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Steven Salaita’s Academic Work Is Just as Hateful as His Tweets

Reading the controversial scholar’s academic publications reveals carelessness, ignorance, and a very strong bias

Liel Leibovitz
September 05, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)

Like all great summer blockbusters, the Salaita affair—which, in case you missed it, involves a professor whose job offer was rescinded, presumably because of a string of strongly worded anti-Israeli tweets—is spawning a scrum of sequels pitting the same characters fighting the same battles in more or less the same formation. The rules of sequels call for more action and less sense, and the exchanges over Salaita’s curtailed career move obey, growing more comical by the moment.

One noted scholar, for example, argued that even though Salaita celebrated the kidnapping of three young Israelis by wishing all of their kin similarly disappeared, it was the university chancellor’s letter that was the real offender, “all the more violent because of its calm, rational, removed tone. This is the kind of bureaucratic language that has the power to do much more harm than an angry expletive posted about a war.”

It’s hard to think of more stark examples of Orwellian Newspeak—rational and calm speech is violent, violent speech is calm and rational. And, for the most part, Salaita’s defenders have spent the past week engaging in linguistic acrobatics that may be the stuff of legend in undergraduate semiotics classes but that are intellectually and morally worthless once they engage with the world at large, where words still sometimes have meanings and are treated as more than playthings to be molded and reshaped according to the most au courant theory. (For a particularly fine example of tongue twisting and tortured logic, see the unimprovably named essay “Clownish conflation of ascription and achievement constitutes calumny,” a missive whose very title says a thing or two about the clarity of its author’s vision).

One line of defense, however, rose above the rest. “It is just plain lazy,” wrote Feisal Mohamed, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the same institution that had wisely rejected Salaita, “to confine your evaluation of a scholar’s record to media allowing 140 or fewer characters.” Moved by Mohamed’s convincing argument, I set out to make the acquaintance not of Steven Salaita, composer of vile and violent tweets, but of Steven Salaita the scholar.

The first thing one learns about Salaita is that very little of what he has written seems to have anything to do with the field of study in which he claims expertise and in which he was offered a job, American Indian Studies. Look at the shelf of works authored by Salaita and you’ll see Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures and Politics; Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today; Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide; a review of a book about Hamas, in which Salaita refers to the terrorist group as “an often contradictory and always compelling social movement”; and other titles that have absolutely nothing to do with the Sioux or the Seminoles. Salaita’s most notable work about Native Americans, The Holy Land in Transit, compares them to the Palestinians. One could argue that such a dearth of publications in a scholar’s stated area of scholarship is telling; but for the sake of grace, let us ignore Salaita’s singular dedication to Palestinian and Arab political causes—an approach more befitting of an activist’s dogmatic and narrow focus than of a scholar’s commitment to curiosity and open-mindedness—and assume that his work transcends the boundaries of discipline and is somehow instructive even if not on topic.

Sadly, reading Salaita’s work does not reward such generosity of spirit. Take, for example, the title of his latest book: Israel’s Dead Soul. Given that the book was published by a serious university press and is therefore bound by more stringent expectations than the ones that govern Twitter, why the inflammatory title?

Salaita’s attempts at an explanation are telling. He begins the book by citing a slew of articles concerned, however tangentially, with Israel’s soul, whatever that might be, everything from Daniel Gordis extolling the Jewish state’s decision to trade Palestinian prisoners for the bodies of two abducted Israelis to a harangue by Richard Silverstein about the violence the IDF commits against animals (in a display of dispassionate adherence to the facts, Salaita refers to the Israeli army not by its proper name but as the IOF, or the Israeli Occupation Forces). Such diversity of opinion would suggest that Israel’s soul is subject of a lively and robust discussion; Salaita, however, has other conclusions in mind.

