Is Zionism/ Jewish Nationalism a Political Cult? The Salaita Firing

By Juan Cole

Liberal politics in the broad sense, in the tradition of Locke, Voltaire, Madison, Jefferson and John Stuart Mill, is rooted in a conviction that vigorous debate clarifies issues and makes for better public policy over time. This principle is often misunderstood by political partisans, who confuse analytical disagreement with simply being contrarian and hurling insults.

There is a famous Monty Python skit about the argument clinic. The argument-seeker at first goes in the wrong room, which is for abuse, which is heaped on him. Then he finds the right room, but objects plaintively that he is simply being contradicted, which is not an argument at all.

Monty Python: “The Argument Clinic”

But at least contradicting someone (“no, it’s not!”) is public.

The opposite of liberal debate and analytical argument is the cult. Sociologists of religion sometime shy away from that word nowadays, feeling that it has been appropriated by the tabloids and become pejorative. But it has an important place in the history of the modern sociology of religion and I think it should be used, but defined carefully.

I define a cult as a religious organization characterized by very high demands for obedience by the religious leaders, complete intolerance of dissent, secretive whisper campaigns against dissidents, dishonest destruction of reputations, and shunning and excommunication as social control mechanisms. It will be objected that all churches have some of these characteristics. But cultness is on a spectrum. Some organizations are high on a cult scale, some are much lower.

There are also political cults. Stalinism and Baathism are both political cults in this sense.

And, it is clear to me that some devotees of Jewish nationalism or Zionism practice their politics in a cult-like manner. I am not a fan of nationalism. I think most of its premises are frankly stupid. There are no “peoples” in the sense that romantic nationalists used the term. No “peoples” are tied to a land or territory. There is no such thing as a national character. People switch out their languages (the ancestors of most Americans did not speak English; the Mongolians of central Afghanistan, the Hazaras, are now Persian-speaking Shiites). I don’t think making Judaism the basis for nationalist zealotry is a good idea, and most American Jews were appalled by the idea for most of the first half of the twentieth century. It isn’t worse than other nationalisms. It mostly isn’t much better. But when it is practiced as political cult it is truly objectionable.

In Liberal politics (which includes modern conservatism of the William Buckley sort), if you make an argument, you can expect a counter-argument and a debate. In a political cult, if you make an argument you can expect to be smeared, undermined, and if possible destroyed professionally. Cults are extremely destructive, whether religious or political. They insist that the leader and the organization be exempt from criticism.

That so many Jewish nationalists insist that it is not legitimate ever to criticize anything Israel does is a clear sign of political cultism. It is the same mindset that American Communists had in the 1930s about Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union.

So a considered examination of the Israeli government’s Gaza War might conclude that disproportionate force was deployed, and that the army showed reckless disregard for civilian life.

By no means all Jewish nationalists would be unwilling to debate these points rationally. But very large numbers are not willing, and they respond to this perfectly legitimate argument with abuse. The author of the argument is, they allege, a racialist bigot. He or she is purveying a Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy theory. Others contradict without arguing. Or he or she is questioning the right of Israel to exist (they don’t specify the national borders). They mouth slogans such as that the Israeli army is the most humane in the world, or that Hamas is to blame for civilian deaths even when Israeli bombs do the killing. Some even hint at violence (a Jewish dissident wrote me recently, fearful of thuggish tactics of the Jewish Defense League– an organization classed by the FBI as having been the major source of domestic terrorism in the US 1965-1980). And perhaps worst of all, they secretly compile and send around a dossier to the employer of the author of the argument, seeking to have the person fired.

Of course, all nationalism is somewhat intolerant. The Dixie Chicks got into trouble for disavowing the Bush administration and its war of aggression in Iraq. But in a Liberal society, nationalism’s worst excesses are curbed by a rule of law. People are not punished for making arguments in public in a free society, assuming they are not libelous (and a truly free society needs to avoid having political libel on the books).

All this is prelude to my condemnation of of the University of Illinois for firing Steven Salaita, apparently for his Twitter feed! Professor Salaita said some provocative things during the war, but none of them are indefensible in rational debate. When asked about organized religion, Voltaire said “Crush the infamous thing!” Jefferson advocated an American revolution every 25 years, which would have gotten him in trouble with today’s FBI. Etc. Are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed? Sure, but they should bad arguments based on shoddy research that people in the field have a consensus as being bad.

Vijay Prashad, now at the American University of Beirut but previously at Trinity, wrote on Facebook:

“But I do know that twice, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation came to see my college president to have me removed from some administrative positions I held because they argued that I was an anti-semite based on my role in the BDS movement (I am fortunate that the outgoing president at Trinity sent me all the emails before he left). I’ve been slowing reading through them — it is astounding how these organizations held private meetings with the president about my role on campus, and the administration at no point asked me to meet with them, or at no point did they wish to meet with me. It was an attempt to get me out behind closed doors.”

