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NYT Weighs in on Civility and the Salaita Case

15 Dec

Joseph Levine, a philosophy professor at U. Mass., is one of the most thoughtful and thorough philosophical voices on the Israel/Palestine conflict and how it plays out in the US. By thoughtful, I don’t mean to do what others in this debate so often do: namely, to identify as thoughtful or judicious or subtle and probing someone who agrees with them on the substance. Levine and I happen to agree, but I agree with lots of folks on this issue whom I wouldn’t call particularly thoughtful. It’s just the case that Levine is especially searching when it comes to this issue, particularly about his own positions.

Which is why the New York Times was so smart to have him weigh in on the question of civility and Salaita’s tweets. In this masterful piece, Levine takes apart the argument about civility in an utterly novel way. He takes up the question of civility in this tweet from Salaita:

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014

And this is how Levine resolves it: it’s not in fact true that defending Israel during the Gaza war makes you an awful human being, but it ought to be true, and that fact that it isn’t true is an indictment of our society and its inability to come to terms with the awfulness of Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war, and Salaita’s tweet is a contribution to transforming our society into one where we would in fact be able to come to terms with the awfulness of Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war.

So, was this tweet an illegitimate breach of civility? I believe not in the end, yet I must confess to some initial ambivalence on the question. Here is how I resolved that ambivalence.

First, let’s separate some issues. One question concerns a moral evaluation of Israel’s actions themselves, and the other concerns an evaluation of the moral character of those who supported what Israel did. I myself am in complete agreement with Salaita about the first question. I can’t mount a full defense of this position here, but let me just say that careful attention to the actual sequence of events over the summer, alongside the vastly disproportionate violence visited on the trapped and totally vulnerable Gaza residents, renders the Israeli claim that they were acting in justifiable self-defense completely unreasonable. Note that holding and expressing that opinion was not by itself supposed to be a breach of civility. Rather, it was taking the next step and publicly indicting the moral character of those who supported the bombing that was the culprit.

Next, we need to determine whether what he said in the tweet is true — on the assumption, again, that the bombing was itself morally condemnable — and, in addition, whether it was a breach of civility to say it. Obviously, these two issues are intimately related. Imagine how you would react to someone who spouted overtly racist or anti-Semitic sentiments. Would civil engagement over the question be the appropriate response? Clearly, your judgment that you were dealing with a person of objectionable moral character would color your reaction as a decent person. Obviously, if Salaita had been tweeting instead about supporters of the 9/11 attacks as “awful human beings” no one would have been upset.

I locate the source of my initial ambivalence at precisely this point. While I shared his moral outrage at Israel’s actions, I balked at taking the next step and severely indicting the character of those who disagreed. I resolved my ambivalence by reasoning my way to the following twofold conclusion regarding the claim in the tweet: The claim itself is not true, but it ought to be, and that is the deeper truth that legitimates the breach of civility.

Levine goes onto develop an account of how we come to our moral positions, and how a “reasonable person” in our society might well conclude that Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war is perfectly legitimate. And that, for Levine, is what is wrong with our society. And then he concludes this way:

But then this brings me to the second part of my answer: It [someone defending Israel is awful] ought to be true. Or rather, it ought to have been true, and I look forward to the day in which it is true. For if you let individuals off the hook in this case because they pass the reasonable person test, then you have to indict the social-political perspective from which such actions can seem moral and reasonable. No, these people aren’t awful, but what does it say about our society that we can support such an attack without being awful? What does it say that decent people can even entertain the kinds of excuses we hear (“but they were storing weapons near where those kids were playing”) without counting automatically as indecent?

Not pretending to know what was behind Salaita’s tweets (I have never met him or corresponded with him about this issue), I can see two reasons for being so “uncivil” as to impugn his opponents’ moral character. First, there is just the need to express outrage at the state of our discussion on this matter. While the people targeted by the tweet are not actually awful human beings, it’s about time we came to generally see things from the perspective from which they certainly seem to be. Having to listen to justifications for bombing children can wear you down, even if you know very well where it’s all coming from. (An op-ed by the Jewish actor and singer Theodore Bikel captures this sentiment well. )

But more important, expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.

 

“True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.”

14 Dec

The Wall Street Journal reports on an Israeli novel about the liquidation of a Palestinian village during the Nakba, which was published 65 years ago and has been translated into English for the first time. My friends Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole had a major hand in commissioning and editing the translation.

In 1949, the publication of a short novel “Khirbet Khizeh,” about the forceful evacuation of a Palestinian village by Israeli soldiers, created a stir in the newly established state of Israel. Now, 65 years later, the controversial Hebrew classic by S. Yizhar is taking on a new life in English.

On Tuesday, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a new edition of the book’s first English translation, by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. Commissioned several years ago by a small Jerusalem-based nonprofit press, Ibis Editions, the translation gained a wider audience with a U.K. edition from Granta in 2011. Now, FSG hopes the book catches on in the U.S.

