A Letter from Bonnie Honig to Phyllis Wise

In the midst of a conflict like the Salaita affair, it’s easy for individual voices to get lost. The persons involved, and their fates, get forgotten. Particulars are submerged into principles, the din in the head crowds out the distinctive sights and sounds of the case. That’s why, when I read this letter from political theorist Bonnie Honig to Chancellor Wise and the UIUC community, I knew I was hearing and seeing something different. No one that I know of has written a letter like this, which insists on remembering the specificity of not only Steven Salaita but also Phyllis Wise. Professor Honig has kindly allowed me to reprint it here.

• • • • • 

August 24, 2014

Dear Chancellor Wise, (and Members of the Board of Trustees, and the UIUC community of faculty, staff, and students),

I wrote to you when I heard about the Steven Salaita case a couple of weeks ago and hoped you would reconsider. As I told you then, I am Jewish and was raised as a Zionist, and I was moved by the case. I write now in the hope that you might find some measure of empathy for this man. Please bear with me for 2 pages….

I do not know Prof. Salaita, but I must say that as I read about the case I was struck by what I can only describe as a certain smug and uncivil tone in his critics, who seemed very assured about what sort of speech is within the bounds of propriety, and what is not. To be clear: I do not grant that speech that lacks propriety justifies the treatment Prof Salaita has received. I leave that point aside since others — John Stuart Mill, Brian Leiter, others – have ably addressed it.

I want to draw your attention to the issue of “empathy.”

This is what I thought at the time this story first broke: Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.

That is what I thought. I also, though, felt something. I felt that whoever wrote that tweet was tweeting his own pain. And I felt there was something very amiss when he was chided for his tone, by people who were safely distant from all of it, while he was watching people he maybe knew or felt connected to die as a result of military aggression. This, frankly, seemed evil. And then to have the major charge against him in the UIUC case be that he lacked empathy: now that seemed cruelly ironic. The real charge, it seems to me, is that he suffers from too much empathy.

What kind of a person would Prof Salaita be if he did not respond more or less as he did!? What kind of a teacher? What kind of community member?

Meantime, even under duress, he is careful about a key thing: His published tweets distinguish Zionism from Jews and others. In the one tweet about anti-Semitism, he puts that term in scare quotes. I don’t know if I would be as nuanced were I in the same situation. Certainly many of my Zionist or Netanyahu-supporting friends and relatives are not: they do not take the trouble to make the analogous distinctions in their commentaries on the situation.

Anyone involved in this case who is incapable of empathy for Salaita at the moment could themselves perhaps learn something about empathy from the very person who has been charged with lacking it. May I ask you: Surely you are not incapable of empathy for his plight, both now (stranded between institutions) and in July (watching from afar as people to whom he presumably feels connected die or are wounded)?

May I add, further, that, as befits the picture I have here painted, there is no actual evidence in the teaching record that Prof Salaita lacks the empathy and tolerance expected of teachers in the classroom. The repeatedly stated ‘concern’ that he is lacking in this way is not only unpersuasive. It is also painful because it may well stick: based on nothing but ignorant or self-serving fears, it may well have a lasting impact on a blameless person’s career and fortunes.

Can you not find a way to resolve the situation to the advantage of both UIUC AND Prof. Salaita? Decisions like this one are the sort that haunt the people who make them for years to come, so I hope you will indeed be able to open your heart in your consideration of the matter. It is not too late. At the very least I urge you and UIUC to stop charging Prof. Salaita with being wanting in vague and either irrelevant or personal ways. That just adds insult and injury to injury. Another irony there: your stated position is that words matter, so much so that other commitments must fall before them. So the responsibility to choose them carefully seems to me to land especially heavily on you and your institution. I do not see you rising to that challenge. This too, I want to suggest, should be hard to live with.

In the meantime, I stand in solidarity with the thousands of academics worldwide who, regrettably, cannot accept invitations henceforth to speak at UIUC or to do any other sort of support work (tenure or promotion letters etc) for your institution. I say regrettably because I have been happy to visit in the past, as a keynote speaker and lecturer. I hope you can understand my position. Simply put, to act in any other way would be wrong.

Thank you for your consideration.

Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor, Brown University, Providence, RI


  1. Barry Stocker August 24, 2014 at 5:38 pm | #

    Reblogged this on Stockerblog and commented:
    I mostly disagree with Corey Robin, but he is absolutely correct on this issue as is Phyllis Wise, concerning the withdrawal of a job offer to the Palestinian-American academic Steven Salaita

    • John Protevi August 24, 2014 at 5:56 pm | #

      Hi Barry, I think you mean “Bonnie Honig” for the second name here!

