Steven Salaita keynotes conference on academic freedom in Ireland

USACBI Note: This article by Irish Palestine solidarity activist Conor McCarthy focuses on a keynote address that USACBI OC member Steven Salaita delivered to a conference on academic freedom and the contemporary university in Dublin last September.  But it also shows the intimate links between our organizing for BDS and the resistance of students and academics to the corporatization of the university.  The all too frequent suppression of freedom of expression around Israel goes hand in hand with efforts to police the university and contain the activism of students and faculty who seek to shape more progressive and inclusive institutions.  Heike Schotten, another OC member who attended the conference, discussed the connections between the crackdown on Palestine solidarity in academia and “terrorism” discourse, which has also been deployed to threaten so-called “Black Identity” movements.  Both the pursuit of justice in Palestine and its repression thus links our work to that of numerous other social movements whose goals we share.  Forging a university that truly represents our collective intellectual and political freedom is one of those goals.  As Conor McCarthy writes, Salaita shared with other speakers on various topics at the conference the urgency of realizing this possibility.

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Given its contentious nature, PACBI represents a perfect example against which it is possible to test the limitations of academic freedom — limitations that are imposed by university and institutional authorities through formal and informal channels. From the United States, to Lebanon and Germany, institutional responses to the call for the boycott or to events critical of Israeli policies were examined. The confrontational attitude widespread among university authorities vis-à-vis BDS was perfectly illustrated during the conference, as debates around BDS and PACBI have been banned or silenced, rather than authorized and encouraged, in many of the national settings considered by speakers.

…. The first keynote, Steven Salaita (independent scholar) gave a powerful presentation on “Freedom to boycott: BDS and the modern university.” Salaita, who lost a promised tenure track position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), withdrawn, allegedly because of his forceful and emotional tweets during the 2014 Gaza War, has become a cause célèbre and an icon in the struggle to protect academic freedom, and his keynote revealed the institutional and the human ramifications of his dissent.  Despite winning his legal case against UIUC, precipitating the resignation of the university’s provost and revealing a concerted campaign to deny him a position that went well beyond his Twitter activity, Salaita has been unable to secure ongoing academic employment, in spite of a productive and exemplary level of scholarly activity, and must now resign himself to working and living as a freelance writer and lecturer.

Referring to his own experience, Salaita began by reflecting on why there is a general assumption in favor of Israel’s colonial project, while arguments in favor of Palestinians’ rights often run into “benevolent contempt” and need to be (endlessly) proven as valid. While support for the hegemony of the dominant classes goes unquestioned, oppositional statements have to meet standards of civility to become fully adequate. This often means the removal of emotions, such as anger, from our arguments to make them “civil,” even when anger is arguably a legitimate or humane emotion. The anger and the content of his tweets were not only ruled illegitimate because of their incivility, but ended up being used to define him.  This is what happens, he suggested, to colonized subjects, who are defined by the colonizers and who are ordered in hierarchies based on the level of the ‘discomfort’ they cause to the colonizers. Anger was then the feeling defining who he was, Salaita said, as well as the feeling he was required – and will forever be required, in a Sisyphean manner – to excuse himself for.  

Salaita concluded his keynote speech by returning to the theme of academic freedom. Located in this broader context, academic freedom is not a goal but a means we should defend because it allows for un-civil arguments to be made, he said, such as defending Palestinians’ human rights. Academic freedom and freedom of speech remain unaccomplished until we remove the conditions that make them necessary. Considering the impossibility of criticizing Israel, Salaita stated that academic freedom remains more of a myth than an actual possibility in modern universities.

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