First of all, he informs his readers that an obsession with a national soul is a quality unique to Israel. A brief Google search would have informed Salaita that Americans seem just as concerned with the national soul as their Israeli counterparts: The History Channel, for example, posted an online curriculum concerning the Scopes Trial titled “The Battle Over America’s Soul,” and the formulation made its way into the subtitle of a 2008 book about the battle between evolution and intelligent design. Reclaiming America’s soul was the subject of a widely circulated column by Paul Krugman, and no less Olympian a chronicler of America than Ken Burns declared that “our national parks feed America’s soul.” This, naturally, is a careless selection of random examples that tells us nothing about America or its soul. Salaita, sadly, never offers anything more profound to support his substantial claims about Israel.

What he does offer are more wild generalities. “Those who chatter about Israel’s declining soul long ago killed it by agonizing it to death,” he writes. The notion that soul-searching leads to soullessness is preposterous, of course—a soul, like good soil, is more fertile the more it is tilled—so Salaita proceeds immediately into a strange disclaimer, arguing that he does not even believe states have souls, “metaphysically or metaphorically.” Again, it’s a statement that raises more questions than it answers—if states haven’t souls, how might Israel’s be dead? And again, Salaita is quick with another rhetorical and baseless escalation: “Israel,” he writes directly after having rejected the possibility of the concept of a national soul, “is the least likely of nations to have a soul, given its creation through ethnic cleansing.” It doesn’t take a scholar of Native American studies to think of another nation that rose into being by means of a bloody conflict with an indigenous population; Salaita mentions none of it. To him, Israel stands alone, an unparalleled and monstrous offender like no other, logical and historical demands be damned.

Such monomaniacal focus is hard to explain away, and Salaita, to his credit, knows that he ought to at least try. “I am not singling out Israel in this book,” he writes, “I am focusing on it with ardent determination and have no interest in absolving Israel or any other state either voluntarily or involuntarily. My analysis arises from a careful exploration of multitudinous sources.” This defense is laughable. First, Salaita never explains why, if he is not singling out Israel, did he choose not only to devote an entire book to its failings, some real and most imagined, but also to forgo any attempt at placing its struggles in context. If you believe, as Salaita does, that Israel is an ethnonationalist monolith engaged in systemic oppression of its neighbors in order to sustain its mythological view of itself and feed its territorial hunger, you might be interested in Russia, say, which is doing precisely the same thing in its corner of the world, with far more devastating results than anything even Israel’s harshest critics could reasonably claim. Salaita’s “careful exploration of multitudinous sources” is just as bogus: Israel, he tells us in one representative paragraph, can accurately be described an apartheid state responsible for ethnic cleansing because Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have so decreed.

Salaita’s use of sources grows more irresponsible as the book unfurls. In a chapter dedicated to profiling the ADL as a hate group—a premise too silly to waste any time debunking—Salaita writes that “it is worth noting that numerous cases of anti-Semitic vandalism in 2007 and 2008 were found to actually have been committed by Jews.” As any serious academic would agree, something is worth noting if it represents a statistically significant occurrence; in the footnote purporting to support his claim Salaita provides no concrete numbers for how many cases of anti-Semitic vandalism were actually the handiwork of nefarious Jews, and instead offers four examples. Considering the fact that, according to Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, there have been 632 cases of violent anti-Semitic attacks during the time period Salaita examines, the examples he provides make for 0.6 percent of all total cases, hardly an exception worth noting. But read the examples carefully, and two egregious errors pop up that shed more light on Salaita’s state of mind: First, one of Salaita’s four examples is the case of a young woman who had carved a swastika on her own thigh; Salaita’s source for the story, a BBC article, makes no mention of the young woman’s ethnicity or religion, and it is unclear why he decided to present her as Jewish. More troubling is the case of Ivan Ivanov. Here is how Salaita describes the case: Ivanov, he writes, “a Bulgarian Jew in Brooklyn was arrested in January 2008, for numerous instances of spray painting anti-Semitic graffiti on houses, vehicles, and synagogues. The New York Times reported that Ivanov was trained by the Mossad.” A search of the Times’ website reveals no mention of the case, but a JTA story from the period contains a much more sober account: “The New York Times reported that Ivanov told police that he was Italian by birth, raised in Bulgaria and trained by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.” The difference between a definitive claim sourced to a major newspaper—Ivanov was trained by the Mossad, says the New York Times—and the likely delusional account of a troubled man—Ivanov tells the Times he was trained by Mossad—is significant. A failure to distinguish between the two, even in a footnote, suggests that Salaita is either remarkably careless with the facts or happy to thwart them to support his narrative. Neither is the mark of a scholar worthy of a position in a fine American university.

