Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.

Standing By Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last week, I made note here of the philosophy department at Brooklyn College co-sponsoring ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th.

As you will notice, on the link for the event above, there is a disclaimer, in fine print, which reads:

Co-sponsorship does not imply agreement with, or support of, views expressed at a student-hosted event.

This disclaimer was deemed necessary–in this case, at least–because departments are made skittish by accusations of anti-semitism and anti-Israel stances.  But that is not all. The SJP’s use of the word ‘allies’–again, in the link above for the event–has not sat well with some of my colleagues in the philosophy department: it seems to imply the department is engaged in active endorsement of the ‘content’ of the event.  Perhaps the philosophy department shouldn’t be co-sponsoring any such events for fear of not being able to ‘control the message’?

In response to their expressions of concern, I sent the following email to my colleagues:

Some thoughts.

1. I think it would be an ambitious inference for someone to make that the ‘allies’ in question refer to the departments and organizations sponsoring the event (as opposed to say, those attending the event). Some folks will, no doubt, make precisely such an inference. But I wonder if that were even true, what would we be allies to? I still think it would be precisely those issues which are at stake: academic freedom, free speech, academic governance – and the chance to see them discussed in an open forum.  We should be able to articulate a defense for that even in the face of ill-motivated accusations. There should be no need to backpedal in the face of an accusation that “we are actively promoting a pro-Palestine/anti-Israel stance” when it is false. (Indeed, the event is titled ‘Silencing Dissent”.)

2. The word ‘sponsor’ has had, prior to the BDS event last year, a relatively unambiguous meaning on our campus; it has acquired this notoriety almost entirely due to hostility expressed to events organized by the SJP. Has there ever been such a fuss about the word when some other student organization is involved? Indeed, given that the student organization in question is named Students for Justice in Palestine, their events are *always* going to be characterized as being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. I mean, JUSTICE in PALESTINE? That’s a red rag if there ever was one. If departments get too skitty when it comes to the SJP, if they do not co-sponsor any events organized by SJP for fear of the furore it will provoke, then they will co-operate in a de-facto ostracization of a student group. “Every time you guys organize an event, we get shit from alumni and the press – no thanks, we can’t co-sponsor.” This doesn’t seem like a great move for us to make as a department of philosophy, ostensible lovers of wisdom. [link added]

I don’t want to broaden this discussion too much, but let us not kid ourselves about what is going on here. A tenured faculty member was fired, from a state university, for his public speech, because it was deemed to render him unfit to fulfill his academic duties. (Let us not forget the administration at UIUC rode roughshod over faculty decisions pertaining to hiring and tenure.) We are doing the right thing by sponsoring this event, by being part of the effort to have Salaita on campus, talking about the issues involved.

Personally, I see it as an honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ an event that highlights issues of utmost importance to the modern university. We are a philosophy department; we claim to teach analytic and argumentative skills, all the better to puncture hypocrisy, irrationality, and intellectual dishonesty. We should be able to mount an adequate defense of our actions here and in any other situation we think deserves our support. I do not think we should run for the hills because of a dishonest rhetorical tirade, because people insist on imputing motives and reasons for our actions that we do not actually hold.

Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last Tuesday, the philosophy department of Brooklyn College voted to co-sponsor ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th. (In so doing, we joined the ranks of the departments of political science and sociology, as well as the Shirley Chisholm Project, Brooklyn for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace – New York Chapter, and the International Socialist Organization.)

Because I had suggested–during the ‘new business’ section of our department meeting–that the department sponsor the event, and because the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College focused so much attention on the business of academic departments ‘sponsoring’ supposedly ‘political’ and ‘one-sided’ events, I offered some arguments about the desirability of the philosophy department signing on as a co-sponsor, even if our vote to do so would attract some of the same hostility the political science department at Brooklyn College had during the BDS event.