The story follows an Israeli soldier in the war of 1948, whose company has been ordered to remove the Palestinian villagers from the fictional town of Khirbet Khizeh. Dense and lyrical, with long passages on the beauty of the landscape, the book describes the soldiers’ systematic rounding up of villagers—mostly women, children, and the very old. Recounted years later by a narrator with an uneasy conscience, it begins, “True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.”

The novella has a history of controversy in Israel. Published just months after the country’s founding, and in the wake of World War II, the book struck a chord, particularly with its descriptions of soldiers forcing villagers into exile. “Khirbet Khizeh” became a best-seller in Israel and, during the late 1970s, debate flared over whether a television adaptation should be broadcast.

“It’s one of the great short novels in modern Hebrew literature. And everyone thinks it’s wonderful as a piece of writing. But it’s deeply disturbing,” said the co-translator Mr. de Lange, a professor emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Cambridge University. “The Israelis are portrayed really like Nazis.”

Peter Cole and his wife, Adina Hoffman, who co-edited the Ibis English translation,

had been looking since the late ’90s for a translator for “Khirbet Khizeh.” “Several translators over the years wanted to try their hand at it. We always told them to do a page,” Mr. Cole wrote in an email from Jerusalem. “But nothing came remotely close to satisfying us.”

Part of the problem was the novella’s challenging prose. “Yizhar is a high stylist, whose Hebrew runs the gamut from soldiers’ slang to biblically inflected description,” Mr. Cole explained. In addition to conveying a sensibility that ranges from highly refined to slangy, as well as lines rich with literary allusion, aspiring translators faced the job of preserving the slightly antiquated 1940s-era language.

Eventually, the couple reached out to Mr. de Lange, who worked with his former student, Mr. Dweck, now an assistant professor at Princeton University, to complete the translation. “Nothing has happened in the some sixty-five years since its publication that is not somehow accounted for or foreseen in the book,” Mr. Cole wrote.

Unless I can twist Adina’s and Peter’s arm to myself a free copy from them, I’m definitely buying this.

Three Thoughts on Liberal Zionism and BDS

12 Dec

So this is an interesting development.

A group of prominent liberal Zionists—including Michael Walzer, Michael Kazin, and Todd Gitlin—is calling for “personal sanctions” against “Israeli political leaders and public figures who lead efforts to insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law.” The personal sanctions they’re calling for include visa restrictions imposed by the US state.

Three thoughts about this move.

First, good for them. It’s limited and makes several assumptions that I don’t accept, but it ratchets up the pressure. That’s great.

Second, it shows just how aware these intellectuals are of the power of BDS. There’s little doubt that without BDS—especially the ASA academic boycott—this never would have happened. Indeed, as Haaretz explains, the group that organized this statement was formed in 2013 explicitly in response to BDS.

The signatories are all members of a group called The Third Narrative established in 2013 by the Labor Zionist group Ameinu as a Zionist-progressive response to far left attacks on Israel – including BDS.

“All of us are very engaged in opposing the academic boycott and other boycotts,” said Walzer in an interview. He is author of numerous books, including “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible,” (Yale University Press) and last year retired as co-editor of Dissent magazine. “But at the same time we always insist we are against the occupation. This seemed to be a usefully dramatic way of focusing attention on where it should be focused and not where some of the BDS people are trying to put it,” Walzer said.

“This would provide a way of mobilizing votes against blanket boycotts but equally against the attempts to make the occupation irreversible,” Shafir said….

“We really are fighting on two fronts,” said Shafir, who was born in Ramat Aviv and began his career at Tel Aviv University, before moving to California in 1987. “That is our identity.”

By opening that second front, we in the BDS movement give this group an identity (albeit a negative one), and I for one am happy to serve them in that capacity. We’re moving the needle, and as predicted, liberal Zionists are following us by deliberately staying five steps behind. That’s how politics works, and that’s all to the good.

Third, I am curious about the free speech implications of this move. As Haaretz reports, Cary Nelson opposes this petition on free speech grounds because it punishes these four figures merely for their statements (apparently, it’s okay to punish other individuals for their statements), but I think the move raises a different problem.

If a student group or scholarly association were to call for a ban on these four Israeli figures from speaking on a US campus or at an academic convention (or shout them down), I suspect the individuals signing this petition would immediately object on two grounds. First, not that the rights of these four individuals, but the rights of potential audiences in academia to hear them, were being violated. And, second, that by banning these speakers, students and academic associations were imperiling and narrowing open academic discussion.

But if the American state bans these four figures from entering the US, which would mean they couldn’t speak on US campuses or at an academic conventions, this group of signatories is okay with it.