It is possible to continue and pull apart Salaita’s shoddy scholarship page by page. One can find heaps of examples in which the scholar makes grand and unsubstantiated claims, such as stating confidently that “in campus promotions, Israel is usually described” as “the exclusive territory of Jews from around the world,” a claim for which he offers no serious evidence. Just as plentiful are the gross historical inaccuracies, such as the statement—as always, uncorroborated and unexplained—that Zionism, a movement with strong socialist roots and a history of affiliation with the Soviet Union, was a champion of capitalism. But these are primarily examples of neglect and of ignorance; Salaita goes much further.

“It is not Israel’s enemies but its advocates who juxtapose Israeli citizenship and Jewish identity,” he writes. “In other words, if it is true that Israel evokes anti-Semitism, then according to their own logic it is primarily the fault of Israel’s most passionate supporters.” The convoluted language—“if it is true,” “according to their own logic”—hardly helps him here, especially not in a book so heavily and patently biased. While Israel does grant citizenship to Jews wishing to settle there, it does not officially conflate Israeli citizenship and Jewish identity, a fact made obvious by the sizable non-Jewish communities that make up a full quarter of its population and by the fact that, like most other democracies, it allows applicants of all backgrounds to apply for citizenship by naturalization. The juxtaposition, then, is all Salaita’s, and it continues throughout the book. In one particularly entertaining chapter, Salaita addresses this complex issue not by analyzing the extensive body of literature already in existence but by reflecting how strange it is that some events sponsored by Hillel are focused on Israel, which to him is proof that those darn Zionists are craftily conflating Judaism and Israel and are therefore to blame, somehow, for the surge of anti-Semitism.

Because words are at the heart of this case, it’s worthwhile to read a few more of Salaita’s tortured formulations. “Hillel and other Jewish civic organizations render themselves distinctly responsible for Israel’s violence by proclaiming themselves guardians of the state’s consciousness,” he writes. “Moreover, they perform a nonconsensual appropriation of all Jewish people into the service of state policies that render the culture indefensible along with the state policies that are said to arise from the culture. It is never a good idea, even through the trope of strategic essentialism, to link an ethnic group to a military apparatus. Such a move automatically justifies discourses—in this case anti-Semitic ones—that should never be justifiable.”

How and when did a Jewish student organization render itself a guardian of Israel’s consciousness? How precisely does it perform an appropriation, nonconsensual or otherwise, of all Jewish people into Israel’s political and military apparatus, especially given the fact that there are scores of other Jewish civic organizations dedicated solely to opposing the very same Israeli policies Salaita decries? Without concrete, well-reasoned answers to these questions—answers that go beyond the observation that a Jewish student organization offers falafel at its events and encourages its members to spend a summer or a semester in Israel, a nation that all but the most rabid of haters would agree is, at the very least, of tremendous religious and historical significance to Jews—the declaration that such behaviors somehow justify anti-Semitism is abhorrent.

Anyone who still has doubts about whether or not Steven Salaita deserves an academic job should ignore his tweets and read his work. Devoid of any real understanding, context, or nuance, stupidly dogmatic, and frequently given to hyperbolic fits of hatred, it should not qualify as scholarship. Criticism of Israel, like criticism of any other nation, ideology, or organization, should be encouraged in the name of the unfettered quest for knowledge that is the ideal of the academic pursuit. But criticism of any sort can never be allowed to metastasize into sheer invective or, worse, into hate speech. By rejecting Salaita’s bid, the University of Illinois made the right decision.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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