The Case of Steven Salaita

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.

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4 Responses to The Case of Steven Salaita

  1. NattyB says:

    It’s nice that you just assume he’s invoking blood libel. Of course, there are other interpretations.

    I see the tweet in question. It sure makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t understand why you choose to limit the target of that tweet to just Jewish people (which may be Zionists or may not). Doesn’t it apply to, much of the US establishment, in that, they’re Zionist AND seemingly indifferent to the death and destruction of Gaza?

    But because some “Jew Haters” might be confused, you find it anti-semitic and thus worthy to keep him out of the Academy?

    Even though, he says a million times, how he decries all racism and specifically calls out anti-semitism, even though, he’s written extensively re: harms of conflating criticism of Israel with Jews (which was the subject of his “making ‘anti-semitism’ honorable” tweet) even though, he criticized the Huffington Post, for insufficiently criticizing Macklemore for his anti-semitic performance?

    Likewise, Salaita raises the specter of Jewish men defiling Aryan women with the words “profoundly sexual” and “perversion”.

    Ok, that’s one interpretation I suppose. Certainly wasn’t I was thinking. I was just thinking that he was saying that Pro-Israel people get off on the death and destruction. It’s titillating and exciting. Like, how Israeli’s were camped out on the hill over looking Gaza, watching all the destruction. Like, how US Pundits get all excited over our next war.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest their’s a sexual dynamic underlying it.

    The University of Illinois was justified in terminating him.

    Perhaps they were. But they should employ due process and not summary dismissal.

    • Hal Ginsberg says:

      What Salaita wrote was wrong because Salaita deliberately used language that anti-Semites have invoked to foment pogroms not because “some Jew haters might be confused” by otherwise acceptable phrasing. Salaita’s claims that he is not a bigot are belied by this particular tweet. Your general claim that “Pro-Israel people get off on the death and destruction” is clearly false for many supporters of Israel. While warmongers like Charles Krauthammer may claim they support Israel, many true Zionists are pro-peace. Saying that Israel is making anti-semitism honorable is in itself anti-semitic. Nothing can make hatred of all members of any religion honorable.

      Finally, the government must provide due process when it deprives people of liberty or property or otherwise impinges on their Constitutional rights. The University of Illinois did not deprive Salaita of any such right.

      • Harlan Leyside says:

        He’s using irony and/or bitter humour, to throw Zionists conflation of opposition to Israel (anti-Zionism) with opposition the Jews (anti-Semitism).

        Palestinians are routinely accused of enjoying death and destruction for it’s own sake, their resistance reduced to ‘mindless terrorism / violence’.

        “Israel is making anti-Semitism honorable” by conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

  2. Dave says:

    I’m not here to critic the Jewish people or even the country of Israel.. I’m here to ask why… What is it about hardcore religious people that creates animosity in the general secular public… I have been living in Central America for about 4 years. I have never had a problem with the people here.. Up the road 400 miles in Guatemala a group of Jewish religious folks moved to a small community.. Within 2 years the natives were so pissed that they threatened the Jews and forced them to flee for their lves.. I wonder what could the Jews have done to anger the natives . It’s hard for me to imagine that the natives acted without a valid reason.. Most people here are quite, respectful and are incline to engage in social jestures, greetings and conversation with strangers of any race is common.
    So the question remains. Why don’t people in Guatemala want Jews living in their community

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