Can Corporatized Universities Allow Criticism of Israel?

The University of California is seeking to ban criticism of Israel. This is a widespread phenomenon in the United States, as attested by two new reports and cases like that of Steven Salaita, author of Uncivil Rights: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom.

Salaita was fired by the University of Illinois for criticizing Israel on Twitter. Norman Finkelstein had been denied tenure by DePaul University for criticizing Israel. William Robinson was almost driven out at UC Santa Barbara for refusing to “repent” after criticizing Israel. Joseph Massad at Columbia had a similar experience.

Why, in a country that stretches “freedom of speech” to the point of covering the bribery of politicians, should it be acceptable to criticize the United States but not a tiny, distant country only just created in 1948? And why should such censorship reach even into institutions that usually pile “academic freedom” on top of “freedom of speech” as an argument against censorship?

First and foremost, I think, is the nature of Israel. It’s a nation practicing apartheid and genocide in the twenty-first century using U.S. funding and weaponry. It can’t persuade people of the acceptability of these policies in open debate. It can only continue its crimes by insisting that — precisely as a government serving one ethnic group only — any criticism amounts to the threat of apartheid and genocide known as “anti-Semitism.”

Second, I think, is the subservience of the contemporary degenerate educational institution, which serves the wealthy donor, not the exploration of human intellect. When wealthy donors demand that “anti-Semitism” be stamped out, so it is. (And how can one object without being “anti-Semitic” or appearing to dispute that there actually is real anti-Semitism in the world and that it is as immoral as hatred of any other group.)

Third, the crackdown on criticizing Israel is a response to the success of such criticism and to the efforts of the BDS (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions) movement. Israeli author Manfred Gerstenfeld published openly in the Jerusalem Post a strategy for making an example of a few U.S. professors in order to “diminish the threat of boycotts.”

Salaita called his book Uncivil Rights because the accusations of unacceptable speech typically take the form of proclaiming a need to protect civility. Salaita didn’t tweet or otherwise communicate anything actually anti-Semitic. He tweeted and otherwise communicated many statements opposing anti-Semitism. But he criticized Israel and cursed at the same time. And to compound the sin, he used humor and sarcasm. Such practices are enough to get you convicted in a U.S. Court of Indignation without any careful examination of whether the sarcastic cursing actually expressed hatred or, on the contrary, expressed justifiable outrage. Reading Salaita’s offending tweets in the context of all his other ones exonerates him of anti-Semitism while leaving him clearly guilty of “anti-Semitism,” that is: criticizing the Israeli government.

This criticism can take the form of criticizing Israeli settlers. Salaita writes in his book:

“There are nearly half a million Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Their population currently grows at double the rate of other Israelis. They use 90 percent of the West Bank’s water; the 3.5 million Palestinians of the territory make due with the remaining 10 percent. They travel on Jewish-only highways while Palestinians wait for hours at checkpoints (with no guarantee of passing through, even when they are injured or giving birth). They regularly assault women and children; some bury alive the natives. They vandalize homes and shops. They run over pedestrians with their cars. They restrict farmers from their land. They squat on hilltops that don’t belong to them. They firebomb houses and kill babies. They bring with them a high-tech security force largely composed of conscripts to maintain this hideous apparatus.”

One could read even such a longer-than-twitter criticism and imagine certain additions to it. But, reading the whole book from which I’ve quoted it, would eliminate the possibility of fantasizing that Salaita is, in this passage, advocating vengeance or violence or condemning settlers because of their religion or ethnicity or equating all settlers with each other except in so far as they are part of an operation of ethnic cleansing. Salaita does not excuse either side of the conflict but criticizes the idea that there is a conflict in Palestine with two equal sides:

“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 violated at least seventy-seven UN resolutions and numerous provisions of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. Israel has imposed hundreds of settlements on the West Bank, 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. At present more than six thousand Palestinians languish in Israeli prisons, including children; no Israeli occupies a Palestinian prison.”

Salaita wants Palestinian land given back to Palestinians, just as he wants at least some Native American land given back to Native Americans. Such demands, even when they amount to nothing but compliance with existing laws and treaties, seem unreasonable or vengeful to certain readers. But what people imagine education consists of if not the consideration of ideas that at first seem unreasonable is beyond me. And the notion that returning stolen land must involve violence is a notion added to the proposal by the reader.

