Joseph Levine in the New York Times:
The case of Steven Salaita has been hotly debated both in and out of academic circles in the past few months. Salaita is the Palestinian-American professor and scholar whose offer of a tenured teaching position in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was rescinded by the school’s chancellor because of some very strongly worded tweets he published regarding Israel’s attack on Gaza this summer. That attack followed a series of events that had heightened tension between the Israeli government and Hamas, the de facto ruling party in Gaza, culminating in Hamas’s launching rockets into Israel and then Israel’s mounting a huge aerial assault and ground invasion against Gaza. On September 11 of this year, the university’s board of trustees voted to uphold the chancellor’s decision.
While many of Salaita’s critics in the media accused him of anti-Semitism, the main issue seems to be — at least in the language of the university’s explanation of it’s action — whether Salaita’s tweets violated a norm of “civility” that is supposed to govern academic and political dispute (at least within the academy). I am not concerned here with the question of whether or not it was right to rescind the offer; to my mind, it was wrong — a straightforward violation of intellectual and academic freedom. Rather, I want to explore the notion of “civility,” particularly as it relates to one of the controversial tweets.
Here is the tweet in question:
Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014
At that point, Israel had begun intensive bombing of Gaza, and quite a few civilians had been killed, including children. (By the time a cease-fire went into effect in late August, according to the United Nations, more than 2,100 Palestinians had been killed, over two-thirds of them civilians, among whom almost 500 were children; 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, 20,000 homes were destroyed, and 500,000 people over all were displaced. During this period 70 Israelis were killed, 64 of whom were soldiers, and one of whom was a child.) So, was this tweet an illegitimate breach of civility? I believe not in the end, yet I must confess to some initial ambivalence on the question. Here is how I resolved that ambivalence.