Victim of McCarthy-Era Witch Hunt calls on U-Illinois not to Fire Critic of Israeli Policies

Note by Juan Cole: In the early 1950s, under the influence of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), a national witch hunt was conducted for leftists. McCarthy claimed to have a list of 100 Soviet moles in the State Department. Even former members of the Communist Party, which had been popular in the 1930s Great Depression before Stalin’s crimes were recognized, and which was part of the formal US alliance against the Axis in World War II, were suddenly put under scrutiny. Running against secret Communists or alleged covert socialists became common in politics (a slimy sociopath named Richard Nixon got his start in Congress that way). Screen writers in Hollywood were fired, names taken off the films, and made non-persons. No actual crime had to be alleged or proven– people were punished and ostracized, essentially for thought crimes. These techniques of intellectual bullying and intimidation, supposedly on national security grounds, were intended by many of their proponents to roll back the New Deal reforms that made a decent life possible for working people and to make criticism of the absolute property prerogatives of corporations and the very wealthy illegal. Many of our social pathologies in the 21st century are rooted in the success of this inquisitorial drive. At the University of Michigan, there is still an annual lecture, the Academic Freedom Fund, in honor of three University of Michigan professors who were fired or suspended for refusing to testify to a visiting delegation from the House Un-American Activities Committee. One of those summarily fired was a mathematician, Chandler Davis, who emigrated to Canada. Professor Davis, still feisty in his late 80’s, has just written a personal letter to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise urging her to rescind the firing of Professor Steven Salaita, a specialist in Native American Studies, for his trenchant criticisms of Israeli government policy toward the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. When I first wrote him suggesting I reprint the letter, in his gentlemanly way he said it was a letter to Chancellor Wise and he preferred not. Then it got out on the internet anyway, and he relented.

Chandler Davis writes:

Dr. Phyllis Wise
University of Illinois

Dear Chancellor Wise:

I write from a rich experience of attacks on academic freedom; I have seen the damage that enforcing conformity can do to intellectual life. Among the victims was myself. My expulsion from American academe in 1954 has been thoroughly refuted by history, so that I speak not with the bitterness of any unresolved grievance, but with the immediacy that personal memory gives.

When anti-segregationists were expelled, when socialists were expelled, the damage was dire for the victims, but dire also for the whole community. Today, we have our work cut out for us to defeat real anti-Semitism and real bigotry of all sorts. I am heartsick to see your office betray the struggle by joining the attack on Professor Steven Salaita.

Of course some sufficiently strong partisans of the Israeli government are sorry to hear his criticism, and might deplore his presence on your faculty. You are not obliged to bow to them. They are asking you to violate the security of an academic position– in this case, a position firmly promised though not yet taken up. Even if you could justify breaking your University’s commitment to Prof. Salaita –which you can not– you should reject with indignation the calls to wrench him from the community. He is an active opponent of anti-Semitism and other bigotry, as you must know from his writings. We need him by our side.

Chandler Davis


Related video added by Juan Cole

2011 Academic Freedom Lecture – Ellen W. Schrecker – 10/13/11


Support the U-Michigan Academic Freedom Fund here

22 Responses

  1. Canada has benefited for American political immigrants from the US. There liberal to progressive ideas are better tolerated here and allowed to contribute to the more liberal culture. America’s loss in Canada’s gain. link to

    • Maybe but the implication, one often asserted, that Canada is morally superior is a tough chew. I was fired by a Canadian university over gender issues. And Aboriginal Peoples living on Canadian Reserves are given feel-good awards but are compelled to live in squalor.

  2. Especially senior administrators at major universities secure and keep their positions by doing what they’re told by their diverse constituencies, meaning they have a very good sense of the relevant politics and bend naturally to them. I doubt this one is any different, so have some sympathy for her. What could change the overall equation here is the universal commitment these folks have to their universities reputation and the budgets unto which they are entrusted.

    The appropriate response in this case is to sue, and to sue big. It will cost the university millions, even if they defend successfully. No amount of technicalities or clever lawyering will save them from the humiliation that awaits them (assuming the facts as I get them). Far more importantly, this is an opportunity to drag into the open the sordidness of those behind this firing. A full-airing of what has happened stands to do an enormous amount of good, and something along these lines is long overdue. This is not about some lone professor who was given the shaft as an example to others (as has been done before). These manipulators need to have a bright, public spotlight shone on them because their influence extends far too deeply into many spheres, including the formulation and implementation of US foreign policy.

    The key is make everything about this episode very public and to keep it very public. However events unfold, the professor needs to resist the temptation to settle quietly, which in the big picture is not what is best for the US, or the world.

