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Uncivil Rites of the Corporate Neoliberal University: the Curious Case of Steven Salaita

Donna Nevell’s Oct 7th article published in Alternet, about a new report called  “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US” – released by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights (See more here.) points to the rise in North American academia, of a phenomenon that I encountered head-on back in the late 1970s when I arrived as a grad student in Massachusetts from my native Pakistan, and which I’ve continued to witness (and experience the brunt of, throughout my 25 years of teaching, via demands for “civility” whenever I criticized Israeli policies in public settings, earning me the ire of Zionist colleagues, with those in power using that privilege on various committees to deny me academic awards, funding support, etc )–but which I thought was on the wane in recent years. This is the phenomenon of the facile canard of accusations of anti-semitism (a silencing tactic par excellence)–levelled against anyone and everyone who wants to approach the topic of Israel/Palestine with a critical eye, or who wishes to speak out against Israel’s use of disproportionate violence against Palestinian civilians year after year, or who wishes to raise legitimate questions about the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands which continue unabated to date, in contravention of countless UN resolutions against such occupation.[1]

In recent years, however, I’ve felt a shift in public opinion and discourse around issues of Israel/Palestine, as attested to by my students, who have become more aware of, and thus more critical of the imbalance of military and economic power between Israel and its disenfranchised Palestinian second-class citizens as well as the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories, which has led them to become more aware of the dominant media bias in favor Israel. Yet, the recent, ignominious case of Prof Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne in the wake (ostensibly) of some tweets he wrote criticizing Israel during its 2014 “Operation Protective Edge” military blitzkrieg against Palestinian civilians of Gaza,[2] points to the desperate push-back occurring on US campuses against this perceived shift in public (and student) opinion. Opines Nevell:

As Israeli violence against the Palestinian people escalates, support across the globe for    justice in Palestine, and calls in this country for the US government and corporations to stop facilitating Israel’s gross violations of international law and human rights, are increasingly common-place. However, rather than engage substantively about those well-           documented violations, Israel’s defenders recklessly and baselessly smear Israel’s critics with charges of anti-Semitism, promoting terrorism, and seeking to “delegitimize” Israel.

What is particularly troubling about this propaganda tactic—a longstanding one as it is—is that because it enjoys the support of rich donors who can and do, influence the corporate culture of universities (those of us who’ve been around long enough have witnessed the acceleration of the corporatization of US academia over the past several decades), there are increasingly virulent attacks occurring against faculty and students alike who dare to speak out against Israeli state policies. Nevell tells us how

These campaigns are largely directed at college campuses where consistent, bold, and creative organizing is ongoing against Israel actions and against university complicity in supporting Israeli crimes. Those whose views are considered unacceptable to Israel’s supporters have been targeted with personal and ad hominem attacks that include, but are not limited to, intimidation, campaigns to get professors fired, and ongoing harassment.     When speaking on college campuses, I was told story after story of students who were hesitant to speak out because of fear of reprisals. Further, accusations of “creating hostile environments” or being “uncivil”–ironic as they are—are yet another attempt to derail the call for equality, for accountability, and for fairness.

At a recent gathering of students and faculty of Columbia University and the general public, Professors Steven Salaita and Rashid Khalidi (the latter is Edward Said chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia), while celebrating the publication of Salaita’s book which chronicles his year since he was unhired/fired by UIUC for an allegedly anti-semitic tweet during august of 2014, provided the standing-room-only audience also with a glimpse into the darkening atmosphere on university campuses which has arisen in the wake of a successful BDS movement (the campaign for Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights), as a means to curtail freedom of speech for those criticizing the Israeli state. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

What is truly inspiring and refreshing, however, about Salaita’s take on the current manifestation of this chronic disease afflicting academe, is that he rises above his personal predicament (no mean task, given loss of employment and livelihood for himself and his family, and the need to relocate abroad to earn a living: as he pointed salaitauncivilout, while it’s wonderful that he was finally able to land a very prestigious position as the Edward Said Chair at AUB in Beirut, it is only a one-year appointment). Beyond his personal tribulations, then, he discusses the full ramifications of the “civility” argument that has become the official discourse of the corporate university, which he persuasively describes as simply the latest instance of a colonial mechanism aimed at “controlling”—i.e disempowering—those professors and students who represent marginalized/colonized groups, and whose scholarship challenges received wisdom or the “hegemony” of the “dominant discourse” that rules the roost. To be critical of the power apparatus, of the corporatization of academe which routinely silences opposing voices by depriving us of jobs, tenure, promotions, this evil corporatization that has led to the de-funding of departments and programs that challenge dominant knowledge paradigms and the (il)logic of profit over humanity and democratic education, which has led to the infantilizing and punishing of students who wish to organize for their rights—in short, to raise critical voices for justice and for an end to dehumanization, is to now stand accused of “uncivility.” This is precisely what happened to Salaita. As he puts it so pithily in his book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom:

