How Did Steven Salaita Ever Get an Offer from the University of Illinois in the First Place?

As I have written before, Steven Salaita likely has both a breach of contract claim and a First Amendment claim against the University of Illinois for revoking his job offer. But that doesn’t mean that he should have been offered a job in the first place, and one would hope that the University of Illinois–and other universities–will vet candidates more thoroughly in the future, before offering them tenured or tenure-track positions teaching students and conducting research. (And yes, this includes checking to see what candidates have written on social media.)

I mean, how does someone with Salaita’s poor scholarship record actually convince any university that s/he would make a fine addition to that university’s faculty?

The first thing one learns about Salaita is that very little of what he has written seems to have anything to do with the field of study in which he claims expertise and in which he was offered a job, American Indian Studies. Look at the shelf of works authored by Salaita and you’ll see Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures and Politics; Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today; Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide; a review of a book about Hamas, in which Salaita refers to the terrorist group as “an often contradictory and always compelling social movement”; and other titles that have absolutely nothing to do with the Sioux or the Seminoles. Salaita’s most notable work about Native Americans, The Holy Land in Transit, compares them to the Palestinians. One could argue that such a dearth of publications in a scholar’s stated area of scholarship is telling; but for the sake of grace, let us ignore Salaita’s singular dedication to Palestinian and Arab political causes—an approach more befitting of an activist’s dogmatic and narrow focus than of a scholar’s commitment to curiosity and open-mindedness—and assume that his work transcends the boundaries of discipline and is somehow instructive even if not on topic.

Sadly, reading Salaita’s work does not reward such generosity of spirit. Take, for example, the title of his latest book: Israel’s Dead Soul. Given that the book was published by a serious university press and is therefore bound by more stringent expectations than the ones that govern Twitter, why the inflammatory title?

Salaita’s attempts at an explanation are telling. He begins the book by citing a slew of articles concerned, however tangentially, with Israel’s soul, whatever that might be, everything from Daniel Gordis extolling the Jewish state’s decision to trade Palestinian prisoners for the bodies of two abducted Israelis to a harangue by Richard Silverstein about the violence the IDF commits against animals (in a display of dispassionate adherence to the facts, Salaita refers to the Israeli army not by its proper name but as the IOF, or the Israeli Occupation Forces). Such diversity of opinion would suggest that Israel’s soul is subject of a lively and robust discussion; Salaita, however, has other conclusions in mind.

First of all, he informs his readers that an obsession with a national soul is a quality unique to Israel. A brief Google search would have informed Salaita that Americans seem just as concerned with the national soul as their Israeli counterparts: The History Channel, for example, posted an online curriculum concerning the Scopes Trial titled “The Battle Over America’s Soul,” and the formulation made its way into the subtitle of a 2008 book about the battle between evolution and intelligent design. Reclaiming America’s soul was the subject of a widely circulated column by Paul Krugman, and no less Olympian a chronicler of America than Ken Burns declared that  “our national parks feed America’s soul.” This, naturally, is a careless selection of random examples that tells us nothing about America or its soul. Salaita, sadly, never offers anything more profound to support his substantial claims about Israel.

What he does offer are more wild generalities. “Those who chatter about Israel’s declining soul long ago killed it by agonizing it to death,” he writes. The notion that soul-searching leads to soullessness is preposterous, of course—a soul, like good soil, is more fertile the more it is tilled—so Salaita proceeds immediately into a strange disclaimer, arguing that he does not even believe states have souls, “metaphysically or metaphorically.” Again, it’s a statement that raises more questions than it answers—if states haven’t souls, how might Israel’s be dead? And again, Salaita is quick with another rhetorical and baseless escalation: “Israel,” he writes directly after having rejected the possibility of the concept of a national soul, “is the least likely of nations to have a soul, given its creation through ethnic cleansing.” It doesn’t take a scholar of Native American studies to think of another nation that rose into being by means of a bloody conflict with an indigenous population; Salaita mentions none of it. To him, Israel stands alone, an unparalleled and monstrous offender like no other, logical and historical demands be damned.

Such monomaniacal focus is hard to explain away, and Salaita, to his credit, knows that he ought to at least try. “I am not singling out Israel in this book,” he writes, “I am focusing on it with ardent determination and have no interest in absolving Israel or any other state either voluntarily or involuntarily. My analysis arises from a careful exploration of multitudinous sources.” This defense is laughable. First, Salaita never explains why, if he is not singling out Israel, did he choose not only to devote an entire book to its failings, some real and most imagined, but also to forgo any attempt at placing its struggles in context. If you believe, as Salaita does, that Israel is an ethnonationalist monolith engaged in systemic oppression of its neighbors in order to sustain its mythological view of itself and feed its territorial hunger, you might be interested in Russia, say, which is doing precisely the same thing in its corner of the world, with far more devastating results than anything even Israel’s harshest critics could reasonably claim. Salaita’s “careful exploration of multitudinous sources” is just as bogus: Israel, he tells us in one representative paragraph, can accurately be described an apartheid state responsible for ethnic cleansing because Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have so decreed.