  2. John Protevi August 24, 2014 at 5:43 pm | #

    Many of us are moved to righteous indignation in the ‪‎Salaita‬ case; Bonnie Honig here shows us that empathy is just as necessary, and in fact, a more difficult and perhaps nobler, political emotion

  3. Erstwhile Anthropologist August 24, 2014 at 6:00 pm | #

    I am glad you have highlighted the issue of empathy because I think it is an important opening for discussing neoliberal subjectivity and the reactionary mind. This letter is also resonating for me, as a, Black American, because of the ways in which the question of empathy being raised links to questions of empathy being raised by protestors in Ferguson, and those outside Ferguson supporting the protests–including the coalition of Palestinian groups that wrote a letter of solidarity with, and empathy for, the Black community of Ferguson, and Black Americans more broadly, who were refereed to as “our Black brothers and sisters”.

    Corey, I would urge you to push the question of empathy further, because there is much more to explore here. If the ideal neoliberal subject is a person solely focused on him- or herself and being ‘responsible’ for oneself, including via ‘self-improvement’ and non-reliance on or protection from the welfare State, then the ideal neoliberal subject is actually a person bereft of empathy. Lack of empathy, in many ways, is the neoliberal affect par excellance. What, then, does this mean for the corporate neoliberal university/academy? To what extent can actual empathy be appealed to, then? As opposed to, say, ‘brand management empathy’–claims to empathy which, like claims of ‘diversity’ in the university/academy, are more about public performance so as to present the university in a positive light, regardless of whatever actual unequal, abusive, discriminatory practices may be going on behind the institutional facade. In short, can appeals to empathy be successful when genuine empathy would militate against making decisions at odds with elite interests? Moreover, how does one have, cultivate empathy for groups which have been racialized as Other and less-than-fully-human? (A question worth asking in relation both to the reactionary mind and the neoliberal subject, as both worldviews naturalize inequality and hierarchy.)

  4. SocraticGadfly August 24, 2014 at 10:51 pm | #

    I can be empathetic without necessarily being sympathetic. That said, I am not sure I’m empathetic,and I know I’m not sympathetic, to Salaita, who I think is making a poor poster child for academic freedom. That includes the fact that no freedom is absolute, not even free speech for state university staff. Beyond that, this is a collision of that idea with “protected groups” ideas of the New Left. One or the other will have to give. I cover that and more at my blog: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/08/stevensalaita-is-not-cause-celebre-in.html

    • Chris August 25, 2014 at 9:23 am | #

      It’s really terribly ironic that your moniker is a reference to the gadfly that Socrates played to the stead of Athens, given that Socrates was condemned for death for contravening Athenian customs. I also disagree that you can have empathy without sympathy; it can go the other way (sympathy without empathy) but not the reverse as you state it. Sympathy is the beginning of empathy, so you have to pass through the former to get to the latter. You just seem to misunderstand this basic structure. Finally, freedom of speech and academic freedom in particular are nothing if they do not protect speech that is highly contentious and even disagreeable to the point of offensive. Saying you are free to say what you want so long as you do not deeply offend someone’s sensibilities would make that freedom empty. Yes, there are limits to freedom of speech: inciting people to immediate acts of violence on the public is going too far, and under certain settings (like primary and secondary schools or in the Armed Forces) certain speech may be restricted. It is a problem, however, when the very bedrock of the academy — the market place of ideas — is diminished because some people simply cannot stand the speech of someone else.

    • Spiny Norman (@threadtangler) August 25, 2014 at 11:25 am | #

      Pro tip for Socratic Gadfly: I’d have been more likely to click on your link if you’d written a shorter comment. This was long enough for a reader to see how turgid your prose is.

    • professor darkheart September 1, 2014 at 2:50 pm | #

      There are no “poster children” for academic freedom. That’s why we need it.

  5. Bloix August 25, 2014 at 9:58 am | #

    “It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.”

    You, Prof. Honig, are a tenured professor. Prof. Salaita will never grade your papers or write your recommendations. You will never be in Prof. Salaita’s classroom knowing that you had better not say what you think. Or more likely, you will never be a student who says, whoa, I can’t take that class, that professor has it out for people like me.