In the hegemon, state violence is never violent. Expressions of the subaltern, however, are always said to be conducted violently. Indicting a lone tweeter allows those invested in the colonial apparatus to avoid confronting their own complicity in the cruelties of racism and war. Many folks wrung their hands—teeth gnashed into rugged nubs—about my tweets critical of Israel while saying nothing of Israel’s wanton slaughter in Gaza. If, in the imagination of the liberal state, racism is but an individual failing, then critique of structural violence is a collective evasion (14).

In other words, while Salaita was indicted as an “individual” for practicing “uncivil behavior” through his critical tweets of Israel, the hegemonic university and its administrators did not need to confront their complicity in supporting Israeli racism and its unremitting and unjust war against Palestinians. Here are some sobering statistics Salaita provides that highlight the injustice which disingenuous accusations of “uncivility” directed at the victims or those angry at the situation and wishing to expose it, like Salaita, cover over:

 Since 2000, Israelis have killed 2,060 Palestinian children while Palestinians have killed 130 Israeli children. The overall death count during this period is over 9,000 Palestinians and 1,190 Israelis….Israel has imposed hundreds of settlements on the West Bank [in direct violation of UN resolutions], while Palestinians inside Israel increasingly are squeezed and continue to be internally displaced. Israel has demolished nearly thirty thousand Palestinian homes as a matter of policy. Palestinians have demolished zero Israeli homes. (17)

But such techniques of silencing the “other” which today are directed with unrelenting and almost single-minded force against supporters of Palestinian human rights by the corporate university, have a long history aimed at other marginalized communities as well. Observes Salaita,

What happened to me has been happening to ethnic, sexual and cultural minorities in academe for decades, African Americans especially, and it continues to happen today. A shameful irony is that Jews were long marginalized in the academy because of their supposed dangers to Anglo civility, victims to rationalizations for their exclusion that, sadly, don’t look terribly different than the ones being used against supporters of Palestinian human rights. (49)

The supreme irony here, is that it is the victims of incivility who are being treated as its perpetrators! Plus ca change…. Indeed, blaming the victim is an age old strategy of the powerful. But, as Salaita notes, as Nevell recently observed, and which is where I began this piece, change is definitely in the air, and things will not remain the same, the French adage notwithstanding. Salaita notes, with some optimism

Israel is losing the PR battle, the proverbial hearts and minds. Its supporters, in turn, are lashing out with the sort of desperation endemic to any strong party in decline. They are punitive and belligerent in the absence of honest debate. This is about undemocratic power reasserting itself, refusing to cede a word to Palestinians in a severely compromised public discourse. It is, simply stated, colonial paranoia. (53)

As history has shown us, even the most entrenched colonial apparatuses come to an end, at times, seemingly suddenly (it seems this way especially to those who haven’t been paying attention to subaltern discourses!) A fairly recent case in point: South Africa. Injustice, apartheid, do not last forever. And neither will that other corporate hegemon: the neoliberal university. In the unjust, shameful, ludicrous and illegal case brought against Salaita by UIUC to deny him the position he was hired for, to teach in the Department of Native American Studies (yes, the ironies just multiply!)—it is the corporate university that has already lost in the court of public opinion.

Notes.

[1] The UN Human Rights Council formed in 2006 has issued 45 resolutions condemning Israeli actions; the UN’s Security Council has issued dozens of such resolutions, all of which Israel has, to date, flouted with impunity, thanks to blind support from its most powerful ally, the government of the USA. Between 1955 and 1992 alone, the UN issued 65 resolutions against Israel, but to date, Israel remains in contravention of most of them. Israel continues to be in violation of the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Conventions, laws of international terrorism, and other norms of international law.

[2] during its 2014 attacks on Gaza Between 8 July and 27 August, more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel. The UN says the vast majority of Palestinian deaths are civilian.

 

 

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Fawzia Afzal-Khan holds a Phd in English from Tufts University, is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Arts at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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