Those arguments can be summed up quite easily. Steven Salaita will soon be claiming, in a court of law, that: he lost his job because his constitutional right to free speech was infringed by a state actor; his speech was found offensive on political grounds; his academic freedom was violated; he lost his livelihood because he espoused his political opinions in a manner offensive to some. A debate about these issues, conducted with a law professor and moderated by a political theorist (who also teaches Constitutional Law), would offer to our students–even if they disagreed vehemently with Salaita’s political viewpoints–a chance to engage with many philosophical, political and legal problems, all of which they are exposed to, in theoretical form, in their many readings across our curriculum.

Most broadly, philosophy students would see philosophy in action: they would see arguments presented and analyzed and applied to an issue of contemporary political and moral significance. (One of my colleagues pointed out that our department offers a popular Philosophy and Law major, which ostensibly prepares them for law school admission and careers in the law; this demographic would be an ideal audience for the discussion.)

As might be imagined, given the furore generated by the BDS event last year, there was some trepidation over whether such a departmental vote, or the use of the language of ‘sponsorship’ was a good idea. In response, I analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion  of a reading on a class syllabus (During the BDS controversy, I had made a similar argument in response to the claim that sponsoring an event entailed ‘endorsement’ of the speakers’ opinions.) When a philosophy professor does so, she says no more than that she thinks her students should read the reading and engage with it critically; it is worth reading, even if only to criticize it. (This semester, I had included Gobineau in my Social Philosophy reading list; I certainly did not intend to promulgate a theory of the Aryan master race by doing so.)

Lastly, I suggested issues of academic freedom are of utmost relevance and importance for all academic disciplines today. Every department on campus should be interested in a discussion centering on them.

We voted; the motion carried.

The New York State Assembly is First Amendment-Illiterate

Earlier this morning, on both my Facebook and Twitter pages, I wondered aloud

Is the Empire State particularly hostile to academic freedom? Is it particularly illiterate about the First Amendment?

The reason for this slightly despairing query? Read this and despair for free speech:

The New York State Assembly is currently considering a bill (A.8392) to prohibit colleges and universities in New York State from using State funding to support employees’ participation in academic organizations that have supported boycotts against any nation or its universities. Colleges or universities that violate this act would lose all state funding. This bill (S.6438) has already passed the State Senate, with major support from both parties.   

If you’ve been reading the news at all recently, you know this is in retaliation for the following:

The executive body of the American Studies Association (ASA), the nation’s oldest and largest association of scholars of American culture and history…endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, calling them complicit in a “multi-tiered system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights.”….

The resolution to shun Israeli academic institutions was approved unanimously by the 20-member national council, which has urged the ASA’s 5,000 members to adopt it as policy.

Unsurprisingly, the ASA resolution has sparked a great deal of commentary. For instance, Cary Nelson–former president of the American Association of University Professors–wrote a critical response, and Corey Robin has written a series of posts defending it and the associated BDS movement.

So far, so good: academics make some speech, other academics respond with more speech. But then, along comes this bill. It’s problematic in several ways, as Michelle Goldberg points out:

But if the ASA boycott might violate academic freedom, the anti-boycott law definitely does. This is the state punishing scholars for taking a political stance. It’s almost certainly unconstitutional. As Dima Khalidi of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Solidarity Legal Support writes, “Courts have been very clear that the denial of funding, where motivated by a desire to suppress speech, is prohibited by the First Amendment.”

And it is likely to be counterproductive for very interesting reasons:

Beyond the First Amendment, the bill raises another, fascinating legal issue. It includes three exceptions: boycotting a country is OK when it’s designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, when the boycott is connected to a labor dispute, or “for the purpose of protesting unlawful discriminatory practices as determined by the laws, rules or regulations of this state.” Israel, of course, engages in a number of discriminatory practices towards the Palestinians that wouldn’t pass muster with New York civil rights law. That’s why it’s being boycotted in the first place! So while the law should be tossed in its entirety, a lawsuit focused just on the third point could be immensely clarifying, essentially putting the reality of the Occupation on trial. Were that to happen, New York State would have ended up doing the BDS movement a great favor.