  3. Seeing that McCarthyism still exists, it’s no surprise that Ferguson happened. Can we never learn?

  4. My father was hunted in the early 50s, called a Communist (he was a labor union organizer in Detroit) and almost hounded out of his teaching job. The main reason it did not happen is because McCarthy began to lose his luster. Now, the same thing is happening again under the guise of “anti-semitism.” Same vicious people, different calling card

  5. If prof cole a valued tenured prof. at u.mich. made those exact statements …..I question his survival at u.mich.

    • University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, has a significant pro-Israel contingent on its faculty represented by the Scholars for a Middle East Peace and a student movement represented by the American Movement for Israel.

    • An offer to Prof. Cole was rescinded by Yale after some donors and Alan Dershowitz attacked him for being “anti-semitic”. Yale’s loss, UM’s gain.

      • Other sources say the opposition resulted from the Bush administration officials who were angry over his criticism of the handling of the Iraq situation.

    • The positions and postings on this blog have none of the stridency of Salaita’s tweets, but to the “if you aren’t with us you’re against us” crowd, I expect they are more offensive, because of how persuasively they have laid out the logic and facts of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If there is any one thing they would do, if they could do it, it would be to shut this blog down or somehow otherwise destroy our host.

      I suspect tenure, and the safety afforded by the significant reach of this blog, are what has accounted for his staying at UM. Even then, when universities decide to get rid of a tenured prof, and are otherwise constrained, there are ways to make it awfully, awfully uncomfortable for them to stay. So, this issue with Salaita really is an important one.

      As goes Salaita, so goes the rest of Americans who may wish to speak out. To adapt what has been said of any number of previously targeted people, we are all Steven Salaita.

      • The University of Michigan has always treated me well, indeed, with honor and affection, across the board and unlike some private institutions is in my 30 years of experience there not corrupt or ideological with regard to academic hiring and firing. I think those who want to politicize an appointment most places in academia only get the opportunity when a tenured professor is potentially moving, i.e., when there is an outside offer. Since outside offers strongly affect careers and lifetime earnings, moreover, making it clear that taking controversial stances will interfere with this prospect is enough to silence many more ambitious figures in the academy. Creating political controversies around senior appointments is, in other words, a social control mechanism.

        • The social control was in the intention to make an example of Salaita. Even unpublicized, actions like these stand to have an enormous impact on any prof tempted to wade into political waters, much less presume to be a catalyst.

          But these are the very people who have the background and credibility to make a difference in the world. Its implicit in their job description, especially at schools where they supervising PhD candidates. Which is why I hope Salaita finishes the fight others have started; otherwise his loss is not that of just one prof.

          Even at the biggest state schools tenured profs who become controversial are defended as family. I have no idea of Richard Falk’s status at Princeton, but I suspect he is supported strongly by their administration on these same basic grounds. University people are nice folks, and this is how they behave. The political element is legitimately something to be considered when making a senior appt. The issue here is not that he was passed on, even for political reasons, but that the implementation of a contract offered and accepted was interfered with, once past the stage of deliberation.

  6. The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City was established in 1954 or 1955 as refuge of many blacklisted scientists, many of them Jews, who were victims of McCarthy era. Now there is new twist to the blacklisting. Maybe a new higher education institution needs to be established to give those people who value Palestinian lives and who speak out (against Israel atrocities and are blacklisted for speaking out, labelled ‘anti-semites’) a new chance to pursue their academic careers.

    • Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the West Bank settler who massacred Palestinians in Hebron, ironically was a graduate of Albert Einstein College of Medicine – he had refused to render medical treatment to Arabs in his practice.

  7. I have a dear friend who immigrated to Canada because of US
    attitudes and conservative ideas. She is making a big contribution at a Canadian university. I attended a conference she organized and several international speakers were first rate and probably would not have been welcome in the US. Sadly, we are very poor in ideas here. Academic Freedom is a hallmark of a civilized society.

  8. There’s really only one factor here. Large pro-Israel donors exerting pressure. The control mechanism now is money. That wasn’t really the case in the McCarthy era, when the pressure was primarily political, driven by official forces. Now, the pressure is private and monetary.

  9. This is from MondoWeiss: “Salaita’s hire set off fund-raising alarm at U of Illinois” link to

    Which way will Dr. Wise go? I’ll bet “follow the money” at this or any other alleged institute of higher learning.

    • Your link is an important update.

      For one thing, we learn that his offer had been extended and accepted NINE months prior to the firing. We also learn the political and financial pressure was immense, and that the legal ramifications were weighted before the trigger was pulled.

      But it’s the overall sordidness of this affair which is most impressive.

  10. I am a Univ. of Illinois graduate.
    I have given cash gifts many years to its endowment fund.
    I will now suspend these gifts until this issue is resolved in a fair way

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