NYT Weighs in on Civility and the Salaita Case

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.



  1. s. wallerstein December 15, 2014 at 8:46 am | #

    Very thoughtful. One of the few articles I’ve read in a long long time that opens a new perspective (for me at least)on thinking about ethics, thoughtfully.

  2. Ronald Pires December 15, 2014 at 10:05 am | #

    Interesting juxtaposition of the micro versus the macro. We get caught up in this same dynamic in so many areas of study. I find the conservative in/among us generally sides with the micro, while the liberal sides with the macro.

  3. J. Otto Pohl December 15, 2014 at 10:41 am | #

    I think this article is overthinking it. Salaita quite literally meant that people who supported the Israeli assault on Gaza were engaging in morally indefensible behavior and that this act made them bad people regardless of anything else. Saying that US society today doesn’t generally agree with Salaita, but should is not profound in any sense. For the recored I agree with Salaita. Israel is an apartheid, mukhabaret, torture state as far as the Palestinians are concerned and people like Elizabeth Warren and Mayor de Blasio who support it are just as vile as people who justify torture and racism in other less politically correct states than Israel such as the US.

    • BillR December 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm | #

      yes, sorry to say but apart from a few honorable exceptions philosophy profs have a terrible record when they pontificate on politics. From Heidegger to Gentile (Richard Wolin has a good book on the topic, ‘The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism’) the record of their political meddling is dismal. In fact, as I recall it a few days after Israel began its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that was to result in tens of thousands of deaths (couple of thousand women, children, and old men shot down at close quarters over 48 hours in 2 refugee camps of Beirut) a philosophy professor opined in Newsweek about the desirability of torture of those who got in the way of the mighty Israeli Army. That great civil libertarian from Harvard, Alan Dershowitz was also baying for torture around that time.

      • BillR December 16, 2014 at 11:24 am | #

        The article advocating torture that appeared in Newsweek (June 7, 1982 issue) soon after Israel’s largest scale invasion of Lebanon was by someone named Michael Levin introduced as ‘a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York’. It can be googled online. Few remember how shocking advocacy of legalized torture was in those relatively more Constitution-bound times (after Nixon’s outrages had forced his resignation, under virtual certainly of impeachment otherwise, and Carter’s positioning of Human Rights as central to US foreign policy).

        Orwell wrote a fine essay entitled ‘Notes on Nationalism’ that might explain the behavior of these otherwise highly intelligent and erudite academics. Here’s an excerpt:

        Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side…History is thought of largely in nationalist terms, and such things as the Inquisition, the tortures of the Star Chamber, the exploits of the English buccaneers (Sir Francis Drake, for instance, who was given to sinking Spanish prisoners alive), the Reign of Terror, the heroes of the Mutiny blowing hundreds of Indians from the guns, or Cromwell’s soldiers slashing Irishwomen’s faces with razors, become morally neutral or even meritorious when it is felt that they were done in the ‘right’ cause.

      • BillR December 16, 2014 at 11:53 am | #

        Re academics betraying their calling (Julien Benda: “treason of the intellectuals”) here’s an excerpt from a New York Times review of Victor Klemperer’s diaries (who miraculously survived Nazi rule and then WWII in Dresden as a Jew):

        For Klemperer, reason had nothing to do with class or profession or even intelligence. All around him he saw professors and intellectuals who abandoned reason for self-interest, who sided or temporized with the Nazis. He saw so many, in fact, that if he were to determine the fate of the Germans he might let ordinary people and even some leaders go. ”But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.”

        Here is the fuller excerpt:

        If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honorable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lampposts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.

      • s. wallerstein December 16, 2014 at 2:24 pm | #

        The problem with calling those who are blind to Israeli imperialism/colonialism “awful human beings” or “moral monsters” is that from a certain perspective almost all of us are moral monsters.

        The criteria for strong moral condemnation have changed in the last 50 or 60 years. In most developed countries (I live in Chile), we consider those who are openly sexist, homophobic or racist to moral monsters, but that was not the case 50 or 60 years ago.

        I imagine that enlightened opinion will advance in the next 50 years and that our current ethical postures will seem to be those of moral monsters from their perspectives. However, when our descendents look at our historical and cultural context, they will see that we were the products of our time, often “meant well” and were incapable of seeing the ethical damage we were doing.

