In light of Steven Salaita’s talk at UChicago today I figured it would interesting to comment on his recent saga.
As a disclaimer, I missed his main speech, but was there to hear the people he shared the stage with, along with his answers to several questions that were asked.
Salaita is of course known for the fact that U of I recently denied him a tenured position. The most commonly believed fact is that it is because of his tweets, which include his thoughts on how Israel would resurface Atlantis from the depths to colonize it, visions of Prime Minister Netanyahu wearing a necklace of Palestinian teeth, or his desire for “all the fucking West Bank settlers [to] go missing.”
Let’s look at that last one for a second. At today’s event, someone asked him what he would think if one of his colleagues was open about their desire for blacks to disappear. Wouldn’t he have a problem with this?
His voice thundered (actually it was more like a whimper, even with the microphone) down from his self-righteous soap box, saying that of course that would be wrong for them to say, but that he was entirely justified in wishing for the deaths of thousands of Israelis because they are a “political” class (as opposed to what, I’m not quite sure).
The lack of any real sense is this claim is pretty apparent. Both statements are equally wrong. However, the audience couldn’t have disagreed more, applauding his distorted logic.
Forget his bigotry for a second, and examine his actual work. It turns out this is another totally valid to reject offering him a tenured position because, quite frankly, it isn’t that good.
Liel Leibovitz did us all a favor and actually read Salaita’s work, and it leaves much to be desired.
His observations are so good that they deserve to be quoted at length (it goes without saying that I linked to where I’m taking this from, but more on sources later):
“First of all, he informs his readers that an obsession with a national soul is a quality unique to Israel. A brief Google search would have informed Salaita that Americans seem just as concerned with the national soul as their Israeli counterparts: The History Channel, for example, posted an online curriculum concerning the Scopes Trial titled “The Battle Over America’s Soul,” and the formulation made its way into the subtitle of a 2008 book about the battle between evolution and intelligent design. Reclaiming America’s soul was the subject of a widely circulated column by Paul Krugman, and no less Olympian a chronicler of America than Ken Burns declared that “our national parks feed America’s soul.” This, naturally, is a careless selection of random examples that tells us nothing about America or its soul. Salaita, sadly, never offers anything more profound to support his substantial claims about Israel.
What he does offer are more wild generalities. “Those who chatter about Israel’s declining soul long ago killed it by agonizing it to death,” he writes. The notion that soul-searching leads to soullessness is preposterous, of course—a soul, like good soil, is more fertile the more it is tilled—so Salaita proceeds immediately into a strange disclaimer, arguing that he does not even believe states have souls, “metaphysically or metaphorically.” Again, it’s a statement that raises more questions than it answers—if states haven’t souls, how might Israel’s be dead? And again, Salaita is quick with another rhetorical and baseless escalation: “Israel,” he writes directly after having rejected the possibility of the concept of a national soul, “is the least likely of nations to have a soul, given its creation through ethnic cleansing.” It doesn’t take a scholar of Native American studies to think of another nation that rose into being by means of a bloody conflict with an indigenous population; Salaita mentions none of it. To him, Israel stands alone, an unparalleled and monstrous offender like no other, logical and historical demands be damned.
Such monomaniacal focus is hard to explain away, and Salaita, to his credit, knows that he ought to at least try. “I am not singling out Israel in this book,” he writes, “I am focusing on it with ardent determination and have no interest in absolving Israel or any other state either voluntarily or involuntarily. My analysis arises from a careful exploration of multitudinous sources.” This defense is laughable. First, Salaita never explains why, if he is not singling out Israel, did he choose not only to devote an entire book to its failings, some real and most imagined, but also to forgo any attempt at placing its struggles in context. If you believe, as Salaita does, that Israel is an ethnonationalist monolith engaged in systemic oppression of its neighbors in order to sustain its mythological view of itself and feed its territorial hunger, you might be interested in Russia, say, which is doing precisely the same thing in its corner of the world, with far more devastating results than anything even Israel’s harshest critics could reasonably claim. Salaita’s “careful exploration of multitudinous sources” is just as bogus: Israel, he tells us in one representative paragraph, can accurately be described an apartheid state responsible for ethnic cleansing because Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have so decreed.
Salaita’s use of sources grows more irresponsible as the book unfurls. In a chapter dedicated to profiling the ADL as a hate group—a premise too silly to waste any time debunking—Salaita writes that “it is worth noting that numerous cases of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2007 and 2008 were found to actually have been committed by Jews.” As any serious academic would agree, something is worth noting if it represents a statistically significant occurrence; in the footnote purporting to support his claim Salaita provides no concrete numbers for how many cases of anti-Semitic vandalism were actually the handiwork of nefarious Jews, and instead offers four examples. Considering the fact that, according to Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, there have been 632 cases of violent anti-Semitic attacks during the time period Salaita examines, the examples he provides make for 0.6 percent of all total cases, hardly an exception worth noting. But read the examples carefully, and two egregious errors pop up that shed more light on Salaita’s state of mind: First, one of Salaita’s four examples is the case of a young woman who had carved a swastika on her own thigh; Salaita’s source for the story,a BBC article, makes no mention of the young woman’s ethnicity or religion, and it is unclear why he decided to present her as Jewish. More troubling is the case of Ivan Ivanov. Here is how Salaita describes the case: Ivanov, he writes, “a Bulgarian Jew in Brooklyn was arrested in January 2008, for numerous instances of spray painting anti-Semitic graffiti on houses, vehicles, and synagogues. The New York Times reported that Ivanov was trained by the Mossad.” A search of the Times’ website reveals no mention of the case, but a JTA story from the period contains a much more sober account: “The New York Times reported that Ivanov told police that he was Italian by birth, raised in Bulgaria and trained by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.” The difference between a definitive claim sourced to a major newspaper—Ivanov was trained by the Mossad, says the New York Times—and the likely delusional account of a troubled man—Ivanov tells the Times he was trained by Mossad—is significant. A failure to distinguish between the two, even in a footnote, suggests that Salaita is either remarkably careless with the facts or happy to thwart them to support his narrative. Neither is the mark of a scholar worthy of a position in a fine American university.