He later saw emails detailing the skullduggery.

I strongly suspect that Zionist organizations pressured the university to fire Professor Salaita. But note that they did not engage him in a public debate. They went into the halls of power behind the scenes. We saw this a few years ago with Norman Finkelstein. This behavior is undemocratic and cult-like, and it is unacceptable in a Liberal society. We also see Jewish nationalists on the bench, in public office, and in high administrative positions who misuse their public position to engage in a sectarian vendetta so as to protect Israel from criticism or to punish its critics. That behavior is unethical. US law and the US constitution should guide the decision-making of public servants, not narrow and idiosyncratic commitments. Would it be all right for a judge of Serbian ancestry to throw the book at a Croatian-American defendant?

Universities are places for argument and debate. If Salaita says challenging things, he should be debated on them. He has been saying such things for a long time, so they should have been known when he was hired. But academic hiring and firing in any case should be based on academic writing, not on Twitter! Will we next be promoting people to academic positions because they sent out flattering tweets about their president or dean?

Issues in decorum are legitimately taken account of in decisions about whether to promote someone to an administrative post at a university. But professors should argue, and sometimes they may argue provocatively, deploying rhetorical devices like hyperbole. We have a tenure system to make sure that academic debate is not punished, and I believe that it is important to the republic and its democratic values that this be so. Our journalists are often muzzled by the corporations for which they work. Likewise, businesses often maintain that they can fire employees for taking political stances that embarrass the business. Much of America cannot in fact exercise free speech, for fear of economic reprisals, despite constitutional guarantees. That is not right, but at least in academia it is difficult to just fire someone for making a public argument. But sometimes the dirty deed can be done, with regard to the untenured or to those with an outside offer who are moving between tenured positions. It is a shameful business.

35 Responses

  1. I think what happened to professor Salaita is terrible and I hope he has some redress. It seems especially cruel, even if he was guilty of everything charged, given that he left his job and was in the process of relocating his family, apparently.
    I wish the university could have approached him or at least evaluated him properly as you state.
    I have interacted with the professor on twitter. Once, I thought he said something a little over the top and I politely told him and he amended his tweet. That said, the tone of his twitter feed was a bit over the top for someone who will have a diverse classroom, and this is what exposed him as much as the political content. Had a professor mentioned in a very public forum after 9/11 that such terror events made islaophobia understandable he or she might have found themselves in a similar position. No? Also, you don’t mention that in the cultish world of some Israel critics, a “Zionist” is no longer just a person who believes in a Jewish State in Palestine but has morphed into meaning: terrible person with whom I disagree on some or all points.

    • I was an undergrad at Yale in the Arab and Islamic studies section of NELC and I can attest to Professor Cole’s appt at Yale being affected by forces well beyond the NELC/History Depts. Many of the professors in the department were looking forward to his appointment as well as the overhaul of the major to include a modern studies section. Here is a link to a Yale Daily News article about the situation and contrary to Paula Hyman’s remarks, his candidacy obviously had majority support of the departments and certainly among many of the students who were looking forward to having a professor who focused on the current region rather than its ancient side. However, when Yale failed to appoint Cole or take serious action to add a modern component to the major, many of the people who focused on modern aspects of the region left not long after (Hala Khamis Nassar, Ghassan Husseinali, just to name a few). I wish they had hired Prof. Cole, Yale’s loss!

      link to yaledailynews.com

  2. A disturbing case, which, as you point out, is not unique. It takes bravery on your part to say these things. Thanks for saying them.

  3. ……and it’s a bad thing to conflate (or confuse) nationalism with religion (in this case Zionism with Judaism). But that is exactly what is going on in the public debate, as when any criticism of the more extreme brands of Israeli nationalism or Israeli militarism is EQUATED with anti-Semitism. This is a useful smear, but is based on the confusion mentioned above.

    I’m perfectly certain that many committed Zionists are atheists, and that many practicing religious Jews are appalled by the pro-violence nationalism of their Israeli leaders. It’s a pity that this simple distinction isn’t more widely communicated.

    • I’m perfectly certain that many committed Zionists are atheists, and that many practicing religious Jews are appalled by the pro-violence nationalism of their Israeli leaders.

      For example:

      “Israel has broken my heart: I’m a rabbi in mourning for a Judaism being murdered by Israel: I’ve always been proud of Israel, but the brutal Gaza assault requires Jews worldwide to be honest, not nationalist” by Michael Lerner – link to salon.com

  4. “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948″

    Would you support this statement if it contained “African Americans” and “Racism” instead of “Zionists” and “Antisemtism.” Defending this man is morally obtuse.

