L’Affaire Salaita

For the past two months the academic blogosphere has been filled with debate about the case of Professor Steven Salaita, who was poised to accept a tenured position in Native American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. A few days ago, that appointment was blocked by the University’s Chancellor.

The reason for the blockage (or, if one believes that the hire was fully effected, rescinding) of the hire has to do with Salaita’s public comments, made via Twitter. Intriguingly, the debate has had little to do with Salaita’s published scholarship (he wrote a monograph in 2006 comparing the concepts of indigeneity, settler colonialism, and land rights amongst Native Americans and Palestinians) or even his many journalistic opinion pieces, which were published in 2011.  Instead, Salaita’s academic future has been hanging on a few dozen 140-character-or-less tweets, many of them made during this summer’s Gaza war.   As anyone who has been following the story knows, the tweets are vulgar and nasty.  Some of Salaita’s defenders term them provocative, but his critics would call them incendiary. Debate has gone back and forth whether they cross the line from anti-Zionism into antisemitism and whether they advocate violence.

The real questions, though, are:  does the principle of academic freedom apply to extramural speech?  Does that freedom apply across the board to hostile speech directed against any individual or group?   Is extra-mural speech an issue only when it touches upon the scholar’s areas of expertise and so might reflect on her/his competence?  Are nasty comments licit regardless of what kind of group is being attacked, or only if the object of abuse is perceived as powerful, oppressive, exploitative, or just plain wrong-headed?  That is, are abusive tweets by academics against Israel, the NRA, the NSA, and the Koch Brothers permitted, yet equally harsh comments about Palestinians, gun-control advocates, anarchists, and Pacifica Radio grounds for censure or dismissal?

All this brings up two related questions:  Is the academy a continuation of the political battlefield or a shelter from it?  Does the university replicate conflict or strive to transcend it?  

I have no answer to these questions, and I would not trust anyone in the University to answer them for me.  Even constitutional protections of speech have limits, and in universities scholars may not say whatever they want, however and whenever they want to. But the bar for unacceptable speech must be set very high, and it cannot be set at different heights for different kinds of opinions.   A few – well, even more than a few – outrageous ideologues on all sides of the spectrum may be a small price to pay for the freedoms that lie at the core of our humanity.

At the link below, two scholars at the University of Illinois discuss these questions in an unusually informed and civil manner:


What was – or is – the Nakba?

Israel and Hamas are once again on the brink of war.  Palestinian support for a two-state option is plummeting.  The brutal slayings of three Israeli yeshiva students on the West Bank have been followed by reprisals by Israeli civilians against Arabs on an order not seen since the creation of the state.  In the days and weeks ahead, battles will be waged with weapons and with words.  And for the Palestinians, one of the most powerful of those words will be Nakba – the catastrophe of 1948.

The political use of the Arabic word nakba (disaster) goes back to 1920, when Arabs decried European colonial rule over portions of the now-defunct Ottoman empire.  While the 1948 war was still raging, Constantine Zureiq, a professor at the American University in Beirut, wrote a book, “The Meaning of the Disaster,” which used the term Nakba to describe the internal weaknesses and failings of the Arab world that had made Israel’s victory possible.

Over time, the term Nakba has come to be associated with the forced migration of the Palestinians in 1948 and the Israeli government’s refusal to let the refugees return after the war’s end.  Most Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel have a visceral, negative reaction to the word.  A recent Israeli law (which has not yet been tested in the courts) allows the government to fine publicly-funded institutions that commemorate Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning.  This legislation is colloquially referred to as “the Nakba law.”

Why is this word so threatening?  When Israeli Jews hear the word Naqba, they infer a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.  They associate the Naqba with the Palestinian Right of Return, which, if exercised, could theoretically lead to millions of Palestinian refugees (those surviving from 1948, and their descendants) coming to Israel and claiming their lands, upon which hundreds of Israeli communities now sit.

Denial of the Nakba is less about what happened in 1948 than about why.  It is about causes and consequences of events, not events themselves.   Mainstream Israeli narratives of 1948 often underestimate the number of Palestinian refugees, but many Israeli Jews would acknowledge that in 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes – and their homeland.  Along with that acknowledgment, though, comes the claim that the Palestinians brought disaster upon themselves by not accepting the United Nations Partition plan of November 1947.  Israeli denial of the Nakba is a denial of responsibility, and hence of culpability.

For Palestinians, mourning for their lost homeland is inseparable from rage against all the actors – the international community, the Arab states, and, most of all, Israel – who, they feel, brought, and continue to bring, disaster upon them. Nakba is more than a description, more than a lament – it is an accusation of crimes past and present.

It is hard to deny the Nakba, however, without using the word itself.  Israeli newspapers now write about the Naqba more than ever before.  Palestinian political rhetoric has been accepted into Israeli public conversation.

