Today, Sydney Staff for BDS launched a new open letter for Sydney University to end its complicity with apartheid Israel.
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post in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) – only to have it withdrawn, the following year and before taking up the position, at the behest of the institution’s Board of Trustees.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.
Today’s announcement by Sydney University management that it will not be dismissing Jake Lynch highlights the vexatious and baseless nature of the Israel lobby’s campaign against him, Sydney Staff for BDS (SSBDS) said.
SSBDS welcomes management’s decision to end the disciplinary process against Lynch. It brings to an end a politically motivated two-month investigation, initiated in response to pressure on the university from pro-Israel forces.
The Israel lobby has long sought the scalps of pro-Palestine academics such as Lynch. “Peter Wertheim, Alex Ryvchin, Dean Sherr and other spokespeople for pro-Israel organisations cynically saw an opportunity to attack one of their ideological opponents,” said David Brophy from SSBDS. “The fact that the University of Sydney has rejected their allegations is a blow against Zionists’ intimidation of Palestine activism in Australia.”
This case must be set in the context of a worldwide upturn in the use of accusations of anti-Semitism to intimidate and silence pro-Palestine voices on campus. In the first four months of 2015, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support recorded 60 instances at US universities where criticism of Israel was met with accusations of anti-Semitism. This unscrupulous tactic of conflating criticism of the Israeli State with anti-Semitism has done great damage to the need to identify and combat genuine racial discrimination, including anti-Semitism, in society.
Claims that Palestine activists at Sydney are anti-Jewish have been the go-to argument of Lynch’s critics. After Sydney University responded to the allegations of anti-Semitism by launching an investigation, The Australasian Union of Jewish Students leapt into action by emailing its members a set of misrepresentations and fabrications, among them that Lynch “shouted in the faces of Jewish students” and that he “has a history of supporting harassment and discrimination against Jewish students.”
In addition it launched a petition for Lynch’s sacking, arguing that “anti-Semitic behaviour, harassment, and intimidation have no place in Australian society and they certainly have no place at the University of Sydney.” Even after the charge of anti-Semitism was found to be groundless, AUJS’s Julian Kowal maintained that Lynch had compromised the university as a “safe space for Jewish students”, for which he should be dismissed.
In this light, Dean Sherr’s recent claim that AUJS’ campaign against Lynch does not rest on a complaint of anti-Semitism stands exposed as a scandalous bid to rewrite the factual record.
Peter Wertheim has stated that “the charge of antisemitism is not levelled lightly,” but the barrage of irresponsible op-eds smearing as Lynch as anti-Semitic suggests otherwise. Under the headline “Antisemitism on Campus: Has Sydney University’s Jake Lynch Finally Gone Too Far?”, Glen Falkenstein included Lynch’s actions in a discussion of “anti-Zionism”, “which through its manifestations and rhetoric clearly can serve as a mask for blatant antisemitism.” In The Australian, Peter Baldwin continued along the same lines, saying: “My sense is that increasingly anti-Zionism is a mask for occulted anti-Semitism.” In recent weeks such insinuations have continued to flow freely from the pens of Lynch’s critics.
“The Israel lobby’s resort to these plainly baseless accusations highlights their lack of any real arguments against Palestine justice activists,” said David Brophy.
“These lobby organisations are dedicated to preventing a free and informed debate on the question of Israel/Palestine from occurring in Australian society. Sydney University should strive to ensure that such a debate can take place on campus by resisting these vexatious attacks. The institution’s commitment to academic freedom, which has been reiterated a number of times with reference to Lynch, requires that it do so.”
“We welcome the end of the proceedings against Lynch,” added Nick Riemer from SSBDS. “The University should be congratulating Jake for promoting the cause of a just peace in the Middle East, not threatening him with the sack for it. It’s now time for the University to drop all its charges against the student protesters too.”
15/4/2015, 23:40. For immediate release
Sydney Staff for BDS condemns the disciplinary proceedings the University of Sydney is taking against Palestine advocates on campus, as announced by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, today. The university’s move follows the protest on March 11 at a talk by Mr Richard Kemp.