    • Sadly if you empathize with the oppression of Palestinians you will be called an anti-Semite by their oppressors. This inversion is dangerous. It leads to deeply held anger and can move on to actual hatred. I believe that is what he was driving at.

    • Your question rests on a false presumption: “Zionists” is not an analogue to “African Americans”. “Zionists” is an analogue to “Black supremacists”. Zionism is not an identity, it’s an ideology. It’s a crucial distinction that shows your own blindness: many, perhaps most Zionists are not Jews, and by no means are all or perhaps even most Jews Zionists.

  5. First, this firing should be put in a proper context for a university prof. If he is a tenured prof going into a tenured position, his bono fides are established. The institution of tenure is there to empower him to push things, based on an explicitly endorsed record of having his act together. That tenure is awarded due to writing and other activities is beside the point. A tenured prof is hired because a school thinks he is worth listening to. He is given that protected status because he has earned it and it is understood that his thinking may run counter to the conventional wisdom. The role of universities may be changing, but this is still an implicit part of the job description for a fully engaged and tenured professor, or anyone who aspires to be one.

    Second, none of what what repeated in the linked article is crazy. It is rhetorically confrontational and inflammatory, but none of his comments are indefensible as matters of logic, history or fact. That his tweets can be easily defended, despite their hyperbole, is a point that shouldn’t even have to be made.

    Third, I’d recommend he engage a good lawyer, maybe even from the ACLU, for consideration of a tortuous interference action. INAL, but it seems clear from the facts that his perspective and activities were well known and endorsed by the fact of his having received that offer. A clear paper trail should exist if were ex parte visits and other pressures applied. There are a lot of legal technicalities that may still allow for Camera or whomever to get away with this. However, if the next university knows the little man may just fight back, they may be a lot more careful and show some backbone. With big organizations there is always a cost/benefit analysis to be made, so make it one they have to take seriously.

    The real problem here, which may still be remedied, is that he is not fighting back.

    • We don’t know that he isn’t fighting back. He may have a lawyer, may have even had one going into the entire hiring process. He’s just not speaking to the media.

      I was glad to read this post by Cole, because I too have thought about the role of hyperbole in political criticism. It has a long and venerated history; it’s just denied to Palestinian commentators. It’s part of constantly monitoring Palestinian existence in the post 9/11 world on the part of “liberals,” including those in the academy who refuse to stand up to Zionist political organizations and their threats, threats that are delivered as Cole argues, behind closed doors rather than in public.

  6. In my mind Israel, like other religious states are just relics of the past enforcing Tribalism, the basis of racism. Rather than supporting some “higher order” it just reminds me we are just well dressed apes with the same war like proclivities of chimpanzees.

  7. Professor Cole,

    I generally disagree with everything you write, but this piece was very good. I say that as someone who supported Israel’s recent action in Gaza, nationalism as a concept, and probably all sorts of ideas you find abhorrent. But I like the fact that you have some…old fashioned ideas about the liberal value of debate.

    I hope you would say the same for those who think homosexuality is sinful, so-called “gay marriage” is a sham and should not be recognized by the State, etc. Indeed, in the future, I hope to read you coming to the defense of those like Brenden Eich who simply want to express their opinion via the political process.

    I haven’t even read a thing Professor Salaita wrote, but I take your word that he was simply being critical of Israel; I agree this should never be a firing offense. As someone who lives in Illinois, I will be contacting the University to show my support for the Professor.

    • And, as someone with some degree of influence with high school seniors in various notable preparatory schools, I will be encouraging my students not to choose the University of Illinois for their undergraduate or graduate studies. Most of my students are good enough to choose more reputable institutions, and I’ll do my best to see to it that they do.

      • I completely agree that what has unfolded for Dr. Salaita is wrong on multiple levels, but, Bruce Lewis, for you to say that you are going to steer your prep school contacts away from University of Illinois is equally wrong. One administrator does not a world-ranked university make. Get it?

        • My experience in educational institutions has always been that the top-ranked administration does, indeed, set the tone, including the moral tone, for the whole of the enterprise. If this act does reflect the ethos of this school, and they refuse to reverse this terribly unjust decision, then the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign may NO LONGER be considered. “a world-ranked university” and I SHOULD work to keep my best students away from it.

  8. thank you, professor cole, for your moral courage and humanity, you speak for the best of us. you use knowledge to enlighten when so many use it to obfuscate and do harm.

