Steven Salaita writes, “Was I actually hired? According to contract law and hiring protocol, yes” (29). This hiring is the starting point of a frustrating, if not entirely surprising or unusual, series of unfortunate events which led directly to the publication of Salaita’s appropriately scathing Uncivil Rites (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015). The book casts an extremely wide net. But when your subjects are freedom of speech and the Palestine conflict, the related issues are vast.
To understand Professor Salaita’s book, a concise chronological summary of its genesis is helpful: Salaita submits an application for employment to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC); regular interview and vetting processes follow; UIUC and their American Indian Studies department proffer Salaita a tenured position; Salaita accepts; Israel commences Operation Protective Edge against Gaza killing thousands (including hundreds of children); Salaita tweets angrily against the onslaught; UIUC terminates Salaita’s employment.
“I had been assigned courses and an office… The university had arranged for movers to arrive. [UIUC Chancellor Phyllis] Wise herself had invited me to a new faculty reception” (30). This string of events detailed by Salaita are uncontested. Along with his wife and son, he sold his house and quit a tenured professorship he held in another state to accept the offer from UIUC. Only some inane point of administrative procedure or manipulative legal interpreting could make it appear as if Salaita had not, in fact, been hired (yet this is UIUC’s claim). This is why Salaita can write about his lawsuit against the university moving forward and that “federal judge Harry D. Leinenweber… emphatically endorsed the argument that I had a valid employment contract and that UIUC violated my speech rights” (193).
The manner of the firing, after nearly a year in which Salaita and his family physically and psychologically prepared to begin their new life, “does an excellent job illuminating the dehumanizing, technocratic conventions of the corporate boardroom” (33), writes Salaita. To notify Salaita of his firing, Chancellor Wise sent an email with a subject line of “please see attached letter,” and its full body reading “Please read the attached letter” (38). The University of Illinois Board of Trustees paperwork refers to Salaita’s firing as “Entry Not Approved,” while the trustees themselves refer to Salaita as “Item 14, page 23, number 4” (33) during their vote for his termination. It’s hard to tell whether Salaita was fired by Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees or 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal 9000.
According to Chancellor Wise, Salaita’s termination was motivated by a desire to protect her institution’s students from being “harassed” or “intimidated” and to keep them feeling “safe.” She maintains that the political content of Salaita’s tweets (strongly anti-Zionist and critical of Israel) did not enter the decision-making process. But rather it was specifically the “uncivil” tone of his tweets which led to his termination. This is widely considered to be dissimulation.
Salaita writes that “outing oneself as pro-Palestine is a troublesome prospect in academe… As to the reasons for my termination, BDS [is…] central” (2,50). This “troublesome” aspect has been a truism for decades and was well dissected thirty years ago in Illinois congressman Paul Findley’s book They Dare To Speak Out (Westport: Lawrence Hill & Company, 1985). But the BDS aspect (the movement to Boycott, Divestment, & Sanction Israel) Salaita speaks to is more recent.
Just this year two major pro-Israel organizations came into being to specifically combat pro-Palestine activism and BDS on campus: Brazen billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s “Campus Maccabees,” headed by the leader of Christians United for Israel; and the
vicious, anonymous, and possibly illegal “Canary Mission.” Salaita describes the Canary Mission as “… an online database to monitor student activists, intended to subvert their future employment prospects” (52). This description may sound hysterical to some and likely conjured by someone simply overstating their case. It’s not. And a minute or two spent on the Mission’s site makes this clear. It’s beyond ugly. Salaita writing that being openly pro-Palestine on campus can be “troublesome” is an understatement. He himself is proof.
Ironically, as an example of the rhetorical evasiveness of BDS’s opponents, Salaita footnotes a quote from Norman Finkelstein on BDS supporters: “They don’t want Israel. They think they’re being very clever. They call it their three tiers… We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they think they are very clever, because they know the result of implementing all three is what? What’s the result? You know and I know what’s the result: there’s no Israel” (168). Finkelstein goes on in the interview to repeatedly call BDS a “cult” in addition to other insults. It seems as a result of this interview, and his inflexible (some would say unrealistic) attachment to the “two-state solution,” Finkelstein’s support and admiration among some in the Palestine Solidarity movement is waning.
