The brazen hypocrisy of the BDS crowd

Those who want to silence Israelis are shocked when they are silenced.

‘If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised #Gaza.’

This ugly, anti-Semitic tweet is just one in a long line sent by the American academic and pro-Palestinian activist, Steven Salaita. His response to the kidnapping in June of three Israeli teenagers was typically forthright: ‘You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.’ More recently he informed his Twitter followers: ‘Zionists: transforming “anti-Semitism” from something horrible into something honourable since 1948.’

Salaita has forged both a public profile and an academic career off the back of such sentiments. In his 2011 book, Israel’s Dead Soul, he writes: ‘Liberal notions of Zionism are harmful to various movements for justice.’ He is a leading campaigner in the US movement calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. In relation to higher education, BDS proponents want to prevent Israeli universities and scholars engaging in academic conferences, intellectual collaborations, and funded research projects with the rest of the world. Supporters argue that the Israeli government exploits higher education in order to gain cultural legitimacy on the world stage.

Salaita is one of the contributors to The Imperial University, a book which makes a consistent case for BDS and the censoring of all connections with Israeli universities, which I reviewed in this month’s spiked review of books. The various authors argue that academic freedom, an overrated concept, is a mere tool employed by the liberal elite to patronise and neuter voices of dissent within the academy. How ironic, then, that Salaita, a man all too happy to ride roughshod over the academic freedom of Israeli lecturers and researchers, should be outraged when his own academic freedom is threatened.

This month, Salaita should have taken up his new role as professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The job offer, which Salaita considered enough of a done deal to resign from his post as associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, has since been rescinded by Illinois on the basis of a rarely used bureaucratic technicality. Professors at many US universities are offered posts subject to the approval of an institution’s board of trustees. Normally this would be a mere formality, but in Salaita’s case the university’s chancellor made the unusual decision not to put his appointment before the board, thereby leaving Salaita without a job.

It has been widely reported that concern over Salaita’s prolific anti-Israel Twitter interventions are the reason for his professorship being withdrawn. Although a number of academics at Illinois and beyond appear to share in the general sentiments he expressed, there is a sense that Salaita ‘crossed a line’ into ‘uncivil behaviour’. To many, it seems, Salaita’s poor etiquette is more problematic than his anti-Semitism.

Yet, incredibly, Salaita’s supporters are now arguing his case on the basis of academic freedom, a concept long dismissed by Salaita. They claim his personal views, even when expressed in the public domain, should not be a factor in determining an academic appointment. They’re right, of course. Yet it’s more than a little hypocritical of those who are more than happy to silence Israeli academics to be outraged when Salaita’s own academic freedom is inhibited.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012, and a professor at the University of Illinois, gets the balance right: ‘Although I find many of [Salaita’s] tweets quite loathsome — as well as sophomoric and irresponsible — I would defend without qualification his right to issue most of them… But his right to make most of these statements does not mean I would choose to have him as a colleague.’

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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