  9. @Travis Bickle, yes, he was a tenured professor who resigned his tenured position at one university so as to accept this position at UIUC, according to this article:

    link to salon.com

    At the end of the article it notes that the AAUP is already aware of this situation and has issued a statement. I would not be surprised if further action is taken (or maybe I should put it that I would be surprised if additional action is not taken by the AAUP).

    There is also a petition in support of Prof. Salaita, noted at the end of the article. Here is the link:

    link to change.org

    • The Salon article you link fleshes out the details and issues at hand remarkably well. Not to mention the petition.

      But power bows only to power, and I’m afraid that by itself that petition isn’t go to do much. What is needed is to put a price on this action, and in this country, under these circumstances. that’s done by going legal.

      Even if the action is unsuccessful, the career of the next controversial prof up for a job like this is not going to be treated so cavalierly. To Yale’s credit, Prof Cole was not put in the position of resigning before having the rug jerked on him. Many factors go into such hiring decisions, and the politics involved cannot be gotten away from totally. But the foolishness of how UIUC handled matters does stand to be corrected by substantive legal pain.

  10. Prof. Cole, we would not have democracy were it not for nationalism. You know the timeline. It was the rise of people’s awareness of their national identity that forced hereditary monarchs, step by painful step, to have to recognize the consent of the governed or be overthrown. The Treaty of Westphalia, the English wars of the 17th century, and most importantly the American and French Revolutions.

    Yes, that puts a dark contradiction at the heart of liberal society. We live in the world of those who outlived their opponents, often by fighting. You must agree that without nationalism, no one would have cared to combat the Secession in 1861, or gotten all that bothered about Pearl Harbor. People get nationalism, they don’t get or sacrifice their lives for political theory. If “advanced” countries have outgrown nationalism, where does that leave the developing, hard-to-unify countries that must demand some degree of sacrifice from their populations to obtain economic growth while fending off exploitation from the rich countries?

    • Super, I thought you knew that “countries” don’t matter any more, on a Flat Earth dominated by suicidal corporatocracies who live to please themselves and whose main corporate slogan seems to be “IBG, YBG, Apres moi le deluge, suckers!”?

      What is the new theme or strange attractor that will keep humanity from “inhumanity” (sic), from killing itself off?

    • You are deploying a very broad and convenient notion of nationalism that assumes away the questions Cole and others have raised. “…peoples awareness of their national identity …(forcing monarchs)… to recognize the consent of the governed or be overthrown” is a case in point.. I know of no such nationalist sentiment driving the disputes between monarchs and parliaments and motivating the wars you cited. Even the American Revolution was not motivated by a rising sense of nationalism but out of dissatisfaction of unfair taxation and the authority of the monarch to impose such. This itself was first but an extension of the same conflict between the Stuarts and their Parliaments. The argument was a legal one of the basis of authority and law. In England, this was notoriously played out in the legal disputes between Bacon and Cooke, Bacon defending James I and Cooke essentially inventing common law to which the Monarch was (to be) also subject. The monarchs, since the Tudor rejection of the Pope’s authority over them, themselves were responsible for their own demise as their absolute authority as monarchs had come through divine right via the Church. These historic arguments arose not out of an emerging nationalism but out of an emerging identity of a middle class, merchant class at the time, that arose as the feudal systems that defined the nations collapsed simply because said system was untenable in the long run. New nations and national identities emerged out of some of these conflicts whether monarchies or democracies but not nationalism as a new concept of identity. Also emerging out of the religious side of the dispute was England posed first as the New Jerusalem and the American colonies secondly as such with all the same consequent problems illustrated today by the Old.

  11. The question to ask when thinking about this incident is “Would Salaita’s job offer been withdrawn if he’d posted ‘nasty’ or ‘uncivil’ tweets defending Israel and zionism?”

    Of course not. In fact, he could’ve tweeted FAR FAR worse “uncivil” comments defending Israel and zionism and he’d be on his way to securing tenure at the University of Illinois right now.

    They’re just hiding behind “incivility” to excuse this disgusting action against Dr. Salaita.

  12. Albert Einstein is an anti-semite by today’s standards. He considered Menachen Begin and his Zionist Freedom Party a fascist movement in 1948.
    “It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents.”

    link to globalwebpost.com

    • That is to say, the people Dr. Cole refers to as being in the “cult” of Israeli nationalism and Zionism are, in fact, fascists. And the behavior of the University of Illinois is cowardly and disgusting.
      Situations like these will always produce the worst kind of blow-back, creating actual anti-semites. For it is seen that a small group of (probably wealthy) Jews have deprived and man of his livelihood because he dared speak his mind in a public forum.

  13. I appeal to all to please sign this petition demanding immediate reinstatement of Dr. Steven Salaita….and please forward to all.

    Over 11,000 have signed already!

    link to change.org

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