It’s likely that many orchestrators of Salaita’s firing thought it likely that he would apologize for his “offensive/anti-Semitic” tweets after being publicly harassed and slandered. Salaita is having none of it. He doubles down in Uncivil Rites on the tweets that made his detractors so incredulous. And good on him. He’s got nothing to apologize for and he knows it.
Salaita writes of his tweets, “In most conversations about my termination, Israel’s war crimes go unmentioned, yet it is impossible to understand my tweets without that necessary context” (44). Salaita is acutely aware and mindful of placing the events of his firing, including his tweets, in proper context. He’s aware of this necessity because proper contextualization is precisely what is so often absent in punditry, media coverage, and in the general discourse on the issue of Palestine.
Salaita’s tweets were “doubly” taken out of context: First being decontextualized from Operation Protective Edge; then more broadly decontextualized from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. UIUC’s decontextualization of Salaita’s tweets mimics our media’s broader decontextualization of virtually all of the conflict’s events (home demolitions, stone throwing, “wars,” violent suppression of non-violent protests, the separation wall, etc.) from the wider issue of occupation.
The following tweet got much of the attention: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” Salaita explains that “the phrase ‘gone missing’ or ‘go missing’ was in wide circulation. I thought it a suitable moment to reflect on a fundamental Palestinian desire to end military occupation… I didn’t mean kidnap or murder” (11). Suffice it to say that anyone who honestly interprets that tweet as Salaita’s public declaration of his desire for the murder of nearly half a million Jewish settlers is… wildly mistaken. More likely is that such plainly hyperbolic interpretations were made willfully as some kind of PR strategy, as opposed to coming from any genuine concern against a call to genocide.
This willful conflation of criticism of Israel/Zionism with anti-Semitism is the crux of the Salaita scandal. And it’s nothing new.
Christopher Kennedy, Chairman of the UI Board of Trustees, was toward the top of the accuser food chain: “We were sort of stunned that anyone would write such blatantly anti-Semitic remarks” (123). Here’s Salaita’s response to such accusations: “My denunciations of Israel and Zionism aren’t as threatening as my calm appeals to humanism. The idea of equality becomes ‘anti-Semitic’ merely by its unwillingness to submit to the demands of ethnocracy. I didn’t articulate anti-Semitism. I disparaged Judeo-supremacy” (118). Salaita’s explication here of why his tweets aren’t anti-Semitic applies, in exactly the same language, to exonerating BDS from the same accusations.
Supporters of Salaita’s defense against these spurious and opportunistic claims of anti-Semitism are legion and reputable. UIUC’s own Michael Rothberg (Director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at UIUC) wrote a letter to Chancellor Wise stating, “I strongly believe that neither Professor Salaita himself nor the tweets that are at issue are antisemitic… The tweets… are not expressions of antisemitism but criticism of how charges of antisemitism are used to excuse otherwise inexcusable actions.”
Lastly on the issue of false accusations of anti-Semitism, Salaita quotes “philosopher/intellectual” Bernard-Henri Levy’s assertion that the central belief of anti-Zionists is that, “Jews are detestable because they are inseparable from a detestable state” (131). This infers that Salaita thinks all Jews are “inseparable from Israel.” This is not the case. The reality is actually the exact opposite of Levy’s theory. Anti-Zionists work against the notion that all Jews are inseparable from the State of Israel. And it is, in fact, Israel itself which works toward irrevocably attaching all Jews to itself.
The title Uncivil Rites refers to, of course, UIUC’s claims of Salaita’s “incivility.” Salaita: “Administrators love the word [civility]: it means anything they want it to mean… Insofar as ‘civil’ is profoundly racialized… [t]hose who decry my ‘incivility,’ then, implicate the cultures and histories from which my rhetoric and morality emerge… Civility exists in the lexicon of conquest. It is the language of Cotton Mather’s diatribes” (42,54,105).
