A Response to a UW Prof: In Support of Free Speech

Dawg UW AAUPMichael Goldberg

Commenting on a furor avout Steve Salaita speaking next Monday on UW campus

The overarching lesson for me about the Salaita case was how little interested those on either side seemed to be about attempting to move towards a vision of two democratic states peacefully co-existing, a vision that would mean substantial changes in culture and politics on both sides.  Which is to say, an extremely unlikely outcome.  And yet, that is what I have heard to be the goal of many on both sides, at some point in a past that now seems to have largely faded away.  For me, that is still the hope, however dim.   But what I see instead are two sides that are increasingly intolerant of any challenge to their own viewpoint, with tactics that often include intimidation and censorship.  I see strategies that seem to boil down to hoping to gain a victory by creating polarizing policies that will eventually overwhelm the other.


So when you have academics who identify themselves as “strong critics of Israeli policy” calling for Salaita to be “disinvited,” I hope that both sides might take a moment to reconsider just what it is they both want.  Is it to score points about the latest controversy, to be proved right by assembling ever more impressive (and familiar) piles of evidence on one side or the other, or is it to be part of a thoughtful strategy to move towards peaceful, fully democratic co-existence?  If it’s the former, than go to it.  I look forward to another useless round of the same points and counter-points.  If it is the latter, let me suggest an approach for both sides.  The idea of keeping Salaita from speaking seems antithetical to this goal.  But at the same time, I would hope Salaita would take this opportunity to engage, not just condemn and gloat.  I recently read an interview he did with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in which he did the former.  Here is an excerpt:

In June 2014, before Protective Edge started, you twitted, “Hate is such a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred verb when discussing racism, colonization, neoliberalism, sexism, and Israel.” Your critics claim that you confuse free speech with hate speech.

“Let me relate to this specific tweet. Part of it is being ironic, part of it is being provocative, and part of it is making a political statement about my relationship with nation-states in general and with Israel in particular. In the U.S. there is a taboo around proclaiming any sort of hatred for a nation-state, but I actually think that it could be a productive mode of entry into a critical engagement with it. I would never say that I hate Israelis, or that I hate this or that group, but the state itself should be a fair target for this sort of critic.”

Would you say this is productive criticism?

“I agree with you that this is not the kind of statement that’s conducive to a productive conversation … But I do believe that Israel, as well as the U.S., Canada and so many other states that come about in any debate on the history of colonialism, do require profound structural changes. So I guess it would have been more productive to say that I hate Israel as it is currently exists in relation to the Palestinians, and not just ‘I hate Israel.’”

For those who disagree with Salaita, I would hope that this is at least an invitation for discussion.  But for this to happen at his UW talks, I would hope that Salaita would bring the attitude he demonstrated in Haaretz, and not what I find in some of his tweets and public comments, and in much of his scholarship.  For example, I personally find his book Israel’s Dead Soul to be largely an insightful critique of Israel’s nation-building story, but one that is also greatly flawed by overstatement and the ignoring of clear factual evidence that would complicate his arguments.  It’s an easy book to find fault with and thus reject entirely, rather than seriously engage with (starting with the title).  It also seems to take delight in demonizing and ridiculing even the most progressive Jewish Zionists, who may be far less likely to seriously engage Salaita’s arguments because of his approach.  That is, it’s a book intended to find support among post-colonialist and cultural studies academics and pro-BDS supporters, but not intended to do anything beyond that.  So here’s my last hope: that Salaita’s talks will be an opportunity not for point-scoring but for thoughtful engagement, because while many on each side may think they will “win” by bludgeoning the other side to the point where they will concede, can those with a true understanding of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis really imagine that happening?

I mean, I can hope, right?

Michael Goldberg


0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Roger Rabbit #

    As a non-academic who occasionally dabbles in political polemics, I think clear distinctions between academics and politics, and knowledge-seeking and activism, should be maintained. Academic pursuits should be honest, objective, and built on foundations of facts and logic. Activism and advocacy can be whatever you want them to be. But the two should not be mixed or confused.

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