A review of Steven Salaita’s book – Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, published by Haymarket books, Chicago, Illinois, 243 pp.
Uncivil Rites is an uplifting, uneven, fizzing celebration of the struggle for humanity in the face of an unholy alliance between Zionism, the hostile corporate takeover of scholarly communities that has corrupted University administration, and the militarism that seeks to quell resistance to injustice. By turns angry, funny, maudlin, defensive, militant and ultimately affirmatory, the book never lapses into either of the two signature modes that pro-Israel propaganda shares with ethnocentric American ‘patriotism’, namely rage and hate.
Salaita was born in West Virginia to a Jordanian father, and married into a Palestinian family. At the outset of the book, he remarks on the subject of his PhD thesis, “on interrelated discourses of colonization in North America and Palestine” (p. 1). In 2013, he was appointed to a Professorial post in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) – only to have it withdrawn, the following year and before taking up the position, at the behest of the institution’s Board of Trustees. He was forced to establish this in court, as the University tried to deny that he’d ever been offered employment – just one of a stunning array of dirty tricks played upon him in a campaign of “Zionist repression” (p. 53).
Salaita’s ostensible “crime” was a series of tweets, sent from his personal Twitter account, critical of Israel’s so-called “Operation Protective Edge”, the attack on Gaza in mid-2014 in which over 2,000 civilians were killed. One said: “I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” (p. 10). As he observes, the word, “missing” acquired a particular resonance in Israel at the time as it was used to refer to three teenaged boys from a settlement in Gush Etzion, in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, who were kidnapped from a hitch-hiking stop and whose bodies were later found in a field near Hebron.
As Salaita recalls, “the Israeli government immediately blamed Hamas, which turned out not to be responsible, and facilitated one of the worst outbreaks of mob violence in recent Israeli history” (p 10). His ‘offending’ tweet came a week into this cynically engineered bout of nationalistic hysteria.
The murder of the three boys was an infamous crime, but there was – and remains – something obscene about the disproportionate political and media attention the incident generated, when the far greater number of young Palestinian lives destroyed or blighted by the occupation, its appurtenances and cruelties are met typically with comparative indifference. The former stood out as an aberration from a norm; the latter is the everyday grinding reality for a dispossessed people.
In Salaita’s own words, “I thought it a suitable moment to reflect on a fundamental Palestinian desire to end military occupation. I invoked the ‘go missing’ phrase because of its currency in that moment. I didn’t mean kidnap or murder”. But the tweet was to return to haunt him as it was one of those cited by the “sub-mediocre sycophants” (p. 195) who populate upper University administrative corridors as an excuse to ride roughshod over UIUC’s own rules, and the integrity of its American Indian Studies program, and fire him.
The ‘offence’ his tweets are supposed to have caused has to be seen in context. ‘Protective Edge’ saw Israel isolated in world public, media and political opinion as seldom before. It leant further impetus to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which was by then identified by authorities in Israel as a strategic threat. We now know, thanks to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, that foreign direct investment in Israel halved in 2014, with one of its co-authors, Israeli economist Dr Ronny Manos, attributing the sharp drop to fallout from the military onslaught on Gaza and “international boycotts” against Israel for “alleged violations of international law.”
Salaita’s “vocal support” for the academic boycott, a key component of BDS, tops his own list of “factors that contributed to my firing” (p. 48). As he remarks, BDS puts the wind up the parasitic class of corporate-friendly administrators now wrecking universities throughout the neo- liberal world, not merely for its Palestine advocacy but because it represents “grassroots organizing, faculty autonomy, antiracism, decolonization, systemic critique” (p. 56) – all supposedly prerogatives of academic freedom that somehow feel embarrassing in attempts to cosy up to rich donors.
There is also something intrinsically disobliging about Palestine advocacy to a still-dominant American narrative that waxes choleric when reminded of the genocidal war against the continent’s first nations that was a condition of its founding. “Palestine… is an anxiety, one whose existence ensures the survival of the American Indian” (p. 100). US support for Zionism is tendered “for reasons that eclipse geopolitics” (p. 100).
Similar observations could be made about Australia, which suppresses its Aboriginal population with ever-intensifying bureaucratic zeal, and where my own prominent advocacy of the academic boycott has given me a taste of the treatment meted out to Salaita. The “consummate disingenuity” (p. 123) that leads critics of Israeli government policies to be smeared as “antisemitic” is one experience we share. As is the Orwellian use by University managers of the word, “civility” to shut down dissension from an approved spectrum of views and modes of expression when tackling divisive issues on campus.
Earlier this year, University of Sydney management disgracefully connived in a libellous campaign against me by a hasbara organisation, the “Australasian Union of Jewish Students”, and instrumentalised the resulting hysteria to institute disciplinary proceedings, after a speech by a notorious apologist for Israeli militarism was interrupted by a noisy student demonstration. My “crime” was to intercede to prevent security guards from manhandling protesters in ways assessed by a senior medical practitioner as potentially highly dangerous.
In common with other campuses, including many in the US, the scholarly community includes many who profess to be ‘progressive except on Palestine’, and many more who keep their heads down or occasionally pop up to parrot management idiocies. But there are also a few doughty fighters for freedom and for human values in the governance of public affairs in general, and solidarity with peoples in struggle for rights and freedoms, in particular.
In my own case, the campaign worked, and the University had to declare that the charge of antisemitism was refuted. Unlike Salaita, I managed to keep my job. As he notes, “the kindness and generosity of the uncivilized [is] stunning… if this is incivility, then I eagerly accept my confinement to the dignity of the uncivil” (pp. 62-63).
Uncivil Rites rambles at times, and has the feeling of picking at different threads in parallel. It was forged in struggle, which took its author on a nonstop speaking tour as word spread of the injustice done to him, and its implications – with portions of the book written in haste or in discomfort while waiting for planes or travelling on trains.
The public outcry at his treatment took the backstairs-crawlers at UIUC by surprise. As Salaita concludes, “Suppression relies on the anxiety of its targets. It is sustainable… only in relation to our quiescence” (p. 188). He goes on to set out a stage-by-stage plan for effective campus organising around the academic boycott and related issues. Uncivil Rites deserves to be read as a classic of the movement, and its author’s courage and integrity widely emulated.
Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, and a member of Sydney Staff for BDS, which is affiliated to the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.