It is also the language of anti-Islam advocate Pamela Geller’s diatribes. Her classically crude “advertisement” from 2011 reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” This is precisely what Salaita refers to when he writes “civility is racialized” and that “incivility implicates cultures.” Geller’s profoundly simplistic message can easily be read to infer that Jews/Whites are civilized, while Palestinians/Arabs are savage. It’s a grotesque and deeply racist caricature. However unwittingly, Chancellor Wise and the UIUC trustees have aligned themselves with the Geller’s of the world.
Putting aside all the politics and “issues,” Salaita strictly as a writer is very engaging and stylistically split. He’s a quirky mix of the relatively lowbrow colloquial, and over-the-top, ivory tower pretentious. In other words, he has the potential to piss everyone off.
Some examples of his penchant toward the academic (he is, after all, a professor): “Our barbarity is atavistic and immanent. It proceeds our subjectivity, restricts our earthly presence” (122), “Attempting to explain the simulacra of hypertextual branding usually results in their reproduction” (3), “It is the archetype of elision, a pious device of sophistry and microaggression” (124). Or some creative turns of phrase: “Insatiable Geopolitical Headache” (19), “Geostrategic Gentrification” (22), “Cheerleaders of Civility” (62).
The need to occasionally consult your dictionary is balanced by Salaita’s more chilled out, everyman side: “I cuss sometimes because why the fuck not?” (6). Or on folks engaged in the witch hunt against him: “I hadn’t done shit to these people” (111). Or on his first press conference: “This time I was nervous. The cigarette shook in my fingers. I would have eagerly traded nicotine for tetrahydrocannabinol in that moment” (115). I take this as an admission that, unlike President Clinton, Salaita inhaled.
Despite the depressing and frustrating issues that make up Salaita’s story, he’s also occasionally hilarious. He footnotes a perfect description of Tucker Carlson: “He has a shaggy mop of chestnut hair. He wears a bowtie. He is white. His name is Tucker. Clearly he was created in a Republican lab” (10). He also footnotes a joke geared toward graduate students who are knowledgeable in campus Palestine politics: “Future GRE analogy: Dershowitz is to Finkelstein as Nelson is to Salaita” (84). Or my favorite, where he lists potential headlines for an imagined article detailing his theft of a Vanity Fair magazine from a coffee shop: “Terror Averted When Swarthy Mocha-with-Soy Devotee Chooses Periodical over Suicide Bomb” (149).
However, Salaita does occasionally lapse into a self-indulgent, somewhat arcane purple prose: “I won’t delete my history and my forebears for the prosaic opportunity to ingratiate myself to guardians of the unexamined sensibilities of Western modernity” (74). Or, “They produce the mental habits of colonial induction and tacitly demand adherence to the archetypes of managerial pragmatism” (125). And what I see as the motherlode: “[W]hen Zionists deploy [accusations of anti-Semitism] to discourage criticism of Israel it summons a set of racialized discourses… I want now to situate these apocryphal notions of anti-Semitism into frameworks of normative whiteness… The accusation delegitimizes anybody who has criticized Israel and thus renders itself less a strategy of identifying racism than of exercising it through furtive reproductions of majoritarian angst. That angst is connected to the commonplaces of reverse racism and white retrenchment” (128,129). Yikes… I can’t disagree with that passage. But I can’t agree with it either. And both for the same reason: I can’t make heads or tails of it. I fully grant that whatever Salaita is getting at there is likely simply beyond me and that sometimes ideas are of a nature that require dense language to explicate. Certainly Zionism, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and academic freedom are complex subjects. But for the right person, they’re also fertile ground for digging unnecessarily philosophical and semantic rabbit holes.
Undoubtedly, reaction to Uncivil Rites will be divided along political fault lines. Salaita has written an excellent and contentious book on a slew of controversial issues. It appears that he’s an adherent to the Howard Zinn axiom “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” There’s no sitting on the fence for Salaita, for he writes, “There was no longer any doubt: I would fight. And, just like the Palestinians on whose behalf so many of us work, I have no intention of stopping” (116).