Who would have standing to file a lawsuit challenging the law on the grounds Goldberg suggests? As an example, Corey Robin notes:

Any faculty member at CUNY who is denied travel money to the ASA — on the grounds that it is an organization that boycotts.

A First Amendment challenge to this bill is not going to be hard to make, and what is more, no judge that has read the US Constitution should let this bill stand.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

State legislature bills are not drafted by idiots; their drafting committees almost certainly include lawyers who presumably have taken the obligatory class on the US Constitution that is required of all first-year law students. Those drafters, and the bill’s supporters in the legislative houses, must know such a bill will not pass constitutional muster. Why then, do they attempt to pass such legislation?

The answer is dispiriting. To posture, to preen and strut and show off your allegiance to a political cause–not free speech!–, to rally the faithful, to pander to those who would care little for constitutional niceties that get in the way of their political objectives.

Seeking to impress such a constituency strikes me as a depressingly low political benchmark to set for oneself.

Time Again to Support Academic Freedom

This morning, I received the following email from the Brooklyn College President, Karen Gould:

Dear students, faculty, and staff,

Each semester, student clubs, academic departments, and other groups on our campus host events and invite speakers on a broad range of topics. At times, the issues discussed may be challenging and the points of view expressed may be controversial.

Next week, Students for Justice in Palestine is hosting two speakers who will discuss their views on the BDS movement, which calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. The event is co-sponsored by several campus and community organizations, including the political science department.

As an institution of higher education, it is incumbent upon us to uphold the tenets of academic freedom and allow our students and faculty to engage in dialogue and debate on topics they may choose, even those with which members of our campus and broader community may vehemently disagree. As your president, I consistently have demonstrated my commitment to these principles so that our college community may consider complex issues and points of view across the political and cultural spectrum.

Unfortunately, some may believe that our steadfast commitment to free speech signals an institutional endorsement of a particular point of view. Nothing could be further from the truth. Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views. We do, however, uphold their right to speak, and the rights of our students and faculty to attend, listen, and fully debate. We also encourage our students and faculty to explore these issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the sole source of information or basis for consideration.

In addition, as I have said on several occasions, our college community values mutual respect and civil discourse. We ask all students, faculty, staff, and guests on our campus to conduct themselves accordingly so that Brooklyn College continues to be a learning environment where all may discuss and debate issues of importance to our world.

Sincerely,

Karen L. Gould
President

A little while later, I saw Corey Robin post the following as his status update on Facebook:

URGENT: Hi everyone. I need you all to stop what you’re doing and make a phone call or write an email to the administration of Brooklyn College. A few weeks ago, my department (political science) voted to co-sponsor a panel discussion, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, on the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement against Israel. In the last week, we’ve gotten a lot of pressure and pushback from the media, students, alumni, and now Alan Dershowitz (who’s been trying to track down our chair to “talk” to him). So far, the administration has held firm, but the pressure is only building and they are starting to ask us whether we endorse these views or are merely seeking to air them (to which we responded: “Was the Brooklyn College administration endorsing the pro-torture and pro-Israel views of Alan Dershowitz when it decided to award him an honorary degree?”) Anyway, I need you guys now to send an email or make a phone call encouraging the administration to stand by the department and to stand for the principle that a university should be a place for the airing of views, ESPECIALLY views that are heterodox and that challenge the dominant assumptions of society. Please contact: President Karen Gould (718.951.5671; klgould@brooklyn.cuny.edu); Provost William Tramontano (718.951.5864; tramontano@brooklyn.cuny.edu); and Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeremy Thompson (718.951.5882; JeremyThompson@brooklyn.cuny.edu. Please be polite and respectful, but please be firm on the principle. Right now, they’re only hearing from one side, so it’s imperative they hear from many others.

Please join us in encouraging Brooklyn College to hold the line against those–especially bullies like Alan Dershowitz–who would stifle the open exchange of views on campus. (Links added above.)