“The University of Sydney claims to be committed to the struggle against racism and discrimination,” said Dr Nick Riemer from SSBDS. “But today Michael Spence has shown what side he is actually on. The Israel lobby only had to snap its fingers and the university jumped to take action against Palestine advocates. We call on supporters of peace and justice in the Middle East to write to Dr Spence demanding that no sanctions be made and a full statement of the University’s opposition to Israeli violations of international law and Palestinian human rights be issued.”
“It couldn’t be clearer that the university has been taking part in the Israel lobby’s witch hunt against Jake Lynch,” Riemer continued. “The complaints made against Lynch constitute the latest chapter in the ongoing campaign against him for his promotion of the Palestinian call to boycott Israel. It is scandalous that the University of Sydney has been collaborating with this campaign. The fact that it is doing so is consistent with Sydney’s extensive support for Israeli universities, which continue to play a key role in sustaining the occupation, and in Israel’s onslaughts on Gaza.”
The university’s decision to escalate its action against Palestine advocates comes despite an open letter with over 1500 signatories calling on Dr Spence “not to allow [him]self to be made the agent of the Israel lobby’s persecution of those committed to a just peace in the Middle East”. Signatories to the letter include Desmond Tutu, Julian Burnside AM QC, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Mary Kostakidis, Mike Carlton, Richard Falk, (former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories), federal and state politicians, and staff of universities on every continent.
“We will not be deterred by this attempt to silence Palestine activism at Sydney,” Dr Riemer said. “We will continue to speak the truth about Israel’s crimes and the University of Sydney’s complicity with them. It will not be too long before Sydney University’s cooperation with Israel and its lobby is seen as the serious stain on the university’s reputation that it is.”
“From the university’s announcement today, we can only conclude that it intends to bully Palestine supporters, including young students and human rights activists. Protest is inherently disruptive. Protesters at Kemp’s lecture were conscientiously exercising their civil liberties on a matter of major international importance. Richard Kemp has the world’s media at his disposal. To appeal to freedom of speech as grounds to punish Palestine advocates for interrupting Kemp is deeply hypocritical.”
“The University of Sydney must not declare itself off-limits for political action in favour of Palestine,” Riemer said. “Going after staff and students for their political views is a chilling outcome for Australia’s oldest university and the proud traditions of political dissent it embodies. Sydney must not side with a nuclear power to intimidate a small band of human rights activists. Doing so would make a mockery of the university’s claims to care about justice and anti-racism. How many of the Freedom Ride protesters, whom the university now celebrates, were involved in disruptive protest as a key mechanism to advance the cause of Indigenous rights?”
The university’s announcement of charges follows a highly compromised investigation, which saw the university lying to its staff about the identity of the investigator in charge. Staff voluntarily participating in the enquiry were told that this investigator was external and independent, when in fact she is listed in the university phone book as an employee. The National Tertiary Education Union has written to the university making the point that this gives every impression of an attempt to entrap staff, and can only raise serious questions about senior management’s good faith.
As revealed in a letter to New Matilda by the talk’s organisers, Richard Kemp appeared on campus with the blessing of the Vice-Chancellor’s office. In 2013, by contrast, the university tried to ban the Dalai Lama. Last year, it banned Uthman Badar from appearing on campus.
“To punish Palestine justice advocates in the name of freedom of speech is highly paradoxical. If it really cared about either freedom of speech or human rights, the university would not be cracking down on political protest on campus. This is a shocking development for political freedom and civil liberties at Sydney University, and beyond,” Riemer said.
Sydney Staff for BDS urges Dr Spence to protect his own reputation and that of the University of Sydney by strongly reaffirming the university’s independence from political interference, and by refusing to side with Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair and the other voices calling for Lynch to be dismissed and Palestine activists to be silenced.
More information: Nick Riemer, 0481 339 937 email@example.com; David Brophy, 0434 026 003 firstname.lastname@example.org
See SSBDS’ statement on the original enquiry, and our press dossier, here.