        I’m not sure, but I could imagine that buying products (like this computer) produced in countries with deplorable labor conditions may well seem like the behavior of a moral monster in 50 years. I hope so at least. Also I hope that letting the homeless sleep in the street on cold nights and the factory farming of animals will also be considered depraved.

        On the subject of Israeli imperialism/colonialism, those who condemn it strongly are a bit prescient with respect to general public opinion in the United States at least and that is worthy of praise, but those who have consensus ethical views on Israel, while they should be corrected and criticized, are not exactly moral monsters, just a bit “backward” in ethical terms, especially as the consensus has been turning against Israel in the last few years.

    • s. wallerstein December 15, 2014 at 2:33 pm | #

      There’s a difference between being an awful human being and having ethically unacceptable behaviors or attitudes.

      Being an awful human being depends a lot on the social and historical context.

      For example, I’d say that Aristotle, in justifying slavery, had an ethically unacceptable attitude, but he wasn’t an awful human being because given his historical, social and class situation, he was blind to how horrible justifying slavery is.

      I haven’t followed the political careers of Warren or de Blasio, but in general, people from the U.S. are so blinded by the Israel lobby and the mainstream media as to the evils of Israeli colonialism that I’d say that while the failure to condemn the savage attacks on Gaza is ethically unacceptable, I would not say that it makes someone in the U.S. an awful human being per se, given their conditioning by the media.

      • J. Otto Pohl December 16, 2014 at 7:55 am | #

        People who support torture and police brutality by Israelis against Palestinians while at the same time condemning it by other states such as the US are worse than horrible human beings. They are flat out racists. You will never see any “progressive” US politicians support a movement noting Palestinian Lives Matter. Why is that? Because in the US while White Supremicism is opposed by all “progressives.” A very large number of US “progressives” support Jewish supremicism in Palestine and the torture and murder of Palstinians that goes along with it.

  4. Anthony Greco December 15, 2014 at 12:03 pm | #

    Thanks to Corey Robin for bringing to our attention Levine’s stimulating analysis. I agree with his point that it isn’t but ought to be true that supporting Israel’s assault on Gaza makes you an awful person. The problem is that we don’t know if Levine’s rationale is in fact what motivated Salaita’s tweet. Maybe it was, but for all we know Salaita’s tweet was, indeed, just a crude act of incivility. That, of course, is the problem with tweeting: you can’t express complex thoughts in a sound bite. Which is why I generally avoid tweets and tweeting.

    • JW Mason December 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm | #

      What a shame that Salaita has never written anything about Israel or Palestine except this one tweet. His true views must remain forever shrouded in mystery.

  5. David Green December 15, 2014 at 12:11 pm | #

    So in regards to I/P, Americans are about where we were regarding race in 1959. Much more is known, just as much more was known in the era between Montgomery and Greensboro. But we still have an educational project on our hands, and BDS proponents have to consider that in terms of their tactics.

  6. Roquentin December 15, 2014 at 1:10 pm | #

    Civility is not always the appropriate response. The real question is, who gets to decide what civility is and isn’t, when it should be exercised and when it shouldn’t be? I personally think some of the tweets were a little beyond the pale and hyperbolic, but easily understandable given what was happening at the time. There is, however, a huge difference between not agreeing with a sentiment and destroying someone’s livelihood because he uttered it. That was a far more uncivil act any way you slice it.

    • xenon2 December 15, 2014 at 4:20 pm | #

      I was a little shocked by Salaita’s tweets, even though I agree with them 100%. But, once I got over the shock, I see them as appropriate to the medium.This is not a reason for his un-hiring.The universities have become more corporate, more sensitive to lobbies and political pressures.

      I recall when Kris Petersen-Overton(?), I may have his name spelled wrong, was fired before he ever did any teaching at BC.Kris had a panel
      of professors from various colleges, who said just that, that they are subject to political pressures. It sounds like an awful job, if you are teaching any subject, other than science, or, have they ruined that, too?

      • Roquentin December 15, 2014 at 7:55 pm | #

        What I can’t wrap my head around is why didn’t the administration just say something like this, “Please cool it with the tweets. It’s generating a lot of negative attention. You’re free to speak your opinions, but please dial down the rhetoric a few notches.” I’d hope that message would get across well enough, then everyone goes home happy. Why the rush to un-hire him?

