Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bonnie Honig's letter to Chancellor Wise about Steven Salaita

Bonnie Honig, an old friend and a fellow political theorist and activist against the massive, radically unjust American prison system, wrote this moving letter about Steven Salaita to Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne (originally published on Corey Robin's blog). A Palestinian-American and a teacher of indigenous studies, Salaita was hired by the University of Illinois, left a tenured position at Virginia Tech, and was arbitrarily and unusually fired by the Chancellor for tweets unveiling and opposing Israeli brutality. See a separate petition, signed by many here. In addition, the Indian Studies Department and the Philosophy Department at UIUC have just voted no confidence in the Chancellor and Trustees...

The movement is large and growing...


As a Jew and a Zionist growing up, Bonnie speaks with particular force to having empathy for Salaita, realizing what the slaughters in Gaza must have felt like to him. She also takes the Chancellor's saying about words seriously and suggests rightly that sticking with the wrong decision will become hard to bear.


Richard Gilbert, my father, taught in the economics department at Harvard for 10 years (from 1927 to 1937 when he went to work, as the first Keynsian economist in the United States, along with students and colleagues like John Kenneth Galbraith, for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During that time, he was a very popular instructor, but no Jew could be on tenure track or given tenure at Harvard...

The bigotry abated dramatically after World War II when many Jews became tenured.


The situation today fortunately is not as bad for Palestinians and those who study indigenous people sympathetically. But what Bonnie asks here, for Chancellor Wise and the trustees, to empathize with Salaita and Gazans, is a natural thing. It is something that anybody does in taking a moral position, putting oneself in another's shoes, feeling what she feels, and what one is also forced to do in John Rawls' original position, thinking of and in reality, empathizing with the "least advantaged." The original position attractively mirrors and makes more general (thinking with all true facts and social theories but behind a veil of ignorance, that is, not knowing what position one will occupy in a decent society) this ordinary moral thought.

It is what the ideology - by this term, I mean widely repeated lies by which the Occupiers also deceive themselves - from Israel and AIPAC, for instance, that "Hamas" is somehow responsible for Israel's Occupation of Gaza, its repeated murders of civilians - seeks to cut off, just as at one time, many in the American elite had little empathy for Jews.


Those who do such things will not, in a few years, be proud of having done so. More generally, those who zealously support the current murderousness of Israel are likely to be already in trouble about it as many young people, including many young Jews, are rightly repelled by what the decadent state of Israel is doing and becoming and see rightly and harshly their murder- and segregation-supporting elders.


It is an important thing that she eloquently asks. Those at the University of Illinois and far more widely would do well to listen...


"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. AsI 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

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