However, there is at least one area in which Salaita is clearly and openly accepting of violence, and that is the United States military. Salaita wrote a column criticizing “support the troops” propaganda, in which he said, “My wife and I often discuss what our son might grow up to accomplish. A consistent area of disagreement is his possible career choice. She can think of few things worse than him one day joining the military (in any capacity), while I would not object to such a decision.”

Think about that. Here is someone making a moral argument for opposing violence in Palestine, and a book-length defense of the importance of this stand outweighing concerns of comfort or politeness. And he wouldn’t so much as object to his son joining the United States military. Elsewhere in the book, he notes that U.S. academics “can travel to, say, Tel Aviv University and pal around with racists and war criminals.” Think about that. This is an American academic writing this while David Petraeus, John Yoo, Condoleezza Rice, Harold Koh, and dozens of their fellow war criminals teach in U.S. academia, and not without huge controversy about which Salaita cannot have avoided hearing. In response to outrage at his criticism of “support the troops,” his then-employer, Virginia Tech, loudly proclaimed its support for the U.S. military.

The U.S. military acts on the belief, as found in the names of its operations and weapons as well as in its extended discussions, that the world is “Indian territory,” and that native lives don’t matter. A West Point professor recently proposed targeting critics of U.S. militarism with death, not just denial of tenure. And why is such criticism dangerous? Because nothing the U.S. military does to the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, or anywhere else is any more defensible than what the Israeli military does with its help — and I don’t think it would take much consideration of the facts for someone like Steven Salaita to realize that.

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  • cstahnke

    There is definitely a problem with the issue of Israel and what Zionism has become. It is now a fascist movement focused, not on what we can call spiritual beliefs, but tribalism. In times like this it is tribal entities that will, along with large corporations and trans-national “public” organizations that will take increasing power particularly in the West. Zionism is a “Jewish Conspiracy” not limited to Jews, btw, that uses the tribal mentality to manipulate power and the Zionists have been able to infiltrate our major public and private institutions to actually bend them in part to their will. This fact state as I’ve stated is not allowed to be said. Even the term “Zionism” is not allowed except in a historical context. But as bad as this clear a provable conspiracy is it is not the main problem in our culture.

    The main problem we face is that we, in this country, are losing and in some ways have lost the Constitution not only as a legal document but as representing guiding principles to our political and cultural life. The horrible idea of “political correctness” and “offensive speech” particularly as championed by much of the left is part of this movement. There is or was a leftist blog (to the left of DKOS) that did not allow any discussion of Israel/Palestine. Some blogs will not allow any dicussion of “conspiracy theories” particularly concerning 9/11 or the assassinations of the 60s despite the fact that any close reading of history shows it to be filled with conspiracies yet, most leftists believe, because this is the U.S.A. conspiracies and skulduggery can’t happen. The left wing view in this country is that the government is wrong about most of its National Security policy but absolutely correct about the aforementioned incidents without even a hair’s breath of wiggle room. You also cannot in most left-wing blogs mention the idea of a “deep state” in the U.S. I was actually banned from the blog Naked Capitalism for describing that “state” in a fairly sophisticated way no only as a result of something I’ve read about and studied but as someone who has spent most of his life in Washington where everyone knows at all levels of government that “no good deed goes unpunished” which is not just a joke, I can assure you.

    What is left of the left that currently is rallying around Senator Sanders needs to get its own house in order and start accepting critiques not only of Israel but all sacrosanct subjects without getting into the deliberately insulting language the right-wing uses. Without honesty and candor we are totally fucked and we may as well start waiting for the end of the world

    • jadan

      The devotion to Israel is largely inspired by fundamentalist Christian beliefs, not common sense, as I’m sure you know. Bush, the idiot “Christian Dominionist”, introduced chaos into the ME to protect Israel against any strong Arab leadership that might challenge their vicious apartheid state. The “end times” have arrived by the lights of many self-annointed Christians. Sanders may have the authority to ameliorate the fanaticism that drives US Israel policy.

      • flaccus

        “The devotion to Israel is largely inspired by fundamentalist Christian beliefs”. LOL. That’s a real gasser. Tell me another one.

  • jenne

    Well reed this book, “” the dispossessed majority”” bij Wilmot Robertson, very interesting The Atrophy of Education, and the influence the Zionist banks have in the USA universety’s, Harvard more as 50 % are Jewes youngsters, its to much for the only 1% who owns the United State, they have the USA in their grip, and if the Majority Americans want to change that, well think about it ! to stop this thinking they make one war after the other, its an brain fuck thats works, as you can see !