It tells you something, I think, about the state of contemporary liberalism that when it comes to academic freedom and freedom of speech, some of its most thoughtful voices have a more permissive and indulgent view of the state than they do of students and scholarly associations.

Update (December 13)

As I pointed out to Michael Kazin last year, when he raised the call against the ASA academic boycott, the very same objection that he leveled against the boycott—why are you singling out Israel?—could be made against any move to oppose Israel. So in this case: seems like anyone who has bought into the “why single out Israel” line has to object to this move by Walzer et al. After all, why aren’t they calling for personal sanctions against four officials of the Chinese regime over their treatment of the Tibetans?

More News on the Salaita Case

5 Dec

1. Thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a scorching letter to the University of Illinois’s new president. With some startling information about the effect the boycott is having on the University:

More than three-dozen scheduled talks and multiple conferences across a variety of disciplines – including, for example, this year’s entire colloquium series in the Department of Philosophy – have already been canceled, and more continue to be canceled, as outside speakers have withdrawn in response to the university’s handling of Dr. Salaita’s case. The Department of English decided to postpone a program review originally scheduled for spring 2015 in anticipation of being unable to find qualified external examiners willing to come to campus. Tenure and promotion cases may be affected as faculty at peer institutions consider extending the boycott to recommendation letters.

Most troubling of all, the ability of many departments to successfully conduct faculty searches, especially at the senior level, has been seriously jeopardized. While the possible negative effects on even junior searches remain to be seen, the Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate. An open rank search in Philosophy attracted 80% fewer applicants at the rank of associate or full professor than a senior search in the same area of specialization just last year.

I had no idea about these canceled or crippled searches and the postponement of a program review. That is a major development, as anyone who’s ever been part of a search or program review knows, and it shows just how pervasive the opposition to the university’s handling of the case has been—or, if not outright opposition, how corrosive to the university’s reputation the case has been. What’s more, that sense of the university’s contamination shows no signs of letting up. If anything, it’s getting worse.

2. That 34 heads of departments and units are now signed on in opposition to the university’s handling of the case is also a big development. Back in the summer, it seemed as if we were hovering at about 15 or so departments. Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.

What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences. During the summer, lots of folks dismissed this story because the natural sciences weren’t involved. Well, some of them are now. (Cue the naysayers to say that chemistry is really just a branch of the English department.)

3. A major newspaper has finally run a lengthy, in-depth profile of Salaita. The profile not only gives him a chance to speak about his case and his opinions in his own words—and to speak at length—but it also gives him space to talk about his academic work. Long before he was a case or a cause, Steven Salaita was an academic, and it’s to this newspaper’s credit that it allows him to talk about that. Oh, the name of that newspaper? Haaretz. As with so many things in the Israel/Palestine debate, you find broader, more open discussion of the issues in Haaretz than you do in an American newspaper.

4. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we hosted Salaita for a great panel discussion with Katherine Franke at Brooklyn College. I moderated. We’ve got a video of the panel.

The video doesn’t show the Q and A. If you want to hear that, you can watch it here. I recommend that you do.

Our audience was diverse in every way—ideology, age, religion, ethnicity, class—and there were a fair number of difficult and contentious questions from pro-Israel members of the audience. Which was all to the good. Critics of the panel, like Michael Rubin at Commentary, can’t seem to fathom that there might be debate at such things (unlike the raucous agora he’s used to from his days at the Pentagon or at the American Enterprise Institute, where he hangs his hat now). But it’s pretty clear that that there is. Despite my agreements with Salaita and Franke, I pressed him on his tweets, and her on the question of civility, for example. And some in the audience were even harder on them. The whole thing is a great advertisement for Brooklyn College, if you ask me.

5. And, last, this story from Salaita himself:

After the event at the University of Michigan ended yesterday evening–a million thanks to the organizers–an older gentleman approached me.  He handed me a check with a business card attached by paperclip.  I was confused.  I instinctively told him to please keep his check.  I don’t have anything to do with donations to our legal/living fund (though I promise the fund is legit).  I’m far too uncomfortable accepting money, even in the best of faith.

He cut me off and introduced himself, pointing to the card as further verification of his seriousness.  Its bold header read:  “Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East.”  Beneath the header:  “Larry A. Cooper, President–Board of Directors.”

The check was for a small sum, but its value is infinite.  Mr. Cooper explained to me that he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and every year since he’s offered a donation to his alma mater.  This year, however, he told the school he wouldn’t be able to contribute anymore and explained why.  His sense was that they’ve heard the same thing from numerous donors.  They put on a full-court press, as fundraising offices do, but he told them that this year he would be giving his annual donation to Steven Salaita.

The notes section at the lower left of the check says:  “’73 UI grad.”

Mr. Cooper, should you happen to read this:  I hope you won’t be angry or disappointed that I can’t bring myself to cash the check.  I’d much rather keep it as a memento of kindness and generosity to provide a smile when less principled humans occupy our ground.

