(April 21, 2016 / JNS) By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
To understand the significance of the newly announced legal challenge against the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, we need to go back around 18 months.
It has been that long since the anti-Zionist fanatic Steven Salaita left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign under a cloud. Salaita, who teaches American Studies, departed the school following a bitter struggle that resulted in an offer of a tenured professorship being retracted.
His supporters claimed, as is their habit, that Salaita was being punished for his support of the Palestinians. A more detached reading of the case suggests that Salaita was denied tenure because of a series of bizarre Twitter rants in which he stated, inter alia, that anyone who defends Israel is “hopelessly brainwashed,” that Zionism had made anti-Semitism “honorable,” and that if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to don a “necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children,” nobody would be surprised.
The Salaita affair was a salutary reminder of just how low standards at American universities have fallen. Salaita was simply one more example of how anti-Zionist advocates abuse academic departments by masking their eliminationist agendas under the cover of “academic” research.
This trend is, of course, hardly new. But what is new, relatively speaking, is the existence of social media platforms in which the true character of folks like Salaita is revealed in their own words. After all, Salaita is not the only academic to have advocated for Israel’s destruction from the safety of a computer in his study. More recently, Joy Karega, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College, has drawn fire for postings that make even Salaita look sensible, blaming Israel for the 9/11 and Charlie Hebdoatrocities, and accusing—in classic anti-Semitic fashion—the Jewish Rothschild banking dynasty of engineering every financial crisis since the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. (No, I’m not making that up.)
All things considered, though, Salaita did pretty well out of the University of Illinois scandal. After he filed a lawsuit, the university agreed to pay him $875,000 in an out-of-court settlement. He was also appointed to a position at the American University of Beirut (AUB), arriving in Lebanon about a year ago.
You might think that would be that. But no. This month, AUB announced that it was severing ties with Salaita, and that he would consequently not be appointed as director of its Center for American Studies and Research. Predictably, his supporters again began railing that AUB “is reproducing the trend of persecuting scholars who condemn the injustices committed in Palestine.”
One of Salaita’s closest collaborators, Corey Robin of Brooklyn College, even compared the ditching of Salaita to the “purging” of “leftist scholars” from American academia during the Cold War. If you’re wondering whether Robin is similarly outraged by the banishment of Soviet dissidents into gulags during the same period, don’t hold your breath; the Soviet Union was “progressive,” you see.
Could it really be the case that AUB is getting rid of faculty because of their support for the Palestinian cause? Remember, this is a university with a virulently anti-Zionist tradition that goes back decades. In 1955, for example, AUB hosted the American Jewish anti-Zionist activist Alfred Lilienthal, a man regarded as a crackpot at home but feted as a reliable and obedient Jew in the Arab world. Fast forward to 2013 and you will discover that one of AUB’s celebrated guest lecturers was Richard Falk, a former U.N. envoy for Palestinian rights who has openly praised terrorism against Israel, among other offenses.
So the notion that the AUB has somehow been penetrated by “Zionists,” and that this is what led to Salaita’s ejection, is laughable and fanciful. According to Fadlo Khuri, AUB’s president, Salaita’s supporters had manufactured “a malicious distortion of the facts involved in this case.” Khuri then explained that the bid to appoint Salaita to a permanent position was riddled with procedural irregularities, such as the “conflict implied by the current incumbent chairing a committee to find their own successor.”
Here we get to the heart of the matter, whether in America or in Lebanon. We know very well that anti-Zionist academics exist in a self-sustaining world of conspiracy theories and outlandish interpretations of history, and that when challenged, their stock-in-trade response is to cry “Persecution!”
Less understood is that this kind of self-righteousness leads naturally to procedural violations of the sort described by Khuri. We and only we are right, their logic goes, and therefore we are morally justified in ignoring the rules that apply to ordinary mortals.
What AUB’s decision over Salaita represents, therefore, is a recognition that this tactic can no longer be tolerated. And here in America, the American Studies Association (ASA) may be about to learn a similar lesson.
Back in 2013, the ASA became the first major faculty association to pass a resolution favoring an academic boycott of Israel. Salaita, not coincidentally, was a prime mover of this resolution, which illegally discriminates against Israelis on the basis of their national origin.
Now, four distinguished professors who are members of the ASA have filed a lawsuit against the organization. A press release from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which combats campus anti-Semitism, pointed out that “the lawsuit alleges ASA is in violation of the D.C. Non-Profit Corporation Act, which requires that an organization operate only within the provisions of its charter. Under D.C. law, the charter is a contract intended to protect members from those who seek to co-opt a non-profit for purposes outside the boundaries of its charter.”
Boycotting Israel is clearly outside those boundaries. The charter of the ASA restricts its activities to the universe of American Studies, which like any other discipline requires academic freedom—and not bigoted, self-imposed academic restraints—in order to flourish.
A successful legal campaign against the ASA boycott will likely rebound onto the other faculty associations that have endorsed this insidious campaign. The boycotters will repeat over and over again that such action encroaches upon their First Amendment rights. Like every single one of their assertions, this too is a lie.
Nobody is questioning their right to preach this coarse and hateful discourse. Implementation of their political program, however, is a vastly different story, as it involves active discrimination and requires civic organizations to ditch their own charters. Now that they’ve figured that out in Beirut, university administrations and faculty associations here in America have no excuse not to do the same.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).