Generally, I am skeptical of claims of anti-semitism in the academy. I think that people for a variety of reasons confuse legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism. Accordingly, I was inclined to side with former University of Illinois Professor Steven Salaita and CUNY-Brooklyn Professor Corey Robin who claim that Salaita was wrongly terminated from the University of Illinois because he tweeted critically of Israel.
I do not believe that freedom of speech means that an employer cannot discharge you for what you write or say. It means that you cannot go to jail for your words. Still, I would greatly prefer that employers overlook political speech with which they disagree rather than employ punitive measures.
At some point, however, words can be so malicious, racist, or sexist that they cannot be ignored. Universities should be bastions of independent thought and scholarship where even well outside the mainstream ideas are not just tolerated but given a respectful audience and freely bandied about. But when a professor employs bigoted imagery or panders to his audience’s worst instincts or generalizes unfairly about a large group of people then his employer may well be justified in terminating his employment.
Such is the case with former Professor Salaita who, among other inflammatory remarks, tweeted the following: “There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel’s aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.” For me this tweet crosses the line.
I am a Zionist in that I support Israel’s right to exist as an independent nation. I also believe that a one-state solution in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians from Gaza to the West Bank to the Golan Heights all share power under a one person/one vote principal would be the best outcome for Israel. I derive no joy from Israel’s violent spasms against the Palestinian people. Likewise, there are many other Zionists who deeply regret what Israel has done in Gaza and the West Bank but believe honestly, albeit very wrongly in my view, that Hamas is a worse offender. Such people do not take “sexual” pleasure in the deaths of Palestinians.
Factual error may be excusable but not Salaita’s use of ugly anti-semitic imagery in his tweet. The blood libel against Jews that justified countless pogroms over the millenia in Europe is clearly implied in the phrase “[s]ublimation through bloodletting.” Likewise, Salaita raises the specter of Jewish men defiling Aryan women with the words “profoundly sexual” and “perversion”. The Nazis rallied supporters with eerily similar language.
Salaita’s defenders can claim with some justification that he did not attack all Jews only Zionists. But Salaita had to know that some Jew haters conflate the two terms and use Zionist as a politically correct stand-in for Jew even though not all Zionists are Jewish and not all Jews are Zionists.
I am all for a robust debate about israel’s treatment of the Palestinians who live within and directly outside her borders. I have been as critical as anybody of what I believe is religious oppression based on fears, avarice, and prejudice. But, in at least one very ugly tweet, Steven Salaita went beyond a harsh but ultimately fact-based critique of Israel’s actions and the words of her supporters. Salaita employed language that he had to know has been used to catalyze some of the most murderous episodes in human history. The University of Illinois was justified in terminating him.