    It doesn’t affect you personally at all when Prof. Salaita says that Zionist Jews are awful human beings or when he tweets a tweet that is artfully designed to praise anti-Semitism while preserving his plausible deniability.

    • Dr. Applejack August 25, 2014 at 11:37 am | #

      “It doesn’t affect you personally at all when Prof. Salaita says that Zionist Jews are awful human beings or when he tweets a tweet that is artfaully designed to praise anti-Semitism while preserving his plausible deniability.”

      The ever-increasingly twisted efforts of Salaita’s opponents to conflate criticism of Israeli state policy with antisemitism, and their efforts to see the latter in his Twitter feed when only the former exists, never cease to amaze me. It’s really starting to sound rather desperate.

    • Bonnie Honig August 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm | #

      re: “you will never be a student who says, whoa, I can’t take that class, that professor has it out for people like me” — there is no evidence that such a student exists. There is no evidence to suggest that Prof. Salaita is a person who abuses his power as a professor. There is — as of this morning — evidence to suggest that some donor or donors to the university threw THEIR weight around, though.

      • Bloix August 25, 2014 at 5:53 pm | #

        There can be no evidence that such a student exists as a result of Prof Salaita’s tweets because he has taught no courses since he tweeted them. I have seen no evidence, one way or the other, about how he treated Jewish students at Va Tech (where they are a much smaller percentage of students than at UIUC) and I suspect that you made no attempt to investigate the issue before you condemned the UIUC.

        You have no difficulty insinuating that the chancellor of UIUC is a liar, yet at the same time you are willing to argue whole-heartedly that “scare quotes” turn a straight-forward endorsement of anti-Semitism into mere irony.

        What I see in the reaction of professors in their support of Prof Salaita is an example of a protected group that is circling the wagons in order to protect their own privileges. I have seen no effort from any of his supporters to imagine themselves in the shoes of the ten percent of UIUC students who are Jews.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 25, 2014 at 5:01 pm | #

      Has that been YOUR experience with professors whose classes you were deciding to take or not take? Would you be willing to name any such professor or professors — and the place of their employment — and publicly attach your face to the such a naming so that we can mount a campaign against those that did such an unfairness to YOU?

  6. Corey Robin August 25, 2014 at 6:28 pm | #

    “There can be no evidence that such a student exists as a result of Prof Salaita’s tweets…” In other words, you are willing to support the firing of someone on the basis of absolutely no evidence and a willful refusal to consider the considerable countervailing evidence. We’re dealing here with faith-based arguments, not the reality principle.

  7. TW August 26, 2014 at 9:50 am | #

    It’s crucial not to be in favor of free speech only when the content represents your pet issue. So the key case to think about is this: suppose–God forbid (not being ironic)–a feminist were kidnapped and murdered, and then a prospective hire in the gender studies department tweeted “I wish all those &$%$ feminists went missing.” Would you attack those who suggested not finalizing the offer? I must say, I would not want to hire such a person. Perhaps freedom of association should be considered more deeply here.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 26, 2014 at 10:36 am | #

      Wow. Just — just, wow!

      Ok. Let us pretend that you are being serious. Feminism is not analogous to being an Israeli teen living on land stolen by adults in the Occupied Territories. You need to let that important point sink in before you attempt to seek protection for a policy that places an entire people under an illegal occupation by a the most powerful military in the Middle East. To this, feminism cannot be compared. Salaita aside, an occupied people may well wish that those who took their land and now live on it while the displaced look on from behind barbed wire may well wish that their displacers should all go missing. This way, they may get their houses back. Given the slender likelihood of justice for the Palestinians, such a wish is likely quite widespread amongst that population. Some who live on the outside and understand the situation as just described, may well give vent to sharing such feelings and do so online. I submit that such feeling is perfectly ok and defensible if Palestinians held them and said so out loud. Why would it be wrong for someone who is NOT living as Palestinians are at this very hour to express similar feelings? The facts don’t change; only who gets to comment on them and be taken seriously.

      Feminists, on the other hand, are not known for colonial population of confiscated lands, shooting children who play soccer near waste water sites, and having a powerful, first world military protect them from their victims — an ability sustained by the kind and generous donations of the most powerful nation on earth, and the bills charged to that nation’s taxpayers.

