Few academics are sufficiently high profile to warrant having a photo of themselves adorn their book cover. Steven Salaita rose to fame in 2014 after being dismissed from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the midst of that summer’s intense media coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Salaita is a leading figure in the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) movement and his Twitter feed reflects his political sympathies.
Salaita was dismissed for “incivility”; he stood accused of sending anti-Semitic tweets. In turn, Salaita argues in his book that his firing was a result of “the machinations of right-wing operatives” and that the university “acted in response to donor pressure”. He is clear where blame lies: “Zionist interests directly oppose communities in academe that wish to effect structural change.” As hero of his own story, he represents noble change-agents, while enemy Zionist operatives lurk everywhere.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Salaita has since become the poster boy for academic freedom. He correctly demands to know: “Was my speech on Twitter reason enough to undermine a long tradition of academic freedom?” But there is something odd about his having achieved this figurehead status. This is far less a book about academic freedom than it is a book about Steven Salaita. It is his opportunity to put his side of the story and settle scores, and thus his picture on the front is entirely fitting.
In Uncivil Rites we learn of Salaita’s loathing of the many people and institutions he considers to be Zionist. He describes his disgust at the colonialism of his native US. His attachment is to Palestinians – “A Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree” – rather than to Americans, who “are fundamentally outsiders to the land they occupy”. We learn of his relationships with family, friends and colleagues, and his young son’s remarkable empathy. Salaita tells us about his ethnic identity, “more nuanced than simply ‘Palestinian’ ”; his father came from Jordan, and his mother, whose parents were Palestinian, was raised in Nicaragua. He was born in Appalachia but he does not identify as American; instead, he tells us, “I happily identify as Palestinian”. Likewise, he is “perfectly content” to identify as the Muslim he is often mistaken for rather than the Christian he is, describing himself as “culturally Islamic”.
It is not until halfway through Uncivil Rites that discussion turns to Salaita’s views on academic freedom. It then rapidly becomes clear that the limits of academic freedom referred to in the book’s title are Salaita’s. Despite having cited academic freedom in his own defence, he describes himself as “tepid about academic freedom as a right”. His fight for social justice makes his view of academic freedom entirely instrumental. He explains: “Academic freedom is important insofar as it protects our ability to do this work.”
Ultimately, Salaita defends academic freedom only for those who share his political views. He wants the insurance policy of academic freedom while treating the concept with intellectual disdain. It is this contradictory logic that enables him to argue that a “boycott is not a contravention of academic freedom, but an expression of it”. Unfortunately, as his case demonstrates, such a partial defence of academic freedom is no defence at all.
Joanna Williams is director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Kent, and education editor at Spiked.
Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom
By Steven Salaita
Haymarket Books, 254pp, £16.99
Published 17 December 2015