Wednesday, September 10, 2014
A Palestinian Exception to the First Amendment
from Corey Robin's blog
Steven Salaita spoke today at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to the YMCA, where the event was held, some 400 students, faculty, staff, and supporters turned up.
Salaita opened with a statement. Here are some excerpts:
My name is Steven Salaita. I am a professor with an accomplished scholarly record; I have been a fair and devoted teacher to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students; I have been a valued and open-minded colleague to numerous faculty across disciplines and universities. My ideas and my identity are far more substantive and complex than the recent characterizations based on a selected handful of my Twitter posts.
Two weeks before my start date, and without any warning, I received a summary letter from University Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing me that my position was terminated, but with no explanation or opportunity to challenge her unilateral decision. As a result, my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom.
Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors – individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom.
I am here to reaffirm my commitment to teaching and to a position with the American Indian Studies program at UIUC. I reiterate the demand that the University recognize the importance of respecting the faculty’s hiring decision and reinstate me. It is my sincere hope that I can – as a member of this academic institution – engage with the entire University community in a constructive conversation about the substance of my viewpoints on Palestinian human rights and about the values of academic freedom.
For me, the best part of his press conference was the Q and A with the media, which begins at 40:50 in the video below. I would encourage everyone to watch it because it gives you the best sense of Salaita the man, the thinker, and the teacher. As I’ve said, I don’t know Salaita personally, except through our interactions on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve never met him or heard him speak. I haven’t read his academic writings. But listening to and watching him field questions, it became clear to me why the American Indian Studies department was so eager to hire him.
My favorite exchange occurs at 43:30. Someone in the media asks him why he would want to still come and teach at UIUC. Looking around the room, which is filled with students, Salaita says:
The question is—and if I’m summarizing it incorrectly let me know—some people are wondering why I would want to work here after all of this has happened and whether it might be uncomfortable. The answer is…the answer is in this room.
One other point to note. At 55:00, one of Salaita’s attorneys is asked about what the litigation process would look like. The attorney replies:
There’s no question that if there is litigation there will be an intensive document retrieval process that will involve trying to get at the heart of exactly what the motivation was for this decision. We think, based on what is already known, the university is going to have some very hard arguments. But we will learn a lot. We will also be able to take depositions. And that is an opportunity to sit people down and ask them about their role in this process, their decision-making and other things. Again, Professor Salaita’s goal is not to have to go down that road. But he is prepared to do so if necessary.
I’ve long felt that one of the things that has to make the university nervous is the prospect of litigation. Yes, the university has tons of money and lawyers. But it also has interests. And one of those interests is protecting the privacy of its donors. I can’t for the life of me believe that the university really wants to risk the rage and rancor of donors having their names dragged into the harsh glare of the public spotlight. Once this case gets into court—and most experts, regardless of which side they fall, believe that Salaita has a good chance of getting into court—there will be discovery motions that will turn up all sorts of paper. What we’ve seen already is damning and embarrassing. But think about what could be coming down the pike: not only emails to and fro, but also records of phone calls, transcripts of meetings, and more. Even if the university were to win the case, they’d have to lose a lot in order to do so.
In other news, Chancellor Wise was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune.
On Monday, Wise acknowledged in an interview that she wished she had “been more consultative” before rescinding Salaita’s job offer, and said it could have led her to a different decision. She said the situation has been “challenging.”
She also said there was “no possibility” that he would work at the U. of I.
“I wish I had not consulted with just a few people and then written the letter to Professor Salaita,” Wise said. “I don’t know what the consultation would have led me to do.”
This is now the third time that Wise has said that she regrets not consulting with other voices on the campus. But this is the first time that she’s positively stated that not only did her firing of Salaita not reflect her own position, but also that she might have reached a different decision than the one she reached had she consulted other voices. Which is precisely the argument that so many of us have been making about whose voices Wise did and did not heed in this process. It almost seems as if she’s trying to give Salaita evidence for his case.
Last, Katherine Franke, who’s been leading the legal academic community on this issue, and Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a PhD candidate in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center, appeared today on Democracy Now.
I urge you to listen to the interview, in particular the part that begins at 47:00. There Kris, whom I know personally, speaks about his experience as an adjunct at Brooklyn College, where he was hired by my department to teach a course on Middle East politics for the spring of 2011 and then fired before the course began. Sound familiar? The reason he was fired? Pro-Israel forces objected to something he had written. Sound familiar? Here’s what one of the leaders of those forces, NYS Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said at the time about an academic paper Kris had written on suicide bombers:
Hikind, a staunch ally of Israel, sent a letter on Monday to Karen Gould, the college’s president, with a copy to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, in which he questioned the adjunct’s appointment. Calling Petersen-Overton “an overt supporter of terrorism,” Hikind said he was “better suited for a teaching position at the Islamic University of Gaza.”
Hikind, who said he earned his master’s degree in political science from Brooklyn College, told Inside Higher Ed that he reached these conclusions after spending “countless hours” reading the newly hired adjunct’s work. This included, chiefly, his unpublished paper, “Inventing the Martyr: Struggle, Sacrifice and the Signification of Palestinian National Identity,” in which he examines martyrdom as it “embodies ideals of struggle and sacrifice” in the context of national identity. Hikind said such works reflect an effort to “understand” suicide bombers. “There’s nothing to understand about someone who murders women and children,” he said. “You condemn.”
Kris didn’t say anything about anti-Semitism becoming honorable, he didn’t say anything about settlers going missing, he didn’t say anything about necklaces of teeth. His crime was trying “to understand about someone who murders women and children.” As Dostoevsky did in Crime and Punishment. That was enough to get him fired.
This is why I come to this whole Salaita affair with a bit of skepticism about the tweets. It’s skepticism born of my own personal experience with four controversial fights over Israel/Palestine. If it’s not the tweets, it’s the grad student paper trying to understand suicide bombers. If it’s not the grad student paper trying to understand suicide bombers, it’s the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright who cannot receive an honorary degree because he’s voiced criticism of Israel. If it’s not the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright who cannot receive an honorary degree because he’s voiced criticism of Israel, it’s the New York City Council threatening CUNY’s funding because the political science department at Brooklyn College is co-sponsoring—not endorsing, not organizing, not funding, but co-sponsoring—a panel on BDS. If it’s not the New York City Council threatening CUNY’s funding because the political science department at Brooklyn College is co-sponsoring a panel on BDS, it’s the NYS Legislature threatening a college’s funding if it financially supports individual faculty membership in the American Studies Association, which supports the academic boycott of Israel.
Every time it’s the same goddam story: supporters of Israel, increasingly anxious over the way the conversation about Israel is going in this country, flexing their muscles to muzzle a voice, to stop a debate. (Just today Buzzfeed is reporting that AIPAC is looking for ways to pass federal legislation to stop BDS in its tracks.) A Palestinian exception to the First Amendment?
Thankfully, in Kris’s case, we were able to rally a national campaign of prominent academics, particularly in political science, to support his reinstatement. We made his case a national story. Sound familiar?
And here’s the best part, dear reader: We won.
Since I came onto the interwebs, I’ve been involved in five fights over the place of Israel/Palestine in academe: the Petersen-Overton fight, which we won; the Tony Kushner fight, which we won; the BDS at Brooklyn College fight, which we won, the NYS Assembly fight, which we won, and now the Salaita affair.
There is a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment. And we’re fighting to end it. Because that’s the way the First Amendment has always advanced in this country: not simply through reasoned argument, but through struggle. Vorwärts!