It is possible to continue and pull apart Salaita’s shoddy scholarship page by page. One can find heaps of examples in which the scholar makes grand and unsubstantiated claims, such as stating confidently that “in campus promotions, Israel is usually described” as “the exclusive territory of Jews from around the world,” a claim for which he offers no serious evidence. Just as plentiful are the gross historical inaccuracies, such as the statement—as always, uncorroborated and unexplained—that Zionism, a movement with strong socialist roots and a history of affiliation with the Soviet Union, was a champion of capitalism. But these are primarily examples of neglect and of ignorance; Salaita goes much further.
“It is not Israel’s enemies but its advocates who juxtapose Israeli citizenship and Jewish identity,” he writes. “In other words, if it is true that Israel evokes anti-Semitism, then according to their own logic it is primarily the fault of Israel’s most passionate supporters.” The convoluted language—“if it is true,” “according to their own logic”—hardly helps him here, especially not in a book so heavily and patently biased. While Israel does grant citizenship to Jews wishing to settle there, it does not officially conflate Israeli citizenship and Jewish identity, a fact made obvious by the sizable non-Jewish communities that make up a full quarter of its population and by the fact that, like most other democracies, it allows applicants of all backgrounds to apply for citizenship by naturalization. The juxtaposition, then, is all Salaita’s, and it continues throughout the book. In one particularly entertaining chapter, Salaita addresses this complex issue not by analyzing the extensive body of literature already in existence but by reflecting how strange it is that some events sponsored by Hillel are focused on Israel, which to him is proof that those darn Zionists are craftily conflating Judaism and Israel and are therefore to blame, somehow, for the surge of anti-Semitism.
Because words are at the heart of this case, it’s worthwhile to read a few more of Salaita’s tortured formulations. “Hillel and other Jewish civic organizations render themselves distinctly responsible for Israel’s violence by proclaiming themselves guardians of the state’s consciousness,” he writes. “Moreover, they perform a nonconsensual appropriation of all Jewish people into the service of state policies that render the culture indefensible along with the state policies that are said to arise from the culture. It is never a good idea, even through the trope of strategic essentialism, to link an ethnic group to a military apparatus. Such a move automatically justifies discourses—in this case anti-Semitic ones—that should never be justifiable.”
How and when did a Jewish student organization render itself a guardian of Israel’s consciousness? How precisely does it perform an appropriation, nonconsensual or otherwise, of all Jewish people into Israel’s political and military apparatus, especially given the fact that there are scores of other Jewish civic organizations dedicated solely to opposing the very same Israeli policies Salaita decries? Without concrete, well-reasoned answers to these questions—answers that go beyond the observation that a Jewish student organization offers falafel at its events and encourages its members to spend a summer or a semester in Israel, a nation that all but the most rabid of haters would agree is, at the very least, of tremendous religious and historical significance to Jews—the declaration that such behaviors somehow justify anti-Semitism is abhorrent.
Anyone who still has doubts about whether or not Steven Salaita deserves an academic job should ignore his tweets and read his work. Devoid of any real understanding, context, or nuance, stupidly dogmatic, and frequently given to hyperbolic fits of hatred, it should not qualify as scholarship. Criticism of Israel, like criticism of any other nation, ideology, or organization, should be encouraged in the name of the unfettered quest for knowledge that is the ideal of the academic pursuit. But criticism of any sort can never be allowed to metastasize into sheer invective or, worse, into hate speech. By rejecting Salaita’s bid, the University of Illinois made the right decision.”
I felt it was important to quote this at such length because Leibovitz is by now more familiar with Salaita’s writings than most people writing about this subject (myself included).
However, what interested me so much is what Leibovitz wrote about Salaita’s sources. As far back as middle school, we have all been taught about the importance of citing sources. Of course we would slip up every once in a while, but there’s a difference between a 9th grade English paper and academia (at least one would think).
In the days I’ve been in college, I have been told in each class about how important it is that we make clear who we worked with, yet we have Salaita, who would have been in a position to teach these classes, failing by this very metric.
I’ve written before about how problems like this can cause a sitting US Senator to forgo reelection this very election, so it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Salaita was fired not only for his vile tweets, but also for his scholarship, that at times seems more fitting to a high school setting than one of higher education.
At the end of the day, Salaita had every right to tweet what he did, and UIUC had every right to deny him a tenured position (and it’s not like there’s a shortage of anti-Israel voices on campuses throughout the nation).