During the Cold War, conservative West German newspapers referred to East Germany in quotes, as the “DDR,” and in communist East Germany West Berlin’s separate status as part of the Federal Republic of Germany was obscured by referring to it as Berlin (West).  Such linguistic trickery served only to strengthen awareness of the reality of both East Germany and West Berlin.  The Cold War of the 1940s through 1980s is now over, and East Germany and West Berlin have ceased to exist as political entities. But the Nakba continues, and it will continue to continue, until Israel acknowledges its past and the Palestinians, including Hamas, legitimize Israel’s future. In the current climate, neither appears likely.

What is Yom Ha-Atsma’ut?

Israel has once again celebrated Yom Ha-Atsma’ut, and Palestinians have once again commemorated the Nakba.  These terms are used so often, and uncritically, that we are often not sure what they really mean. In this post I will talk about the first; and in another I will address the second.

Yom Ha-Atsma’ut means “Independence Day,” taken from the 1948 War that Israeli Jews call the state’s war of independence.  It is also called Milhemet Ha-Shichrur – the War of Liberation.  But independence or liberation from whom?

From the British?  They officially withdrew from Palestine the day the state was declared.  The guerrilla war that Zionist militias had been waging against the British was now over.

From the Palestinians?  The Palestinians claimed a state but did not possess one, and by May of 1948 the Palestinian forces had been seriously weakened.

From the Arab states?  Jordan coveted Palestine, and other Arab states had interests and ambitions of their own for the country, but Palestine did not belong to them, and Israel’s war against them was not a war of independence from the Arab world.

So, from whom, then, was Israel seeking independence?  The answer is vague yet vast:  from the diaspora experience itself, from centuries of statelessness, from persecution that had culminated in the genocide of two-thirds of European Jewry.

Unlike other wars of liberation fought around the world in the mid 20th century, Israel’s enemy was not a colonial master or a dominant neighbour but another people and other states that claimed the same land.  Israel is now at peace, albeit a cold one, with two of its front-line neighbours, and the others are either unable or unwilling  to engage Israel in a major conflict.   But the Palestinians remain, in exile and under occupation.  Israel won its war of independence, but its liberation from the often tragic Jewish past will remain incomplete as long as the Israel-Palestine conflict is not resolved.


Is Israel a place of refuge for the Jewish people?

In yesterday’s Haaretz, Mira Sucharov uses my book Jews and the Military as a means of opening a conversation about how Jews in the diaspora perceive their country’s armies versus the IDF, and how service in the former is symbolically far less meaningful than service in the latter:


(The article is probably behind Haaretz’s firewall but I have posted it in its entirety via Twitter and Facebook.)

Professor Sucharov’s discussion touches on a related point that is worth dealing with directly:  does the sovereign state of Israel, and in particular its powerful military, render Jews in Israel safer than those who dwell beyond its borders?

Jews visiting Israel from abroad almost invariably feel safe when in Israel.  They are in a state dominated by a substantial Jewish majority, a state where Jews need never deny or hide their Jewishness or fear being persecuted because of their religion or nationality. The ubiquity of armed Israeli soldiers is an eloquent sign and source of this feeling of being powerful, in charge, and at home.  A psychological sense of security translates into a sense of personal safety.

Since the state of Israel was founded it has taken in millions of Jews who faced persecution in the Middle East, North Africa, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union.  In recent years there has been increased Jewish immigration from France, where many Jews have been shaken by horrific, albeit isolated, incidents like the murder of a rabbi and three Jewish children in Tolouse in March of 2012. And in the past months there has been a spurt of Jewish immigration to Israel from Ukraine, whose Jews are not fleeing persecution so much as pervasive uncertainty about the country’s future.

Yet at the same time Jews in Israel and the diaspora alike fear for the country’s security and long-term survival.   Since the state was established, over 20,000 Israeli soldiers (the vast majority of them Jewish) have died, and another 4000 civilians (again, mostly Jewish) have died during wars or at the hands of terrorists.  As many as 100,000 Israeli veterans are considered disabled.  These numbers dwarf the number of Jews in the diaspora who have been killed or wounded in terrorist incidents since 1948.

Today Israel is vulnerable to rocket bombardment from southern Lebanon, and there is widespread fear that despite ongoing negotiations with the international community, Iran may develop a nuclear weapon, which, the government claims, would place Israel in existential danger.

So where are Jews safer – in the diaspora or in Israel?  What does it mean to be “safe”?  Is safety a matter of physical security or is it more a state of mind?


Israel’s Demand for Recognition as a “Jewish State”

Benjamin Netanyahu demands that the Palestine Authority recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.  For Netanyahu, this demand is a win-win.  If the Palestinians don’t accept it, he can blame them for causing the negotiations between Israel and the PA to fail.  If they do, he has a weapon against the Palestinian claim of a right of return for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, who number in the millions.

But Netanyahu is not merely being opportunistic – he, like many Israelis, truly believes that there can’t be peace until the Palestinians recognise the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab world.  Why is this demand being made of the Palestinians, when it was not made of Egypt or Jordan when Israel signed peace treaties with those two countries?   Because pre-1948 Palestine and post-1967 Israel are two sides of the same coin – they take up the same territory.  The wars of 1948 and 1967, which created the state of Israel and enlarged its borders, turned the Palestinians into refugees and erased Palestine from the map.

