Incivility: On not Bringing up Occupied Palestinians in Polite Company

By Heike Schotten (Ma’an News Agency)

In the US, and especially within the US Palestine solidarity movement, the biggest Israel-Palestine news since Gaza Genocide 3.0 (which, with Palestinians dying daily, whether from the effects of the siege or horrific wounds leftover from the attack, makes this genocide ongoing), is the unceremonious un-hiring of Professor Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois on the ostensible basis of his impolite presence on social media.

The short version, by now familiar, is this: Salaita, a tenured professor at Virginia Tech, signed a contract with the University of Illinois and had his new job all but in hand. Two weeks before the start of the semester, he was informed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise that she would not be forwarding his case to the Board of Trustees for approval.

Subsequent sleuthing revealed big donor pressure on both Wise and the Board to un-hire Salaita, with threats to turn off the money spigot unless he was removed.

Shockingly, ridiculously, Wise and the Board caved.

This disgusting turn of events is one big pile up of injustices that is dizzying even to contemplate, much less sort through or analyze.

Just off the top of my academic head, this decision:

• Evacuates tenure of any real meaning.
• Renders Salaita unemployed in the near term and likely unemployable in the long term.
• Thumbs its nose at the Department who vetted Salaita’s hire.
• Disparages the knowledge, qualifications, and judgment of U of I faculty.
• Privileges the demands of wealthy donors over faculty expertise, institutional integrity, and shared university governance.
• Makes a complete mockery of academic freedom.

These are only the most obvious problems.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the next level of injustice, however — which isn’t about the ostensible “civility” Salaita was accused of lacking on Twitter.

It is rather about the content of his tweets, which were less impolite than they were critical of the Israeli state and its latest armed incursion into the Gaza Strip, a one-sided act of military aggression that resulted, most crudely, in the death of over 2,000 Palestinians (a full fourth of whom were children).

And those donors? They are supporters of Israel, who didn’t want someone with Salaita’s particular political views teaching the next generations of students at their alma mater.

To date, there has been plenty of attention paid to civility, the justificatory fig leaf for Salaita’s firing. According to David Palumbo-Liu, civility is for suckers. Put a bit differently, Vijay Prashad notes that civility is the new term used by those in power to demand capitulation and compliance.

And yet this case is not primarily about speech, or academic discourse, or the upholding (or restricting) the freedom and civility of either.

The un-hiring of Salaita is part of the larger, national-level campaign being waged on US campuses against critics of Israel, be they faculty or student groups. It is, in other words, part of the McCarthyist silencing tactics of the Israel lobby to curtail political critique on college campuses.

As Jakeet Singh has recently pointed out, there is another level of injustice to which we have been inattentive in the Salaita affair: systematic racism and colonialism. Singh argues correctly that the targeting of Salaita, as well as the department where he was to teach — American Indian Studies — replicates and perpetuates racist and colonialist structures of civilizationalism, paternalism, and white privilege.

Prashad notes that Salaita’s tweets were deemed “uncivil” because they criticize a government that the US and its power brokers favor supporting. Were he to have tweeted critiques of Russia, say, or North Korea, the story would likely be different.

And yet, there is a reason that Salaita was critiquing Israel and not Russia or North Korea. Salaita was hired by the University of Illinois’ American Indian Studies department, based on his contribution to the emerging field of comparative indigenous studies. He was going to provide scholarly expertise on the comparative situation of colonized peoples in North America and Palestine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the most-discussed aspect of this case as well as the least-discussed — civility, on the one hand, and race and indigeneity, on the other — are related.

It’s not simply that a scholar of color is being targeted for being “too angry,” or that a critic of Israel is being targeted by the Zionist lobby, or that “civility” is being used to justify the neoliberalization of the university and perpetuate colonialism (although it is all of these things).

It’s also that these are in some sense interchangeable. “Civility” is the sharp end of this particular spear of racism and colonialism, which drives the targeting of Salaita in particular and critics of Israel in general.

Indeed, the effects of U of I’s actions actually replicate those of colonization and dispossession. As a result of his un-hiring, for example, Salaita notes that his “family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career: lifetime tenure with its promised protections of academic freedom.”

It is difficult to ignore the bitter irony of a Palestinian American becoming homeless and destitute as a result of Zionist lobbying efforts to un-hire him.