More evidence that Salaita is not a serious thinker is offered by David Bernstein. Consider Salaita’s reviews of books on Goodreads–note that at the top, Professor Bernstein informs us that Salaita’s Goodreads page was wiped clean “within and hour and half of [the Bernstein post] going up”:

Two things become pretty obvious if you start reading some reviews (there are over 1,000 of them, so I admittedly only looked at a fraction.) The first is that you can predict how much he will like any book relating to Israel and the Middle East based on whether the book comports with his political views.  He apparently rarely if ever learns anything useful from books that don’t–including books by far leftists like Michael Lerner, if they purport to be Zionists.  The second is that he can be just as intemperate in other contexts as in his controversial tweets.

Here are a few examples.

A review of What Israel Means to Me: “I don’t need to hear from the sanctimonious pricks in this book.” If you read the whole brief review, it certainly calls into question the degree to which Salaita can be tolerant of students or colleagues who express pro-Israel views, as he seems to think that anyone who has warm feelings for Israel is inherently a “sanctimonious prick”–surely all eighty essayists in the book don’t have anything else in common. (Here’s a wayback machine link.)

A review of  Israeli leftist Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel: “Amos Oz is to incisive political writing what Leni Riefenstahl was to socially conscious filmmaking.”   That’s the entire review. (Here’s a Google cache link).

A review of Narnie Darwish’s They Call Me Infidel, which he acknowledges he never read: “Given Darwish’s annoying propensity to confuse reality with her well-timed con artistry, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s disingenuously substituting ‘infidel’ for ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile,’ ‘ignoramus,’ or ‘impostor.’” (Here’s a Google cache link.)

[. . .]

And while Salaita’s advocates have ably (and reasonably persuasively, I think, though I haven’t followed the controversy extremely closely) defended him from the charge that his controversial  tweets endorsed anti-Semitism (I’d say some of them were more anti-anti-anti-Semitism), I’m not sure it would be as easy to defend this review of Abe Foxman’s The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control from the charge of anti-Semitism:This is sheer accidental brilliance. It has to be one of the few books ever published in which the author’s body of work so adeptly undermines his thesis.” It’s hard to understand this as something other than Salaita endorsing the “myth” that Jews do control things. (Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly sums up the book’s thesis: “a rebuttal of a pernicious theory about a mythically powerful Jewish lobby.” So there is a mythically powerful Jewish lobby, and Foxman’s career proves it?) (Here’s a Google cache link.)

So, Salaita is a bad writer and a bad thinker who criticizes books that he hasn’t even read, and who reflexively allows an anti-Israel–and yes, an anti-Semitic–bias to color his writings. And when he is taken apart by the likes of Professor Bernstein, Salaita doesn’t even possess the intellectual courage to leave his reviews up and let others read them in order to make up their own minds as to whether or not Salaita’s reviews have any merit. No, instead, Salaita scrubs his site clean, hoping that this will make it impossible for others to see what he has written. I don’t know what is more ridiculous; the lousy reviews, the intellectual cowardice that causes Salaita to take the reviews down instead of owning them and standing by them, or the utterly naïve belief that a cached website can be erased and that others won’t be able to find archived versions of the website on the Internet.

More from Professor Bernstein, who read the Tablet piece quoted above, and who starts off the following excerpt by quoting from it:

“Hillel and other Jewish civic organizations render themselves distinctly responsible for Israel’s violence by proclaiming themselves guardians of the state’s consciousness,” he writes. “Moreover, they perform a nonconsensual appropriation of all Jewish people into the service of state policies that render the culture indefensible along with the state policies that are said to arise from the culture. It is never a good idea, even through the trope of strategic essentialism, to link an ethnic group to a military apparatus. Such a move automatically justifies discourses—in this case anti-Semitic ones—that should never be justifiable.”

But don’t worry, I’ve discovered that earlier in the same book,  he tell us that “I want to be clear that I am not blaming anti-Semitism on Jews.”  That’s a relief, because I thought if Jewish culture had rendered itself indefensible because of Jewish organizations’ ties to Israel, and that justifies anti-Semitic discourse, he might actually be blaming Jews for he anti-Semitism. So I’m glad he cleared that up in advance.

Despite the academic gobbleygook, Salaita has nevertheless persuaded me of the underlying logic of his position. As a result, because he is a Palestinian-American who has defended Hamas, I hereby, among other things, hold Salaita distinctly responsible for Hamas’s terrorist violence, violence against gays, suppression of women, execution of suspects without due process, corruption, use of human shields, and so on and so forth by proclaiming himself guardian of Hamas’s consciousness. Or  at least I would if I had any idea of what being guardian of a non-sentinent organization’s consciousness could possibly mean. Moreover, Salaita’s identification with Palestinian nationalism justifies discourses that should never be justified. Not that I’m blaming Salaita for those discourses, of course.

As the kids say, “ooh, burn!” Be sure to read all the way to the end of Professor Bernstein’s post, where he notes that Salaita identifies the “oppressors” of Palestinians as “the Jews.”

Not “the Israelis.” Not “the Zionists.” Not “the Netanyahu government.” “[T]he Jews.” And they say that Steven Salaita isn’t an anti-Semite.