the boycott, empathizing with the students, faculty, and staff of a university that he’s now suing.

Not a chance.

Like most ideologues, Salaita and his BDS buddies aren’t very self-critical and they’re only prepared to see intimidation when it’s allegedly being practiced by the other side: Israel and its supporters.

Now it seems that the Illinois faculty are fed up with all the ostracism, scolding, and shunning, and are more than ready to move on — without Salaita. The Illinois faculty aren’t asking President Killeen to give Salaita back his job. Recent interviews show that most of the faculty there want to “heal divisions” caused by the Salaita case and be “forward-looking”.

A new Faculty Senate Resolution even distances the Illinois campus from Salaita’s loathsome tweets. Dozens of responses to the university’s handling of the Salaita case have chastised its administrators for characterizing his tweets as “uncivil” and for months Salaita’s advocates have doubled down on civility as a “front for censorship”. Salaita himself thinks that civility is “a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not racist”—a “deeply violent word” and “the language of genocide”.

The Illinois Senate Resolution’s retort to this is both obvious and compelling: “civility” isn’t some vague, dangerous, or arbitrary standard, but an “important and laudable norm for public discourse”. When scholars speak out on contentious topics they should be rewarded for well-reasoned argument, not sensational invective.

Nothing could be more contra Salaita or his fellow Israel haters, who believe that the more offensive, injurious, and insulting you can be, the better.

For the over 1,000 Illinois students who signed a petition back in August against Salaita’s appointment, finding out that their professors are now having second thoughts about Salaita’s bid for reinstatement must come as a huge relief. These Illini college kids are pretty bright. They knew immediately that “hate speech is never acceptable for those applying for a tenured position.”

Salaita’s popularity at Illinois is hitting rock bottom but, as Martin Kramer correctly observes, he’s already been “enshrined as a symbol” of the trouncing of academic freedom and the trampling of shared governance protocols, and his case will continue to cast a long shadow in American academe.

On my campus this semester, and on many others across the country, Salaita garnered considerable sympathy from colleagues who are justifiably peeved over the erosion of academic freedom, transparency, and shared governance on their own campuses. And come next semester, there will be lots of new resolutions that reassert faculty freedom to endorse a full spectrum of ideas without the fear of arbitrary retribution, disciplinary action, or the threat of censorship by campus administrators.

These will be laudable documents, and I suspect that they’ll easily garner unanimous support in faculty deliberative bodies. But it remains to be seen whether they’ll take an explicit stance in opposition to hate speech—like Salaita’s tweets about Israel and Jews.

Anti-Semitic hate speech is not “in the eye of the beholder” or an “ever-shifting goal post,” as some of Salaita’s  defenders have argued. Nor should it be wielded as a blunt weapon to silence political or intellectual critics. Most—even the most intemperate—critical statements of Israel’s government or society are not anti-Semitic. Criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic when it expresses an utter hostility to Jewish peoplehood and self-determination or projects the negative stereotypes of the Jew onto the Jewish-majority state.

Because anti-Semitism has a precise definition with specific manifestations, not every one of Salaita’s hundreds of angry tweets rises to anti-Semitism. But the vast majority of them are textbook instances of both classic and contemporary anti-Jewish prejudice.

Salaita’s shocking anti-Semitism operates on two levels: he can imagine Jews as parasites and sexual deviants, “scabies” that “burrow under the skin” and “bloodletters” that “murder children” to make “necklaces from their teeth” and as sinister money-grubbers and power-grabbers, like the “Zionist donors” who he insists robbed him of his job.

As the British writer David Baddiel recently notes, Jews are the only people on the planet for which racism has this kind of low and high status—Jews are perceived as vermin, but also as wealthy and secretly in control.

In the coming months, will faculty resolutions that vigorously defend academic freedom also say that disparaging and bullying speech like Salaita’s contradicts our professional obligations and responsibilities?

Let’s hope so.

Because for Jewish college kids an inclusive campus discourse can’t come soon enough.

Not a week goes by without another appalling anti-Semitic incident on some American campus (see the latest at the University of Pittsburgh and Cornell). Some Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) campus chapters are making a habit of disrupting Jewish student events. Over 40 percent of Jewish American college students report that they’ve experienced harassment or intimidation, or are aware of anti-Semitism at their schools. And Cary Nelson, the former President of the AAUP from 2006-2012 who defended his university’s decision not to hire Salaita, observes that it’s becoming harder to find an academic space grounded in an empathy for both Palestinians and Israelis.

It’s too bad that we need clauses in resolutions to remind us of what the Chaplains on my campus view as a given 0– that no student, regardless of religious or political identity, deserves to be judged or labeled negatively by a higher education professional.

But these resolutions are necessary. Because if faculty resolve to model “appropriate restraint and respect for the opinions of others,” as called for by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the central policy-making and norms-enforcing body for American academics, then maybe students will also begin to show a greater tolerance for one another.

Want to know how America’s professors can better protect their Jewish students and foster a safe and welcoming campus for all?

The answer is simple: They can stop hiring unabashed racists and stop making bigoted remarks themselves.

Avoiding Twitter might also be a good idea.

About the Author
Miriam F. Elman teaches and writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from her hometown in New York. She is a political scientist and security studies specialist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.
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