Book cover

This article is a preview from the Summer 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books) by Steven Salaita

Universities have long been at the epicentre of some of the fiercest political and cultural battles of our times, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the UK’s unfolding struggle over anti-Semitism on the left, it is no coincidence that a crucial moment was the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS president in April. The debate over her support for Palestinian resistance and her alleged antagonism towards Jewish-Zionist student groups, which some argue constituted anti-Semitism, shows no sign of being resolved.

In the US, campus politics is, if anything, even more bitter. One reason is that universities are one of the few spaces of American life where the left, and the pro-Palestinian left in particular, has a strong presence. American politics is dominated by various shades of pro-Israel opinion and universities offer pro-Palestinian activists a rare space in which they are not completely marginalised. That, perhaps, explains the heated nature of the debate.

The case of Steven Salaita shows how American campus conflict can spiral out of control. Born in America to parents of mixed Palestinian and Jordanian heritage, he is a specialist in Native American studies who has made frequent forays into pro-Palestinian activism. In October 2013, he was offered a tenured assistant professorship in the American Indian studies programme at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But on 1 August 2014, less than two weeks before he was due to take up the post – and after he had left his previous post at Virginia Tech – the job offer was withdrawn by the university’s chancellor, Phyllis Wise.

Wise was reacting to complaints about his appointment that drew attention, among other things, to some of Salaita’s tweets during that summer’s conflict in Gaza. The tweets were seen as demonstrating at least incivility and at worst anti-Semitism. (To give one example: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the [expletive] West Bank settlers would go missing.”)

Salaita’s detractors accuse him of being an activist rather than a scholar, who contributes to a threatening atmosphere for Jewish students on campus. His defenders accuse the University of Illinois of undermining academic freedom of speech in bowing to the wishes of powerful donors; they accuse his detractors of mendaciously conflating legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Legal action rumbled on for much of 2014 and 2015. In the end, the university settled with Salaita for $875,000, without admitting wrongdoing or offering him his job back. Wise resigned in August 2015 after being implicated in hiding emails relating to the case. In July 2015, Salaita accepted a post at the American University of Beirut but in April 2016 he was yet again embroiled in controversy, as the university president attempted to cancel the appointment due to “procedural irregularities”.

Uncivil Rites presents Salaita’s side of the story. A collection of interconnected essays rather than a continuous narrative, it offers a mixture of polemic, memoir and closely argued self-justification.

At the heart of the book is an argument against civility. For Salaita, civility is a racialised concept that, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, renders Palestinians and their supporters as quasi-savage. Calls for civility are not just racist, they are hypocritical, too:

Civility is the language of conquest ... It is the discourse of educated racism. It is the sanctimony of the authoritarian. It is the pretext of the oppressor.

For that reason, Salaita doesn’t just reject civility; he actively embraces incivility:

In so far as “civil” is profoundly racialised and has a long history of demanding conformity to the ethos of imperialism and colonisation, I frequently choose incivility as a form of communication. (Or it is chosen for me.) This choice is both moral and rhetorical.

Perhaps understandably, given his experience, Salaita situates himself at the heart of an absolute conflict. He shows no desire to engage with his detractors in anything other than a polemical or legalistic fashion. Israel and those who defend it are beyond the pale and cannot be compromised with, or even engaged with in dialogue. In an article in the Nation in November 2013, Salaita appeared to make Zionism synonymous with all oppression:

Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power. It lends itself to top-down decision-making, to suppression of anti-neoliberal activism, to restrictions on speech, to colonial governance, to corporatisation and counter-revolution — in other words, Zionism behaves in universities precisely as it does in various geopolitical systems.

While I – like everyone else – have views on these issues and on Salaita, there seems little need to add to the sound and fury. But there is a more productive way to respond to the controversy. Let’s leave aside the issues that the book raises and focus on one that has barely been discussed: what was the point of it all?

I am not questioning the point of Salaita fighting against his dismissal, or even of the campaign to deny him the post – these were campaigns with clearly achievable goals. What I’m questioning is the point of Salaita sending such angry tweets and his attitude to activism. I doubt he convinced anyone in 2014 or today who wasn’t always predisposed to agree with him. I doubt he came to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict any better. I doubt he achieved anything at all, other than deepening an already wide divide.

What Salaita represents is a form of political action that is almost entirely decoupled from the goal of achieving change. Rather, it is politics as self-expression, as a desire for a platform and an unrestrained voice. In Salaita’s mind, his angry tweets somehow countered Israeli bombs in Gaza in the summer of 2014.

Another response was possible: developing a politics based on understanding and carefully calibrating one’s actions and ways of communicating in order to produce the change one seeks. It requires, on occasion, tactical silences and hard-nosed attention to when and how it is prudent to speak. Yet Salaita’s politics seems to discount this possibility totally. It’s as though the world were so fixed and hopeless that all that is left is to rage at it. This is a struggle that can only fail. It never seeks to win in the first place.

Salaita’s world-view is dangerously simplistic for a conflict as mind-bendingly complex as the Israeli-Palestinian one. It isn’t just pro-Palestinian campaigners who cling to impotently self-righteous politics – pro-Israel activists can be every bit as abusive and wedded to self-expression.

It is also one of the great temptations of the digital era. We can all express ourselves indefinitely and nearly without restriction. The temptation to do so can eclipse the need for forms of expression that actually seek to engage with the other. The university campus further amplifies these tendencies – the desire for a “safe space” can, all too often, be a desire for limitless and limitlessly impotent self-expression within self-reflective echo chambers.

There is in Uncivil Rites a seed of something more useful. Buried amid the polemic is a moving account of the trauma, shock and heartbreak that accompanied his “sacking”. A husband and father with a young child, he faced the prospect of having no home, no job and no health insurance. There is an insight here into what it means when a human being, as vulnerable as the rest, is caught up in a maelstrom of conflict. It is this that Salaita could have taught us and himself: something about the politics of Israel-Palestine today. But once he became a cause célèbre, he ceased to be a person – just one more impotently screaming voice in a world of impotently screaming voices. This is his tragedy, and ours.