Why are you singling out my posts on Israel/Palestine?

22 Nov

Whenever I post about Israel/Palestine, I get insinuations and complaints about how I’m not posting about other struggles around the world. But when I post about a labor conflict—say, at the University of Oregon—no one asks or speculates about why I’m not also posting about labor conflicts in Tibet. So today I’m starting a new meme: Why are you singling out my posts on Israel/Palestine?

Steven Salaita at Brooklyn College

20 Nov

Steven Salaita and Katherine Franke spoke at Brooklyn College tonight; I moderated the discussion. Three quick comments.

First, the event happened. We had an actual conversation about Israel/Palestine, BDS, Zionism, nationalism, academic freedom, civility. Students offered opposing views, tough questions were posed, thoughtful answers were proffered, multiple voices were heard, there was argument, there was reason, there was frustration, there was difficulty, there was dialogue, there was speechifying, there was back-and-forth. There was a college.

Going into the event, the usual voices mobilized against it. Politicians tried to shut it down. Alan Dershowitz complained he wasn’t invited. I told him to calm down: “In all the years that Professor Dershowitz was a professor at Harvard Law School, he and his colleagues never once invited me to speak, so I’m not exactly clear what all the fuss is about.” Outsiders called the political science department to shout at us.

But there was a difference this time: it was all fairly muted. At no point did any of us think that the administration would cancel the event. We’ve turned that corner. Even the usual suspects seem to be getting tired of their schtick. And the reason is that the event did what it was supposed to do: it created a space for conversation. Maybe we’re moving on?

Which brings me to my second point. All of us at Brooklyn College, and in the larger community, owe a debt of gratitude to the Students for Justice in Palestine. This is now the fourth or fifth (probably more) major event of its kind that they have put on at Brooklyn College since the BDS affair. And each time, they’ve managed to offer members of the College—on all sides of the Israel/Palestine issue—and the community a chance to have a thoughtful discussion. Whatever your position is on this issue, there should be little disagreement that SJP has enriched the College. Not because they advocate for justice in Palestine—though they do that, too—but because they have provided us all with a space to stretch our minds.

Which brings me to my final point. Though I was obviously sympathetic to Steven Salaita going into this event, I came out of it extraordinarily impressed by him. Not merely his character—he’s as haimish as can be—but his intellect. He has an extraordinarily agile mind. Within minutes he can move you from Cotton Mather to Franz Fanon, and throughout the ride, you know exactly where you are. You can see why he’s such a good teacher and why his students love him so much: not because he tells you what you know, but because he takes you somewhere you’ve not been. He had a brilliant riff about how it’s an old trope in colonial discourse that the native corrupts the colonizer, that it’s the native that turns the colonizer from someone who’s as pure as the driven snow into the foulest heart. And suddenly Salaita leaped to Spielberg’s Munich, and showed how it illustrated that exact principle.

This is the man the University of Illinois fired. Because, they claimed, he would be a toxin in the classroom. They have no idea what they’ve squandered.

Israel, Palestine, and the “Myth and Symbol” of American Studies

13 Nov

Lisa Duggan, president of the American Studies Association, has an excellent oped in the Los Angeles Times on the organization’s recent convention in Los Angeles and how the ASA has fared, academically and politically, in the year since it announced its boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Lisa’s oped reminds me of a point that’s been bothering me for some time.

One of the frequent criticisms that opponents of the ASA boycott make is this: What in the world is an American Studies organization doing concerning itself with the affairs of another country? As one American Studies scholar (to whom Lisa is in part responding) put it in the LA Times:

Ostensibly devoted to the study of all things American, the 5,000-member academic cohort has ventured outside its natural borders and into the crossfire of Israeli-Palestinian politics by voting to bestow pariah status on Israel.

Other similarly inclined critics of the ASA—many of them of an older generation of scholars—often add to this claim a lament for the good old days of American Studies when scholars like Richard Slotkin (who also opposes the ASA boycott of Israel) penned learned and literate trilogies about the long and terrible career of American violence.

But here’s what seems so strange about this claim.

My sense of American Studies—admittedly from outside the field—is that it always has derived a great deal of its animating energy and intellectual purpose from the international arena (otherwise known as other countries). As Lisa’s interlocutor himself acknowledges, the early years of American Studies were shaped by the imperatives of the Cold War, and then in the 1960s and 1970s the field was reshaped by the Vietnam War, producing such canonical works as…Richard Slotkin’s learned and literate trilogy about the long and terrible career of American violence.

In order to reconcile this past of the discipline with the complaints of its contemporary critics, you have to make one of two assumptions: either that the field has another, completely different past or that Israel is not part of the foreign policy of the United States. Either way, you’re living in a fantasy land.

Once upon a time American Studies’s elders took apart the “myth and symbol” of America; now they’ve turned their field into one.

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