  7. Naomi Allen December 15, 2014 at 2:32 pm | #


    Naomi Allen



  8. Boethius December 16, 2014 at 5:16 am | #

    The whole civility thing is a weak reed to justify UIUC revoking Mr Salaita’s anticipated appointment there. It’s the hackery that burns. And for me at least, there’s no doubt on that score. Salaita is a hack, complete hack, and nothing but hack. However this ends up turning out, Urbana is better off for him not being there.

    David Bernstein at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote some things that were compelling, for me at least. Besides the tweets, Salaita wrote lots of online book “reviews” (like dozens or hundreds) at Amazon or goodreads or whereever which are basically one sentence venom against Jewish or Israeli books. Really? Like who but a crank has the time or energy to do that.

    The point about Salaita isn’t that his tweets are disqualifying to an otherwise qualified professor. No, the tweets are unfortunately representative of Mr Salaita’s “professional” work, and there’s no way Urbana (or anywhere else) should be a buyer in that market.

    • David Green December 16, 2014 at 9:46 am | #

      This description of Salaita is just nonsense. Salaita’s academic work and teaching is laudable; here at UIUC we have a history professor hired by the Israel Lobby (Schusterman branch) who’s now been here for 4 or 5 years. It would be refreshing to have a clear voice from a Palestinian perspective, vis a vis the “Israel (re Jewish) Studies Project.” It’s also rather elitist of you to be critical of somebody writing reviews on Amazon. Should he be above that? What’s your problem?

      • Boethius December 17, 2014 at 12:35 am | #

        [i]Salaita’s academic work and teaching is laudable;[/i]

        It looks to me like you’re the one claiming things based on no evidence, like if UIUC has some other professor who might be pro-Israel is even relevant to Salaita’s hackery.

        [i]It’s also rather elitist of you to be critical of somebody writing reviews on Amazon. Should he be above that?[/i]

        Absolutely he should be above that. Anybody should be above that long before they get to be tenured faculty. Eg, see below.


        The point being is that his tweets aren’t an unfortunate distraction from his professional work product, they are his professional work product. The circumstances of withdrawing his offer may have been unfair, but it’s still abundantly clear to me at least that he should never have been offered in the first place.

      • David Green December 18, 2014 at 12:25 pm | #

        According to Bernstein, Israel just can’t get a break on campus, so they have to invent their own Jewish Studies programs for Israel to get a fair hearing. But Palestinian perspectives were hardly given a fair hearing at the U of I, which I have observed closely for 16 years. These are aggressive tactics by the Israel Lobby–at Jewish Federation, Hillel, and on campus–that have foregrounded Israeli apologetics here for quite some time, here and elsewhere. The Israel Studies Project on campus, funded by Federation, started out as blatant propaganda (Yossi Klein Halevi, Hillel Halkin), but has become relatively more benign with new, younger leadership. In any event, Salaita is guilty of saying true things about Israel, its history, and its propagandists.

      • Boethius December 23, 2014 at 8:02 am | #

        I doubt that I would accept the inside-baseball characterizations about Israel/Palestine cultural politics at Urbana, but more importantly why should I care?

        The academic mission of Urbana (or any other legitimate state university) is only related to Israel/Palestine controversies in the remotest way. Salaita is an anti-Israel propagandist and nothing else. And even if you believe that circumstances are such that being that kind of propagandist is a legitimate or honorable thing, there’s no possible way where it justifies a tenured faculty role.

  9. Boethius December 16, 2014 at 5:29 am | #

    Also, the developments since the trustees voted against the appointment have been interesting in terms of a dog not barking.

    In the petitions there have been at least a thousand or so faculty members who have supported Mr Salaita, yet he remains academically unemployed. For me, there’s two slightly contradictory possibilities:

    1. He has some reasonable appointments available to him, or at least good leads, but he hasn’t taken them with the intention of maximizing UIUC’s potential liability in litigation.

    2. Nobody really wants him, or at least wants him enough to suffer the embarrassment of the tweets and the fact that he was rejected by Urbana.

    This one is maybe more relevant for the supporters than for Salaita himself maybe. Ie, I suspect a lot of them really don’t care very much where Salaita teaches but they are very strongly invested in enforcing norms about faculty governance.

    But the first is the interesting one to me. He’s got a case, and it won’t be laughed out of court, but I suspect it’s a lot weaker than he thinks it is. If this does end up going to trial, I expect UIUC to end up winning (gut guess 60/40 against Salaita winning).

