Steven Salaita speaks at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the university from which he was fired after he posted a series of tweets about Israeli attacks in Gaza. (Armando L. Sanchez for the Chicago Tribune.)

After being disinvited from a panel on campus about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Associate Professor Max Weiss wrote in The Daily Princetonian, “Princeton must remain a place where open debate and academic exchange is encouraged and allowed to flourish, even on the most controversial issues.” It would be a lot easier to take him at his word had he not just convened a panel on academic freedom the week before, to which he invited zero dissenting voices.

There are some topics for which we wouldn’t expect to hear all of the sides. A conference on racism probably wouldn’t invite the KKK, and most global warming symposia don’t reserve seats for creationists. Given the topic, though, I would have expected Weiss’ panel on October 6th to feature more than one perspective, especially considering the fact that Weiss and each panelist went to great lengths to extol the values of open debate and listening to opinions that make us uncomfortable.Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 6.13.47 PM

The panel dealt with the case of Steven Salaita. Salaita, a professor of American-Indian studies, quit his job at Virginia Tech after being offered tenure at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a process that formally requires a sign-off from the university’s trustees. In a rare move, the trustees decided to revoke Salaita’s tenure. Most news sources believe that the move was in response to several tweets Salaita posted over the summer during the conflict between Israel and Gaza. All of the tweets were highly critical of Israel, and some have argued that several could be construed as anti-Semitic.

In an open letter UIUC chancellor Phyllis Wise made it clear that the university was not punishing Salaita for his views on the Middle East, but rather because the UIUC is founded on “civility” and “will not tolerate…personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” Since Salaita’s firing, many have risen to his defense, claiming that it is a clear example of how universities are increasingly beholden to their trustees and the interest groups they represent. Many others, however, agree with UIUC’s decision, and believe that Salaita’s tweets are indicative of a hateful, unscholarly approach that would harm classroom discourse.

Before explaining the case, Weiss immediately undermined his objectivity by stating, “It is with grave concern and deep sadness…that I hurriedly convened this incredible panel.” He went on to give the details of Salaita’s firing, and then described three of the tweets, including one picturing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a necklace of Palestinian children, one that said that Zionists derive sexual gratification from killing Palestinians, and another that read, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”

While Weiss mentioned that others found the tweets objectionable, he did not criticize them himself. He then referenced Wise’s letter, and made it clear that he was unconvinced. “How ‘civil’ should untenured faculty be,” he asked, “in order to feel safe that they will be treated with respect?”

During the panel itself, the professors all gave similar denunciations of the state of academic freedom while ignoring the question of whether or not Salaita’s tweets were actually anti-Semitic. Joseph Massad, who teaches Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia, began by asserting that the charge of “incivility” dates back to when Europeans and assimilated Jews used the term to marginalize unassimilated Jews. He went on to argue that since Israel’s inception, those who have failed to support the mainstream US view on Israel have, in turn, been likewise marginalized. To this day, according to Massad, organizations use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as their “entry point” towards crushing dissent. Though he did not discuss the individual tweets, he seemed to suggest that anyone who claimed that they were anything but just criticism of Israel was similarly trying to stifle dissent.

The next professor was Eddie Glaude, who teaches Religion and African American Studies at Princeton. He discussed how universities have become corporatized and are more concerned with profits than intellectual pursuits. “What happened to Steven,” he told us, “happened within a changing landscape of American education…[and] the overall professionalization of the academy and the increased influence of corporate and governmental interests.” He only briefly referenced the tweets themselves, noting that he had faced racism within “elite universities,” and that it was unclear what “standard of judgment” is used to evaluate cases such as Salaita’s.

Professor Grafton, meanwhile, from Princeton’s History department, took care to explain that the corporatization of the university is not a nefarious plot by particular interest groups, but rather an outgrowth of patterns related to the amount of money available to universities and the professionalization of the university administration. He did not mention Salaita at all.

Joan Scott, a professor at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies, also took issue with the charge of “incivility.” She quoted several sources noting that the First Amendment protects uncivil speech, and argued that “[w]hat is at stake…is not only the right of free speech, but the kind of democratic education that was once the mission and cry” of universities. Students, she said, are more concerned with being comfortable than being challenged.

It seems that students are not the only ones who would rather be comfortable than challenged. First, given that the panelists had spent the last hour arguing that students and administrators are increasingly intolerant of challenging viewpoints, it was bizarre that none of them suggested that there might be two sides to the Salaita case. When I asked why no dissenting voices had been chosen, Professor Scott answered, “Fair and balanced isn’t always the way.”

Is the case really so clear that there’s no need to hear the other side? We don’t invite creationists to discuss climate change because we don’t respect their views. Is the belief that the withdrawal of Salaita’s offer of tenure may have been legitimate, or even that the answer might at least be ambiguous, completely beyond the pale? Are there no Princeton professors whom Scott respects that might disagree with her conception of the case? Perhaps most ironic was Professor Massad’s solution to the issue, which was to encourage a national boycott of UIUC and deny them all forms of academic accreditation. Not only did he seem unconcerned with hearing other opinions, but he argued that academic freedom could best be secured by punishing dissenters until they agreed with him.

