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An Open Letter to Rabbi Ira Youdovin

Rabbi Ira Youdovin

We have exchanged views frequently in the last few years, most often by way of adversary comments written in reaction to posts published on this website. I write now a post in the form of an ‘open letter’ because I think your most recent comment objecting to my support for Steven Salaita in his campaign to have his tenure faculty appointment reinstated in the American Indian Studies Department at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois.

Phyllis Wise, the Chancellor, now with the formal approval of the Board of Trustees, refused to forward the appointment to Board, because of private tweets highly critical of Israel that she relied upon for making a unilateral decision that Salaita would be a disruptive presence on campus and that someone holding such strong views would likely make Jewish students in courses he offered uncomfortable. She later clarified her decision as prompted by the realization that the Board under pressure from university donors would have rejected the appointment in any event and admitted that she should have consulted further before reaching her decision. I indicated my view that not only should Salaita be reinstated, but also he deserved a formal apology from the chancellor and reimbursement for damages sustained, including to his academic reputation.
 
Our most fundamental disagreement is exhibited by the opening sentences of your comment responding to my earlier post suggesting that the dehiring of Salaita amounted to an assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression. You start your comment this way: “The Salaita case is not about free speech. It’s about hate speech. The examples of Salaita’s comments cited by Prof. Falk constitute a carefully collected and unrepresentative sample of the dozens on record.” You go on to choose tweets that you find more offensive than those contained in my post:
 
“More typical of his “body of work” are:

“Fuck you, Israel. And while I’m at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi –
“The IDF spokesperson is a lying motherfucker.”
“If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”
“If Netanyahu appeared on TV wearing a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised?”
 
Actually, the last of your examples was among those that I included in my post, but this is a minor quibble. My real disagreement centers on your insistence that the Salaita case “is not about free speech. It’s about hate speech.” There is no doubt that these tweets are instances of extreme invective, making use of profane language, but are they properly construed as ‘hate speech’? I would hope not. These tweets, which were not expressed in the language of the dinner table or polite parlor conversation, are directed at Israel, not Jews as a people or Jews as individuals. Israel is a state. The state is an abstraction. You cannot hate an abstraction except as a language trope. If I shout “I hate the color brown” or “fuck all brown cars” it would be absurd to consider this kind of emotive language as hate speech. The same distinction should hold in speech on matters of political opinion.
 
It is here where the essential controversy between us lies. Israel’s first defenders seek to make everyone feel that Israel as a self-proclaimed Jewish state is, in effect, the personification of the Jewish people, and that using profane language of criticism about the state amounts to hate speech. Such efforts to personify the state are themselves destructive of democratic discourse, and do impact upon academic freedom as well as muddy the waters as to the character of anti-Semitism. To be angry at a state may reveal an intemperate personality, perhaps even extreme alienation, but by itself has not ventured into the forbidden domain of hate. And many of us, including Steven Salaita, draw a sharp line separating our attitudes toward Israel as a state and the Jewish people as a people.
 
Let us choose a clear example to highlight the point. To hate Nazi Germany became not only an accepted attitude, but surely the politically correct position during and after World War II. To extend that hate, however, to the German people crosses the dangerous line, and to treat a particular German as automatically of Nazi persuasion would similarly be hateful. There has been useful debate as to what extent the German people went along with Hitler’s Nazi program, especially occasioned by Daniel Goldhagen’s challenge directed at the claim that ordinary Germans were unawares of the fate befalling the Jewish people. [See his Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997)].
 
I recall my own experience in North Vietnam in June 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War, when person after person, whether a peasant in the countryside or a high official in Hanoi, told me that they hated the American government but had positive feelings toward the American people. They attributed this sentiment to the teaching of Ho Chi Minh, the revered Communist leader of their national movement, but it was said with such heartfelt sincerity by the people I met in Vietnam as to make me aware of the deficiencies of American political culture that routinely conflates an enemy state with the citizenry of the country. Such a lethal confusion may reflect the survival of racialism, and be one of the continuing costs imposed by the terrible heritage of slavery, which was also accentuated by the genocidal treatment of the indigenous population of North America by the early generations of settler colonialists. The Zionist conflation works in the opposite direction, insisting that those who challenge Israel beyond a certain moderate point are racists, a species of anti-Semite, however much they protest against the derogatory label.
 