In Israel one hears a lot about the Palestinians as a military or demographic threat.  But for most Israelis the Palestinians present, no less, a psychological threat – a challenge to the country’s very right to exist. That is why a powerful Israel insists that the feeble Palestine Authority accept it as a Jewish state.

The American government appears to support Netanyahu’s position.  Netanyahu’s ability to set the agenda on this, like other major issues in the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the PA, reflect the power disparity between them.  The disparity exists on all levels – military, geo-political, and economic. Although many Israelis and supporters of Israel see things differently, the Obama administration has been and remains firmly supportive of Israel.  Ironically, Netanyahu is much weaker in dealing with his own party and those to its right than with either the Americans or the Palestinians.

BDS, Israel, and the EU

The Israeli government is increasingly exercised about BDS, a global movement that began in 2005 and has picked up steam over the past four years. The Israeli government has convened a crisis ministerial team to deal with the situation.  The Israeli Prime Minister and some members of his cabinet have equated all types of boycotts against Israel, including those aimed only at the West Bank settlements, as an expression of anti-Semitism. The Israeli foreign ministry has taken a more nuanced line, distinguishing between BDS’ call for a blanket boycott of all Israeli business and recent moves within the European Union to divest from Israeli enterprises located in or dealing with the Occupied Territories.

The EU has long maintained that the West Bank and East Jerusalem are not part of Israel, and in 2010 the European Court of Justice ruled that Israeli products from the Occupied Territories should not receive preferential customs treatment under the European Community – Israel trade agreement of 2000.  Last year the EU re-affirmed existing guidelines to member states not to engage in activities with or that bring benefit to Israeli enterprises or institutions in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Yet the EU itself has not imposed sanctions upon Israel; in fact, it was eager to sign Israel on to the Horizon 2020 agreement for cooperative scientific research. As the European Parliament president Martin Schulz said at Hebrew University on Feb 12, “There is no boycott in the European Parliament; there is for sure not a majority for a potential boycott.”

The British Department of Trade and Investment has issued an advisory, warning British businesses against deals with Jewish settlements for fear of “image damage.”  Yet by and large the EU’s member states have taken a cautious line. As Schulz recently told Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, “Israel’s [real] problem is with the [European] business sector.”  In northern Europe private companies and quasi-governmental pension funds have purposefully pursued divestment. The largest Dutch pension fund, APB, has thus far refrained from divestment, but another pension fund, PGGM, divested from Israeli banks earlier this year. Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, has divested from Bank Ha-poalim, and the Norwegian government pension fund’s has divested from all five major Israeli banks. Norwegian and Danish divestment from certain companies, e.g., Israel-Africa Investments, which has construction projects in the settlements, goes back to 2010.

The pension funds’ actions thus far will not have much impact, as their holdings in Israeli financial institutions and companies were only a few tens of millions of Euros.  European investors continue to snap up Israeli government bonds – most recently, 1.5 billion Euros worth on the London stock exchange at beginning of February.

Israel’s real dependence on the EU is not pension fund purchases of Israeli equities but rather exports of goods and services, as the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner.  (A third of Israel’s exports go to Europe, and a third of the country’s imports come from Europe.)  Some of Israel’s leading exports (e.g., industrial diamonds) are unlikely to be affected by increased sanctions, but Israel’s finance minister Yair Lapid cautions that in the unlikely case where existing EU-Israel trade agreements are abrogated the country could lose four billion Euro per year.  Yet so far, trade has suffered very little.  True, Jordan Valley farmers are finding it harder to sell their expensive greenhouse vegetables, which in many European countries are marked as products of the West Bank and thus shunned.  So the peppers are being bought instead by Russia at a lower price.  The price of shares in Sodastream,  which manufactures carbonated water  dispensers and one of whose production facilities is in the West Bank, is down by about 25 per cent.  The company is not likely to go out of business, however – its product is wildly popular, and Scarlett Johansen is its official spokesperson.

The goods produced in the West Bank settlements amount to only about one per cent of Israel’s total industrial product.  A boycott against these goods will do the state of Israel little serious harm.  They will, however, hurt the people who produce them.  Israel has sixteen industrial zones in the West Bank, employing some 21000 workers, two thirds of whom are Palestinian.  They earn about three times the Palestine Authority’s minimum wage and so are not necessarily eager to endorse a boycott of settlement products.

Ultimately, though, the boycott issue is not about economics, but rather about politics.  Supporters of BDS justify the short-term loss of a livelihood for a Palestinian labourer in exchange for the opportunity for the Palestinian people to realize their collective national rights.  In order to appear to be politically progressive, European businesses may be willing to expand the process of divestment from West Bank enterprises and Israeli companies or banks that deal with them.   But it is doubtful that they would boycott Israel altogether. Doing so would have a heavy political cost of its own, and they would lose a lot of money.