      But that is actually the easy part. Your apparent point being that an obnoxious comment in an online forum may find its author protected here because of its evident “point”, but that another one may find himself surrounded by persons eager to show him the door should that point be of an entirely different character. Fair enough. But is that really the issue, the selectivity of who gets support and who does not? Or is the issue the failure of an institution of higher learning to live up to its own official declaration to secure for its staff and students the freedom to state opinions that some may find offensive, and to judge its professorial staff’s ability to be employed and to remain employed with that institution by scholarly and professional standards instead of political expediency? I suggested that understanding this may be less easy than that which opened my comment here — but I don’t think it is less easy by all that much.

  8. thom prentice phd August 26, 2014 at 11:18 am | #

    This is an excellent and different point of view. The question is whether it has been covered as extensively in the Illinois and academic and mainstream press as Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s comments. My hypothesis is “no”.

    It is problematic at best to contemplate how little change advancement of women and minorities hath wrought in US society — let alone economic restructuring and Constititutioa-Rights-restoring and firewall-building. Hillary Clinton is an example. I would prefer the snarling Dick Cheney.

    Hillary, like Phyllis Wise, puts a “kinder and gentler” female face on white male atrocities, abuse, domination, exploitation and HYPOCRISY. The psychopathic god of the Torah/Old Testament/Qur’an shines brightly through the three monotheisms — particularly genocidal Western White Male Supremacist Civilization “as we know it”.

    Exchanging the Nixons or Newt Gingrichs, Rick Perrys, snarling Dick Cheneys and strutting George W. Bushes — and Bull Conners — with black, latino, asian faces let alone ***plus*** female faces is even less than merely a “cosmetic change”. Psychopathy rules behind the masks. A neat trick for Malicious Empire Capitalism, no?

    This situation is reminiscent of Oakland mayor Jean Quan’s [asian female) brutal crackdown on Occupy Oakland — how convenient for the White Male Hegemonic Capitalist Fascist Supremacists to be able to hide behind the skirts of a woman! And an Asian at that — in Obama’s nationally coordinated crackdown on Occupy. Himmler wouldda been proud at the change in strategery.

    Phyllis Wise, like Jean Quan, are the “kinder, gentler” Adolf Eichmanns from whom Hannah Arendt derived the concept of “banality of evil”. Boy do they make the boxcars and trains run on time — and ENTHUSIASTICALLY so, Just Like Eichmann. And No WhiteGuyz to blame! Whattadeal.

    In my first voting years in Texas during the early 70s, I cast ballots for every black, latino and female candidate I could — and they were few and far between — and when elected, they raised hell. I also voted for a lot of statewide republicans who seemed to be the lesser of two evils” (and who never won) in contrast to the virulently racist and extremely odious democrats. In 1974 I even voted La Raza Party for Ramsey Muniz for governor which so threatened the White Male Capitalist texas democratic establishment that it trumped up drug charges against Muniz in 1976 (one count, 15 years; WhiteGuyz justice fer ya).

    Now it seems clear, in an age of Vichy Democrats, Quisling Progressives, and the first “black” president that the project of “diversity/multiculutralism” has failed miserably; rather than fostering structural change, it has provided a mask for impeding it and outright reversing it — the Reagan/Thatcher COUNTERrevolution in point of fact. Inclusion, yes. Tokenism no. Tokenism — and permanent war — seem to be what has really survived from the renaissance of the 50s-70s rather than justice. The first black attorney general appointed by the first black president is as odious as the segregationist Jimmy Carter appointed as attorney general — Griffin Bell. Bell, Reagan’s AG Ed Meese or Nixon’s John Mitchell help to focus. Eric Holder is better for the White Male Supremacist/Christian Supremacist Hegemonic Capitalist Empire, though, than the other three because our “red alert” switch is off. Has been off. We WANT diversity/multiculuralism to work. But it has reared it Dick Cheney fangs in the case of Dr. Salaita.

    Dick Cheney ‘occupying’ the position of Chancellor in place of Phyllis Wise would be preferable. Snarling WhiteGuyz help with focus although hating Cheney does no good without the kind of activism the censorship and Massachusetts Puritan “banning/shunning” or Professor Salaita has prompted. It is professor Salaita — not Ms. Wise — who wears the Scarlet Letter or Palestinian equivalent to the Star of David.

    Indeed, check out a photo of survivors upon the liberation of Auschwitz — and then one of Netanyahu. Can anyone spot the real ‘victim’?

    I hope you can take some time to be in Nature today…

  9. Gil Gamesh (@OuchoSparks) August 26, 2014 at 1:35 pm | #

    Yes, no human beings in academe. They do not belong. They simply are not Serious.

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