Steven Salaita, more than just an obnoxious tweeter (Update: site scrubbed?)

September 3

[UPDATE: Salaita's Goodreads site was apparently scrubbed within and hour and half of this post going up.  The original links below, working at 10:14, now do not, though I've added some cached links.  Who knows what additional nuggets of wisdom the book reviews contained?]

He’s equally uncivil and uncouth when he reviews books.  I happened upon his goodreads book review page when I did a Google search looking for enlightenment on how someone whose six books have  published work mostly has nothing to do with Native American Studies wound up getting offered a job in a Native American Studies department. [I stand corrected; one of the six books, called The Holy Land in Transit, "compares the dynamics of settler colonialism in the United States related to Native Americans with the circumstances in Israel related to the Palestinians."]

Two things become pretty obvious if you start reading some reviews (there are over 1,000 of them, so I admittedly only  looked at a fraction.) The first is that you can predict how much he will like any book relating to Israel and the Middle East based on whether the book comports with his political views.  He apparently rarely if ever learns anything useful from books that don’t–including books by far leftists like Michael Lerner, if they purport to be Zionists.  The second is that he can be just as intemperate in other contexts as in his controversial tweets.

Here are a few examples.

A review of What Israel Means to Me:I don’t need to hear from the sanctimonious pricks in this book.” If you read the whole brief review, it certainly calls into question the degree to which Salaita can be tolerant of students or colleagues who express pro-Israel views, as he seems to think that anyone who has warm feelings for Israel is inherently a “sanctimonious prick”–surely all eighty essayists in the book don’t have anything else in common. (Here’s a wayback machine link.)

A review of  Israeli leftist Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel: “Amos Oz is to incisive political writing what Leni Riefenstahl was to socially conscious filmmaking.”   That’s the entire review. (Here’s a Google cache link).

A review of Narnie Darwish’s They Call Me Infidel, which he acknowledges he never read: “Given Darwish’s annoying propensity to confuse reality with her well-timed con artistry, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s disingenuously substituting ‘infidel’ for ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile,’ ‘ignoramus,’ or ‘impostor.’” (Here’s a Google cache link.)

Many of Salaita’s reviews criticize what he sees as racism in books (such as Superfreakanomics), but that doesn’t stop him from making this comment in a review of  Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens: “Yes, it’s always rewarding to read somebody pillorying Hitchens, if only because his disaffected little white fans treat the atheist as a God and it’s amusing listening to them argue with all the bluster and arrogance of mini-Hitches.”  Charming.  (Here’s a Google cache link).

And while Salaita’s advocates have ably (and reasonably persuasively, I think, though I haven’t followed the controversy extremely closely) defended him from the charge that his controversial  tweets endorsed anti-Semitism (I’d say some of them were more anti-anti-anti-Semitism), I’m not sure it would be as easy to defend this review of Abe Foxman’s The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control from the charge of anti-Semitism:This is sheer accidental brilliance. It has to be one of the few books ever published in which the author’s body of work so adeptly undermines his thesis.” It’s hard to understand this as something other than Salaita endorsing the “myth” that Jews do control things. (Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly sums up the book’s thesis: “a rebuttal of a pernicious theory about a mythically powerful Jewish lobby.” So there is a mythically powerful Jewish lobby, and Foxman’s career proves it?) (Here’s a Google cache link.)

All these quotes, remember, are the product of reading a relative handful of Salaita’s reviews. I don’t have the time, patience, or interest to slog through all of them.

So do I think this justifies unhiring him?  My thoughts on the Salaita situation need a whole blog post, and so far I haven’t been able to care enough to put them in writing. The most I’ll say for now is that (1) I generally oppose conditioning hiring for an academic job on someone’s blog posts, tweets, or other non-academic writings unless they have volunteered that they think it’s a significant part of their portfolio; (2) there are exceptions in extreme circumstances; (3) I don’t have the desire to become enough of an expert on Salaita to judge whether he qualifies; and (4) whatever sensitivity/collegiality standard Illinois purports to be applying here shouldn’t be applied more strictly because Salaita is hostile to Israel, nor should anti-Semitism (if there is such) be taken less seriously than other forms of racism.

UPDATE: When I posted this, I hadn’t seen Jonathan’s post from earlier today suggesting that Illinois may have “unhired” Salaita because of pressure from donors. Needless to say, university presidents shouldn’t be giving in to pressure from donors, but should be making whatever decisions they make independently.

And here are what are likely to be my final words on the subject of Salaita for a while: Salaita may have been unfairly treated in part because of his political views, and not just how he expressed them, and how he expressed them may not justify how he was treated, either; again, without becoming an expert on the case, I’m not in a position to make a firm judgment on the situation. But a lot of people are using him as an example of how academics with pro-Palestinian or “anti-Zionist” views are punished in American universities.  This is laughable.  For every Steve Salaita, there are a larger number of people interested in Middle East Studies who get rejected for academic jobs, or decline to go into academia to begin with, because they have pro-Israel views.  As I noted several years back, top universities have found it necessary to create special “Israel Studies” programs and chairs because Departments of Middle Eastern Studies are so closed to anyone who wants to do objective, much less sympathetic, scholarship on Israel. That final link goes to a story about what passes for debate at the Middle East Studies Association: “Should we boycott all Israeli goods, products, services, and people, or should we exempt academics?” The vast majority of those who are agitating for Salaita on the grounds that political views shouldn’t affect academic appointments don’t care at all that MES programs are so one-sidedly hostile to Israel, and hire accordingly.  

It is, for that matter, a bit difficult to imagine Salaita, a strong advocate of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, and not exactly gentle in his criticism of anyone, even on the far left, who considers himself a Zionist, to be entirely objective in voting for faculty colleagues whose work relates to Israel. Indeed, his support of BDS likely means that he’d feel obligated to vote against a visiting professor from a university in Israel, regardless of the professor’s credentials.  And here’s a strange line from Salaita, from an essay discussing BDS on campus:  “Hold your university accountable to its inclusionary rhetoric as it pertains to the suppression of Palestinian voices.” Huh. If Salaita has been mistreated, it’s because donors were telling the university to be accountable “to its inclusionary rhetoric as it pertains to the suppression of” Jewish voices. Salaita’s statement was not exactly a rousing defense of academic freedom but a call for the university to intercede on behalf of “Palestinian voices,” nor are proponents of BDS like Salaita friends of academic freedom.  None of that goes to the merits of the university’s arguments against hiring Salaita, which were all about temperament, but they certainly can affect whether one sees him more as a martyr to academic freedom, or more as someone who may have been (unfairly) hoisted by his own petard.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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