Hero’s Welcome for Hater of Israel at MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 25.

Let’s start with a fact: Steven Salaita is a hater of Israel. Just ask him (via his Twitter feed).

  • “‘Hate’ is such a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred verb when discussing racism, colonization, neoliberalism, sexism, and Israel.”
  • “Zionist credo: ‘Palestinians hate their children!’ Don’t get it confused. I hate *you*. And you’re no child of mine.”
  • “Lost in the responses to Eric Alterman’s ‘The Israel Hater’s Handbook’ is the fundamental question: what exactly is wrong with hating Israel?”

So Steven Salaita isn’t a critic of Israel. Tom Friedman is a critic of Israel. Steven Salaita is a hater of Israel, it’s a title he’s proud to claim, and that hatred runs like a thread through all he writes and says.

Now if you aren’t a hater of Israel, you still might think that Steven Salaita deserves your support—not because of his hatred of Israel, but despite it. Academic life, once famous for its guarantees of job security, isn’t what it used to be, and the way Salaita was “de-hired” by the University of Illinois is the sum of every academic’s fears. If that’s you, and Steven Salaita enters the hall, you might offer up some polite (“civil”) applause, as a gesture of labor solidarity. But if Steven Salaita enters the room, and you rise to your feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation reserved for a true hero, that’s not a gesture of support. It’s an outpouring of adulation, because Salaita has been brash enough to say what you think: what exactly is wrong with hating Israel?

So at this year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference, on the very first day, I found myself in a standing-room-only audience of Israel-haters wearing MESA badges, who received Steven Salaita with a standing ovation. When I last attended MESA, in 1998, Edward Said got just such an ovation. Said was larger than life. Salaita is smaller than life—an indifferent speaker whose every other sentence ends in “right?”—but he is the anti-Israel, and in the yawning void left by the passing of Said, even a Salaita will do.

Flanking Salaita were the representatives of associations that have supported him as a victim deprived of his academic freedom: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and MESA’s own Committee on Academic Freedom. To spice it up, there was someone who’s cannon is almost as loose as Salaita’s: Lisa Hajjar, University of California at Santa Barbara, an agitprof right out of a campus novel. The panel was pro-Salaita to a man (or woman), but lopsided panels are the norm at MESA, and it’s been decades (maybe since the Bernard Lewis-Edward Said match of 1986) since the association put on a true debate over anything.

Salaita has been on tour, and there’s a specific reason why panels featuring him never include a critic. That critic might begin quoting Salaita’s writings and tweets, and the impression of Salaita as generally affable would evaporate. I won’t quote the more infamous tweets here; a useful exercise would have been to read some of them to the assembled MESAns, and ask them to indicate their assent by applause. (“I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing”—applaud if you agree.) If Salaita now claims that he’s persecuted because of his “criticism” of Israel, why not debate the exact substance and style of that “criticism”? Answer: Salaita and his supporters need to change the subject, if he’s to be enshrined as symbol of trampled academic freedom.

Salaita’s message at MESA was straightforward: he’s the victim of “organized suppression” by those, such as pro-Israel university donors, who “act punitively toward Israel’s critics.” As Israel becomes impossible to defend, this “suppression” becomes ever more “heavy-handed,” devolving into the brute exercise of “pressure” on university administrators and legislators.

Surrounded as I was by heads bobbing in uniform agreement, and seated at the foot of a panel structured to discourage any dissent, I wondered whether it ever occurred to these MESAns that they might be guilty of “organized suppression,” of “acting punitively”—in this case, toward Israel’s supporters. Cary Nelson, former AAUP president, has made just that charge: “I know many secret Zionists who avoid expressing public support for Israel. They worry that to do so might torpedo their jobs. They worry it might limit their chance at presenting a conference paper or being appointed to a committee.” If I were a budding Middle East specialist and crypto-Zionist, I’d certainly be furtive and fearful, especially if I saw my department chair leap to his feet and clasp his hands upon glimpsing Steven Salaita.

Both Salaita and Hajjar denounced such intimidation when practiced by Israel’s supporters. Insults! Bullying! Blacklisting! Defamation! You would think they were calling for greater civility. To the contrary. Hajjar announced that the best defense against Israel’s supporters was offense, and she got approving chuckles when she boasted that she tries be “offensive.” (She would prove that the next day in a boycott discussion, when she personally insulted a scholar who made the anti-boycott case, and did so in a manner so “offensive” that even she felt compelled to apologize.) “Civility is the language of genocide,” Salaita has said. “It’s inherently a deeply violent word. It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not as racist.” If you think “civility” is out and being “offensive” is in, if you tweet and traffic in insult and injury, who are you to sob when your opponents repay you in kind? And if you think, as Hajjar said she does, that it would be a good idea to instill fear in your critics by suing them for libel, who are you to complain when an alumnus calls a provost? If you’ve decided to turn the American campus into a war front, well, à la guerre comme à la guerre. Expect to take casualties.

I’m always interested in the bubbling up of dissent, and it happened twice, in a somewhat timid manner. A woman asked the panel whether it might be possible to engage colleagues who were only “irrational” and “blocked” when it came to Israel, but were otherwise “rational” and “nice”—that is, broadly supportive of progressive causes. No way, answered Salaita: these people can’t be let off the hook. If you support Israel’s “colonial” policies, you don’t get to call yourself a “progressive,” no matter what position you’ve taken on any other issue. This is a dart directed precisely at Jewish liberals and leftists: the faintest wisp of support for Israel will render you “regressive” (Salaita’s word). It’s the flip side of the claim that any wisp of criticism of Israel renders you anti-Semitic. (Of course, there was no one on the panel to ask Salaita what he’s done to deserve being called “progressive.” “My mother and grandmother’s blood connects me to the same place that binds us all—ancestor and descendant—together…. I am a devoted advocate of Palestinian nationalism.” Apparently it’s “progressive” when a Palestinian professes blood-and-soil nationalism, and “regressive” when an Israeli Jew does it.)

The other hint of dissent came from a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, now subject to a boycott by Salaita’s supporters. She complained that the university’s faculty, many of whom stand with Salaita against their administration, were being unjustly penalized, and graduate students were terrified that the boycott would affect their own future prospects. Salaita, who has endorsed the boycott, expressed his sympathy for his supporters at the university, especially the students, and he urged that every effort be made to invite them to scholarly meetings elsewhere. But as far as I could tell, the boycott still stands, and it’s a perfect example of how the Salaita camp is prepared to enforce precisely the kind of “collective punishment” they claim to revile when it’s practiced by Israel.

They didn’t pass the plate at the session, but they did so online, so Salaita will collect $1,500 for his trouble. His supporters at MESA really should have done better, because Salaita did them a major service, softening up the membership for the next act: a resolution in favor of the academic boycott of Israel. Look for my next post.