Politics ‘O Politics: Salaita, Abdulhadi, and the Myth of Objectivity

Palestinian scholars Steven Salaita and Rabab Abdulhadi have been subjected to anti-Palestinian racism of the fiercest kind, principally fueled (and funded) by Zionist organizations and their news outlets in the United States and Israel. It is a racism shrouded in the various guises of protecting the “safety of Jewish people” in higher education, exposing anti-Semitism, and safeguarding “taxpayer dollars.”

Others–Corey Robin, David Polumbo-Liu, the Center for Constitutional Rights–have documented the specific and repeatedly proven false and misleading the allegations made of Salaita and Abdulhadi by groups including AMCHA and individuals including Cary Nelson. I won’t repeat what they have already outlined so well. For those unfamiliar with the situations, I recommend following the links above.

For now, I want to think about the way that the attacks of Salaita and Abdulhadi have pretended that there is such a thing as a politics-free zone in “the academy” that is the sole purview of Zionists when it comes to talking about Israel and Palestine. In this zone, all research, writing, and expression is free of political and cultural bias. It is where authentic scholarship and debate takes place and this scholarship and debate is objective, rational, and progressive.

Outside the zone is where the rest of us live. Like the cannibals in John Hillcoats’ 2009 film “The Road,” we wander in search of human flesh, having given up on our own humanity with the humanity of others. We are doomed to our racist (anti-Semitic) and uninformed politics, spewing vitriolic hate speech and historical inaccuracies at one another. Blinded by our biases, we are doomed to irrationality and barbarity and apparently the misuse of “taxpayer dollars” to support it.

For instance, in a July 23 email to just about every congressional representative in California and SFSU/CSU administrator, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin of AMCHA alleges that Abdulhadi should be investigated for the

potential misuse of more than $7,000 of state university funds for a trip to the Middle East, which Abudulhadi (sic.) described as ‘a political solidarity tour’ to promote the academic boycott of Israel, and which included meetings with members of US State Department-designated terrorist organizations.

Benjamin/AMCHA then asks:

Is a self-described “political solidarity trip” to promote the academic boycott of Israel, which itself has been declared as contrary to the values of the university by Chancellor White and hundreds of other University leaders, consistent with the educational mission of the California State University and a legitimate use of taxpayer funds? 

In an August 6 article for Higher Education, Scott Jaschik quotes Cary Nelson, “a longtime English professor at Illinois and a past president of the American Association of University Professors,” on the UIUC’s firing of Salaita:

“I think the chancellor made the right decision,” he said via email. “I know of no other senior faculty member tweeting such venomous statements — and certainly not in such an obsessively driven way. There are scores of over-the-top Salaita tweets. I also do not know of another search committee that had to confront a case where the subject matter of academic publications overlaps with a loathsome and foul-mouthed presence in social media. I doubt if the search committee felt equipped to deal with the implications for the campus and its students. I’m glad the chancellor did what had to be done.” (See Nelson’s strained response to his critics here.)

In both of these instances, the presumption is that Salaita and Abdulhadi have contaminated the sacred space of “the academy” by infusing their anti-Israeli terrorist agendas and “loathsome” social media presence into it.

I am not interested in flipping the zones around–where “we” are the objective ones and “they” are the irrational ones. Neither am I going to argue that what we do is not political and therefore legitimate. All that either of these arguments do is reinforce the truth of the binaries between objectivity and irrationality.

Rather, I am interested in thinking about the pretense that what Benjamin/AMCHA and Nelson/Higher Education are arguing is not political, even apolitical, and therefore legitimate, and that what Salaita and Abdulhadi offer is politically aggressive and therefore illegitimate, even dangerous to the very foundations of academic integrity.

I participated on the delegation with Abdulhadi on which Benjamin claims that Abdulhadi misused university funding (“taxpayer dollars”) to promote a political agenda against Israel and Jews. Her only evidence of this is the fact that we met with individuals and organizations that she/AMCHA does not like or agree with and that we have not made secret our support of PACBI and USACBI.

If you have been following even the broad strokes of The Intercept‘s reporting, then you know that there are deep political and legal issues swirling around the “US State Department-designated terrorist organizations” not merely in Palestine but also in Palestine and around the world. As reported by Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux on July 23, there are hundreds of thousands of organizations and individuals on various U.S. government watchlists and how they got there is covered up in political secrecy and double-speak. (Remember, even Nelson Mandela was on the US list of terrorists as late as 2008.)

As I have written elsewhere, it is ridiculous for Benjamin/AMCHA to suggest that by the mere fact of meeting with someone, you are endorsing their political viewpoint. Over the 14-day delegation in January, we met with 198 individuals from 89 organizations and visited 21 cities, towns, and refugee camps including university officials, human rights organizations, the Palestinian Parliament, Christian and Muslim leaders, and artists. If by the mere fact of meeting with any one of them meant that we endorsed or adopted their politics, it would make for some incredibly conflicted and contradictory positions on our part. Because I can assure you, not all of these organizations and individuals agree with each other. Our intent of meeting with them was to ensure that we heard from all sides of the debates about Palestine. Not merely the ones that made us comfortable. In the parlance of academic integrity that Benjamin/AMCHA speak, isn’t that the point of doing good research?


But in the world according to Benjamin/AMCHA and Nelson/Higher Education, only if you by default exclude those critical of Israel are you doing legitimate, objective, and rational research worthy of university funding and support. In that world, Salaita, Abdulhadi, and others involved in PACBI and USACBI are censored and defunded and fired. Cause only in a world where Palestinians and their allies have no voice, no jobs, and no future can Israel thrive as a legitimate democratic state.

The most disturbing in all of this is that UIUC condoned the anti-Palestinian censor and repression of Zionist politics by firing Salaita. As the CCR argued so well in their statement, that condoning is an egregious violation of Salaita’s constitutional rights. It is the situation Benjamin/AMCHA work towards for Abdulhadi and anyone else who dares to question Israel’s policies and practices and the U.S. financial and political support of them. Even in the face of the genocide and dispossession of Palestinians in Gaza.

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