Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.
More than a year ago, Brooklyn College made news because its department of political science sponsored what amounted to a rally for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. So faculty members there have had a long time to reflect on the question of whether academic departments should sponsor anti-Israel activism. The philosophy department of Brooklyn College, presumably using the tools acquired in the course of many years of philosophic training and practice, recently delivered an answer: absolutely!
Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy at BC, has described the arguments that won over his colleagues. First, the event would be good for students. They’d get to hear a “debate” about academic freedom and other issues raised by the Salaita case. Salaita, after all, did not have the stage to himself, but shared it “with a law professor” and a moderator, a “political theorist” (who also teaches Constitutional Law).”
Chopra does not mention that the “law professor” in question, Katherine Franke, is a boycott advocate, a leader in the effort to reinstate Salaita, and an adviser to Salaita’s legal team. The political theorist and “moderator,” Corey Robin, has “turned his blog into a Salaita war room.” One Salaita advocate adds that “we’ve all looked to him as a central source of information about new developments.” That advocate’s name, by the way, is Katherine Franke. I am sure the debate over who loved whom more got heated.
Say what you want about Students for Justice in Palestine. At least they forthrightly admitted that students were being invited to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.” It’s not strange that the SJP, which is engaged in a propaganda campaign against Israel, would try to draw as many people as possible to an event that would further their delegitimization efforts. But it’s remarkable—and suggests that their department possesses not only philosophical acumen but also pedagogical creativity—that the philosophers of Brooklyn College saw SJP’s event as a great learning opportunity, worthy of support.
Just in case his colleagues, being professional philosophers, were not floored by his first argument, Chopra made another. He “analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion of a reading on a class syllabus.” Now I am a long way from my philosophy degree. But although I was not surprised when a professor had us read excerpts from Mein Kampf in our class on Western Civilization, I would have been surprised had I learned that he voted to sponsor a panel of neo-Nazis. Yet the philosophers voted with Chopra. Perhaps they deferred to him because—drum roll please—he began his academic career as a logician.
In many academic free speech cases, we defend the principle and distance ourselves from the speaker. You would think that even those who believe Salaita’s speech was not grounds for withdrawing his job offer would take this stance about a man who said, in response to news of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” especially in the face of evidence that this statement was not an outlier.
But Salaita’s sponsors, including the trained philosophers of Brooklyn College, aren’t distancing themselves. They’re holding Salaita close, quite as if they like what the man has to say.