The second thing that struck me was that, for the most part, the panelists completely ignored the question of the tweets themselves. Weiss described them, Glaude briefly referenced them and other forms of racism, and Scott asked, “in [Wise’s] thinking, viewpoints…now have protected status, so the question is will anyone who demeans Nazism, terrorism, racism…homophobia [be punished]… or is it only disrespect for the current Israeli government [that merits rebuke]?” Let’s ignore the question of whether degrading the Israeli government is on par with rejecting Nazism and terrorism, and ask simply: was Salaita’s only offense criticizing Israel’s government?

There are plenty of things wrong with Steven Salaita’s Twitter, and most of them may be distasteful but probably aren’t worth legally rescinding his offer of tenure. Aside from rarely referencing any facts, he compares Israel to ISIS, says that the Israeli army intentionally targets children, compares Israel to the KKK, wished all 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank would be killed, and denies that Hamas uses human shields or that it is a terrorist organization.

However, it is the sometimes subtle and occasionally overt anti-Semitism in his Twitter that is more disturbing. Let me be clear: there is wide range of legitimate criticism of Israel that has no relation to anti-Semitism. Saying that Israel’s actions justify or are responsible for anti-Semitism, as Salaita did in the quote Weiss mentioned, is not within that range. (This isn’t the only time Salaita said this. He has repeated it in various other tweets, as well in his academic work.)

The other manifestations of anti-Semitism within Salaita’s Twitter are less overt. Most notably, he replaces “Jews” with “Zionists” and revives the old anti-Semitic canard that Jews delight in killing kids. Up until the 20th century, many Europeans accepted the Blood Libel, the belief that Jews ritually kidnapped and slaughtered Christian children. Now, Salaita’s Twitter tells us, Zionists celebrate slaughtering Palestinian children, and Israelis derive sexual pleasure from pictures of dead kids ( ““If #Israel affirms life, then why do so many Zionists celebrate the slaughter of children? What’s that? Oh, I see! JEWISH life.” More examples in sidebar.)

Perhaps there is not enough evidence to condemn Salaita for anti-Semitism, and, even if there were, it might not be enough to revoke his offer of tenure legally. At the very least, though, the answer is not obvious, and the panel did the audience a disservice by glossing over the issue. When Scott referenced the charge of anti-Semitism, it was only to imply that Jewish groups conflate anti-Israel sentiments with anti-Semitism. Her evidence was the fact that Israelis approached administrators at several schools with concerns that Palestinian students might attack Jewish students in response for this summer’s war. Aside from the fact that the logic in her argument does not follow—one can fear that others will conflate Israel and Judaism without doing so oneself—she ignored the fact that this actually happened a few weeks ago at Temple University, and that many pro-Palestinian protests around the world this summer turned violent and anti-Semitic.

The panelists were finally forced to discuss the tweets to some degree during the Q&A section. Massad alleged that there would not have been any sort of controversy had Salaita criticized Islam and Hamas or Iran instead of Judaism and Israel, but never implied or said that there was anything wrong with Salaita’s tweets. Scott argued that his tweets were “taken out of context” and were therefore “not seen as part of an ongoing conversation.” His tweets may provide some context.

Anyone who thinks that Salaita’s tweets were taken out of context, whether or not they believe there is anything wrong with them, hasn’t read Salaita’s Twitter. Scott is either one of those people, or she deliberately obscured the facts. The only panel member who seemed willing, even during the Q&A, to engage with the content of Salaita’s tweets and the issue of his potential anti-Semitism was Professor Grafton. He argued that, though Salaita seems like an emotional and hateful person, if his tenure is revoked, it will set a dangerous precedent that will be hard to override when a professor worth defending is in a similar situation. Perhaps he is right, but the fact that it took more than an hour for any of the panel members to criticize Salaita’s tweets was remarkable.

For what it’s worth, I don’t know whether I agree with UIUC’s decision. As I said, while I think there is evidence that Salaita’s tweets were anti-Semitic, I’m not sure there is enough to prove it conclusively. I’m also not clear on the legality of rescinding his offer, which is a topic made more difficult by the fact that there isn’t much precedence for the crossover between “incivility” and Twitter. Finally, I don’t know what the ramifications for professors around the country will be if UIUC’s decision is upheld. Perhaps the number of professors silenced for even more ambiguous offenses will outweigh whatever harm Salaita would have inflicted on classroom debate. On the other hand, maybe the Salaita case will discourage other professors from sharing hateful, unsophisticated opinions outside of the classroom that might make their students uncomfortable.

Given the murkiness of the situation, I had hoped (and other audience members expressed similar displeasure) that the panel might give me a better understanding of both sides. Weiss, though, quite clearly prioritized advocacy over education, which was particularly disturbing given the topic. It is also notable that of the four professors he chose, two (Scott and Massad, not to mention Weiss himself) are highly critical of Israel, one (Glaude) is fairly critical (at least, ironically, according to his Twitter), and one doesn’t post his opinions about Israel publicly (Grafton).

Moreover, Massad himself was at the center of a similar controversy a decade ago, when several pro-Israel students alleged that he had bullied them in the classroom for their views. Moreover, among other beliefs, he wrote in Al-Ahram Daily that Israel’s “ultimate achievement [has been]…the transformation of the Jew into the anti-Semite.” It seems quite likely that such a selection of professors would be much more willing to ignore Salaita’s emotional and hateful excesses than one without such monolithic views about Israel. Perhaps before Weiss writes another hypocritical article lamenting the state of discomforting discourse on campus, he will set his own house in order. Whatever professors he invites to his next panel, I hope that he also decides to include the nuance he demands from everyone else. 

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