And yet, it isn’t even ironic. After all, “irony” implies an outcome that is surprising or unexpected.

It seems, rather, that Salaita’s homelessness and de-instatementare simply appropriate, simply what Palestinians deserve. In some sense defined by refugee status, what happened to Salaita is simply what happens to Palestinians. Indeed, Salaita has become a refugee once more, academically unaffiliated and without a physical home for himself and his family.

In his very scholarly existence, in other words, Steven Salaita is an exercise in incivility. Not only is he Palestinian himself, and thus a member of a group already considered savage, backward, and in need of a lesson in “making the desert bloom.”

But if “civilization” is understood as having been brought into being through the settlement of North America and the North American (not to mention Israeli) academy, then surely to draw attention to this illegitimate foundation by engaging in comparative indigenous studies is to question the very basis and legitimacy of civilization itself.

When that interrogation comes directly from the mouth of the “savage,” you can be sure that the result will be, by definition, “uncivil.” Its words — their content no less than their tone — will be anathema to civilization, synonymous with its annihilation.

The day of the iniquitous Board of Trustees vote (which, strangely, took place, despite Wise’s insistence it would not), Salaita re-emerged on Twitter. He tweeted only once, stating:



A whole book could be written on the profundity of this statement — about its implications for identity, affect, Palestinianness; for privation, withdrawal, and loss more generally.

But one thing seems sure: the defenders of civilization have acted to preserve its sanctity from the threat of savagery and destruction. There is no question, then, that far from having finished, the ugly machinations of “civilization” — dispossession, dispersal, silencing, and removal — continue apace, whether in the ruins of what is left of the Gaza Strip or the elite ravages of the neoliberal American university.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect Ma’an News Agency’s editorial policy.

Heike Schotten is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches political theory, feminist theory, and queer theory (her work is available here). She has been active in the Palestine solidarity movement since 2006.

Mirrored from the Ma’an News Agency

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Steven Salaita Speaks About His Termination

10 Responses

  1. The ‘winning side’ gets to write history. Sad but true.

    Hopefully, he’s able to move forward and find an even better situation for himself and his family.

  2. Is it time to boycott the University for lack of academic freedom? Shouldn’t all university professionals be on board with this?

  3. Obviously, two can play at that “game”; in fact, Hitler excelled!

    No……I am not anti-Semitic, although incidents like this make it almost magnetically tempting, and, as history teaches us, when one side starts a dangerous “game” of this sort, it usually doesn’t take too long for an “answer” to be heard!!!!!!.

  4. Sadly, I am not surprised anymore when academics write such one-sided biased articles. Israel has many critics but not all of them choose to express themselves in hateful ways such as:

    “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”
    or
    “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing”

    It is his right to say it. He can tweet as much hate as he wishes. But is describing Netanyahu as wearing the teeth of children civil in your eyes? values like freedom of speech, seeking truth and helping the oppressed do not make the form he chooses to express himself acceptable. Especially in academia, where dialog based on logic, facts, and respects needs to be maintained, this kind of talk cannot be accepted, let alone defended.

    • When three Israeli teens were murdered in the West Bank, Netanyahu chose to foment anti-arab and anti-muslim sentiment. As a result, a lynch mob burned a Palestinian child to death. I would never have expected such a violent reaction coming from a mainstream Israeli Politician. And he’s not the worst, There is an MK on record saying that the goal of the Israeli state should be to kill Palestinian mothers to stop the growth of the Palestinian population.

      Salita’s comments were not an exaggeration. Israel has it’s own version of concentration camps for Palestinians. Its a result of the Blockade of Gaza and the checkpoints that dot the West Bank.

    • What is more uncivil? Describing Netanyahu as some sort of a ghoul, or Netanyahu’s actual politics that lead to periodic destruction of the lives of thousands of Palestinians?

  5. And oh the sad, sad irony of how the pro-Israeli donors actually vindicate genuine anti-Semitic tropes through such actions.

  6. From the view of pro-Zionists there is no civil way to criticize the ongoing ethnic-cleansing, land theft and out right psychopathic slaughter of Palestinians at the hands of Zionism.

  7. First the Press got domesticated then Academia in the crosshairs. Not just the Palestinians’ problem, but the “Donor”crowd that wants Palestinians dead is the same that has been railroading the US into Mid east wars…..

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