More to the point, expressing anger toward Israel seems well within the protected boundaries of free speech, and so the only reasonable question is one of tone, including the use of profanity to express such anger, and its relevance to academic performance. As Salaita himself explained, his tweets were mainly written in the context of the recent Israeli massacre of Palestinian civilians, including over 500 children, during a period of acute frustration undoubtedly heightened by the sense that his own government here in the United States was mindlessly supportive of what Israel was doing to a vulnerable and entrapped civilian population.
 
It is also relevant to know whether the tweets should be taken as an ominous indicator of how Salaita would behave in the classroom and within the university community. On the basis of abundant testimony from colleagues and former students, as well as Salaita own very clearly articulated views, there is every reason to be confident that he would welcome and treat fairly diverse viewpoints with respect and sensitivity, including those supportive of Israel’s behavior. It is also is helpful to know that in the course of his six published books on a variety of topics involving the abuses experienced by marginalized peoples, including Palestinians, there is no hint of racism or indulgence in hate speech as an acceptable response. Quite the contrary, there is a rejection of all forms of profiling whether of the oppressor or the oppressed.
 
Of course, an accusation of hate speech in the context of criticizing Israel has as its objecting the implication that the speaker is guilty of genuine anti-Semitism. As I have tried to argue in a recent post [Sept. 1, 2014], Zionist propaganda seeks to merge anti-Israelism, denominated as a form of racial bigotry, with anti-Semitism as hatred of Jews and the Jewish people. The widespread deliberate use of this technique by organized Zionist forces in the United States is convincingly documented in The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), 125-225 by Ali Abunimah. It forms part of the wider Israeli effort to defend a rising tide of anti-Israeli student activism on American university campuses, and more broadly what Israeli think tanks call ‘the delegitimation project’ associated with such initiatives as the BDS campaign.
 
I found your gratuitous swipe at the Palestinian quest for national heroes particularly nasty and unjustified. You make this strange assertion: “The Palestinians and their supporters are woefully short on heroes. The five most often mentioned—Arafat, Saladin, Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King are dead. Moreover, three weren’t Arabs and only one was a Palestinian.”
 
I have been around Palestinians for a long time and I find this statement out of touch. Aside from Arafat, who is controversial even among Palestinians, and Mandela, who is invoked quite often as an inspirational figure, the other three are only rarely, if at all, mentioned. Much more appreciated as heroes by Palestinians is Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, and to a lesser extent, Jimmy Carter, both of whom are very much alive and remain engaged. Most surprisingly your list omits Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, both Palestinians and by far the most influential members of the Palestinian pantheon of heroes, and among the most eloquent of anti-colonial resistance voices who have ever set foot on planet earth.
 
Yes, Steven Salaita is a casualty of the long struggle to achieve Palestinian rights, and a victim of what I have called Zionist McCarthyism, but hopefully never a martyr to the cause. When you mock his passion with the demeaning words, “what kind of honest discussion could emerge from his obscene adolescent ranting?” Rabbi Youdovin, Salaita was certainly not seeking ‘honest discussion’ by sending these tweets to friends and followers, but expressing his righteous disgust about what was happening to the people of a shared ethnicity, and what you dismiss as “obscene adolescent ranting” others, including myself, hear as screams of pain and anguish. There are times and places for honest discussion, and there are times and places for screams of pain and anguish.
 
If we yearn for a world more dedicated to peace and justice, and more focused on human survival, we all need to learn to listen with our hearts as well as our heads. I find that both modes of communication have their role, and we harm our civic life as a country if we reject the relevance of screams of discontent and insist that only reasoned discourse has value.

Sincerely,
Richard Falk


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