    If this is the case, I think Salaita is better off settling. Whatever hardship he has now from not working for a semester, it will be much worse not working for a year or more and no longer being a cause celebre and not having won a lawsuit.

    • David Green December 16, 2014 at 9:47 am | #

      You sure have a lot to say based on zero evidence.

    • Barry December 16, 2014 at 8:59 pm | #

      “2. Nobody really wants him, or at least wants him enough to suffer the embarrassment of the tweets and the fact that he was rejected by Urbana.”

      Or that university administrators won’t touch him, because he’s politically incorrect.

  10. neffer December 20, 2014 at 6:06 pm | #

    Perhaps because I think that shooting missiles willy nilly deserves a harsh response, I cannot remotely fathom the notion that Israel’s response to those missiles was anything but moral. In fact, I think Israel behaved commendably and, perhaps, a bit too mildly.

    As for Levine’s position, were Salaita other than a hack, I might take it seriously. But, that is not the case.

    For the thousandth time, the Israelis have every right to defend themselves from groups like Hamas. One need only read the Hamas covenant to understand what the group is about. They fit in perfectly in the ME region’s maladies. They are no better than the Brotherhood in Egypt or Hezbollah in Lebanon. They are the enemy of civilization – especially of Islamic civilization – a terrible step into barbarism. That half-educated college professors support their barbarism does not make it decent.

    Unfortunately, people are being killed in the Arab Israeli dispute. But, the moral imperative of a government is to protect its population. And, compared to what Western governments do when they are attacked, the Israelis have behaved like angels, far better than the US behaved against Serbia (where the US was not even attacked), a million times better than the US in Iraq (where, again, the US want not even attacked), a million times better than the Allies in WWII, where it was an accident if civilians did not suffer the brunt of Allied efforts to win the war. (See, William Hitchcock, The Bitter Road to Freedom, if you doubt me on this point.)

    So, when I read here pretend outrage that the Israelis act in ways that are normal – except that, unlike Western countries, the Israelis actually do better than they do at protecting civilians in these terrible wars – I have to ask myself what drug you are all taking. Wake up.

    • freespeechlover December 22, 2014 at 1:56 pm | #

      It’s not a dispute. It’s settler colonialism. This is why 1) the bombing of Gaza is repetitive, practically anticipated-it’s not about the rockets, or at least the way they are understood in the US; the rockets are merely a reminder that there’s an occupation going on, Gaza’s under siege, etc. and 2) there is a thick layer of obvious b.s. accompanying every military action that Israel takes whether in Gaza, E. Jerusalem, the West Bank, southern Lebanon, Beirut, Damascus, etc.

  11. Ron Ross December 23, 2014 at 7:01 pm | #

    I think that Levine’s moral and philosophical finesse here goes to the heart of the apparent mystery of the fierce criticism levelled at Hannah Arendt regarding her declaration about the “banality of evil.” What you, Corey, brought up Oct 26: “So why all the high dudgeon of her critics? Why this operatic suggestion from them that by minimizing his anti-Semitism and insisting on his banality Arendt was somehow letting Eichmann off the hook?”

    For what her critics truly fear, whether they are conscious of it or not, is how easily one can become complicit in atrocity if one cannot see past the mediated, identity- and community-bound signposts of what constitutes good and evil, if one does not think through one’s actions (and support for action) independently. In the scale of its consequences, Israeli oppression of Palestinians does not yet compare to what the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews (and the Gypsies, and the communists, and the handicapped, and the Slavs, etc.), though their tactics are becoming increasingly similar and some notorious luminaries in the Israeli establishment have openly hinted at final solutions. But what was done to one group of people does not justify acts of dispossession, dehumanizing treatment, and murder on the part of members of that group, directed, furthermore, against a people who had nothing to do with the initial victimization. Yet this is exactly what is being shielded in the case of Israel; the threat to this flimsy moral foundation was felt immediately upon Arendt’s publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. If the Holocaust was not the unique embodiment of evil itself, but merely one of any number of manifestations of man’s inherent potential to do evil – even if a particularly modern/fascist manifestation of such – then no-one is off the hook simply because their community was the victim of the last one.

    People can defend Israel’s bombing of men, women and children in Gaza because they, like Eichmann, have not really thought through the actions independently, have not “grasped the moral significance of the act” or how the victims might experience it. And they are coddled in this thoughtlessness my an establishment-controlled media that couches the whole conflict in false tropes and dehumanizes the victims.

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