Brushing aside bigotry: Steven Salaita, Corbyn and Eisen

Steven Salaita is an American academic who hit the headlines last year when the Univerity of Illinois withdrew a job offer following a series of controversial tweets from Salaita in response to Operation Protective Edge.  He has argued that this step breached both his First Amendment rights and contract law.  A recent ruling has determined that his civil lawsuit can proceed to trial.

The technical, contract law aspect of the ruling seems fair enough.  The argument that Salaita’s speech is constitutionally protected may also have validity – although I wonder whether those backing Salaita would also back Matusitz.

But it is frustrating that so much coverage of the Salaita case fails to inform readers exactly why people reacted so strongly to his tweets.  The problem is repeatedly framed as one of mere incivility.

[T]he judge suggested that the First Amendment protects such comments made by public university faculty — even if the comments might not be viewed as demonstrating civility.

Even when the article goes into some detail about the legal complexities of the case we still don’t learn what Salaita actually said.

Referring to Salaita’s social media profile, Leinenweber added, “The contents were certainly a matter of public concern, and the topic of Israeli-Palestinian relations often brings passionate emotions to the surface. Under these circumstances, it would be nearly impossible to separate the tone of tweets on this issue with the content and views they express.”

And in this post we are just told of ‘often acerbic and biting tweets critical of the state of Israel’.

Electronic Intifada explains that

Phyllis Wise [the University Chancellor] had notoriously tried to justify the dismissal of Salaita by claiming that the problem was not the political content of his tweets but that the way he expressed himself lacked “civility.”

Here the free speech issue is glossed thus:

And he also had a free-speech claim, since his tweets were clearly protected by the First Amendment, despite their sometimes angry and vulgar language

This is the conclusion of the same article

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories, remains a hot political issue, and the court’s decision represents an important rebuke to those who attempt to silence opposition voices on U.S. campuses. (See “Charging Anti-Semitism to Squelch Dissent.”)

The inclusion of that final link strongly implies that anyone who found Salaita’s tweets objectionable was dishonest or hypersensitive.

Here, though not in the post itself but in the comments, there is, finally, some information about just what triggered this controversy in the first place.  Hal Ginsberg’s comment is measured but damning:

It is unfortunate that Professor Robin continues to champion Salaita, who may not be an anti-semite, but who has deliberately given aid and comfort to anti-semites and, therefore, whom the University of Illinois rightly terminated.

Salaita tweets:

“Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime. #Gaza”

“Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine”

“There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel’s aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.”

Ginsberg also links to a post he wrote last September; here he explains at greater length why, even though he sometimes thinks accusations of antisemitism are unfounded, he finds Salaita’s tweets so problematic.

Here’s another tweet, posted shortly after the abduction of the three Israeli  teenagers last year, later found murdered of course.

You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.

The limits to – and consequences of – freedom of speech in different contexts are questions reasonable people may puzzle over and disagree about. But, as Cathy Young points out here, what’s particularly troubling about the Salaita case is the way it reflects double standards at work:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which focuses on civil liberties in academia, has spoken in Salaita’s support and is consistent in defending even highly objectionable speech in academia. But it is likely that many of his supporters would have been far less sympathetic if his inflammatory remarks had targeted a different group. Would they defend a far-right professor who had written that he wished more black teenagers would get killed by police, or that feminists were transforming misogyny into something honorable?

This observation could be mapped on to responses to yesterday’s report about Jeremy Corbyn’s dealings with Paul Eisen.  It’s understandable that people might want a little more information about these allegations. The Daily Mail is hardly neutral on this issue – and does like to soup things up :

As Jeremy Corbyn mounts an audacious attempt to seize control of both his party and the country

Tony Greenstein says Paul Eisen’s report shouldn’t be trusted, and notes that Jeremy Corbyn supported the expulsion of Holocaust deniers from the PSC.  Tim Fenton complains that the Mail’s story is weak, but elements in his own argument are weaker.  It’s fair enough to want some independent confirmation of some of the details of the story, but Fenton takes a belt and braces approach and takes issue, not just with the allegations of a close link between the two men, but with the criticism of Eisen himself.

Sadly, all that the Mail has is Eisen’s own account, for which they can find no corroboration – not even from Corbyn himself. The story is not helped by the headline claim “Eisen’s group is seen as so extreme thatit was disowned by the mainstream Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in 2007” actually being “In 2007, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign proposed a motion disowning Eisen’s group”. And there’s more.

Here – if I’ve understood the thrust of the paragraph correctly – he seems to be trying to downplay the awfulness of Eisen by pointing out that the PSC did not unequivocally disown Deir Yassin Remembered. The PSC’s response to DYR’s anti-Zionist opponents was rather messy and grudging at that point, but for once the Daily Mail headline wasn’t too overegged.

Corbyn’s supporters accuse the Mail of smearing him and remind readers of its support for Hitler.  Identifying the Mail’s editorial line eighty years ago doesn’t help establish how much truth there is in these recent claims. It’s reasonable to cast doubt on Eisen’s reliability but also reasonable to ask whether the response from Corbyn’s office is fully satisfactory, and whether (to go back to Cathy Young’s point) his supporters would respond a little differently to allegations which didn’t focus on antisemitism.