So Much for Academic Freedom at the University of Sydney

by Kevin Jon Heller

There’s been much discussion in the blogosphere about the University of Illinois’ decision to “un-hire” (read: fire) a Palestinian-American scholar who resigned a tenured position at Virginia Tech to join its faculty, a decision motivated by a series of anti-Zionist (but not anti-Semitic) tweets that made the University’s wealthy donors uncomfortable. But the rightful revulsion at Illinois’ decision (more than 5,000 academics, including me, have agreed to boycott the University until Steven Salaita’s offer of a tenured position is honoured) shouldn’t obscure the fact that Illinois is far from the only university that does not take academic freedom seriously.

Case in point:  the University of Sydney’s distressing decision — abetted by one of its faculty members — to “un-invite” Sri Lankan NGOs from an international conference on the enforcement of human rights in the Asia-Pacific because of pressure from the Sri Lankan military. Here’s a snippet of the Guardian‘s story, which deserves to be read in full:

The University of Sydney has withdrawn invitations for two Sri Lankan human rights organisations to an international conference at the request of the Sri Lankan military, angering campaigners.

The university is due to host a two-day event in Bangkok from Monday along with the University of Colombo, which will see delegates from around the world discuss the enhancement of human rights in the Asia Pacific region.

Delegations from the Sri Lankan military and the Sri Lankan police are expected to attend the conference. Leaked correspondence, seen by Guardian Australia, shows that these delegations had originally requested that all non-government organisations (NGOs) from Sri Lanka be uninvited, and organisers subsequently rescinded two invitations.

The civil war in Sri Lanka, in which up to 100,000 people were killed, ended in 2009. The Rajapaksa regime stands accused of war crimes for its brutal suppression of civilians in the north of the country, with both sides subject to a UN human rights council inquiry into alleged war crimes.

Australia was one of 12 countries to abstain in a UN vote for the investigation.

Guardian Australia has also seen a letter discussing the reasons for rescinding the invitations to the two NGOs sent by the conference’s director, University of Sydney associate professor Danielle Celermajer.

“With about 130 people from across the region confirmed from the conference, it would be a disaster for all members of the Sri Lankan forces, who have been at the heart of the project, to withdraw,” it states.

As the article’s reference to the UN vote indicates, Tony “Difficult Things Happen” Abbott’s administration has proven to be one of the murderous Sri Lankan government’s staunchest allies. But that’s a right-wing government for you; no surprise there. It’s absolutely appalling, though, that a major Australian university cares so little about academic freedom that it would allow the Sri Lankan military to dictate who can attend a conference it sponsors — a conference about the enforcement of human rights in the region.

Dr. Celermajer says it would be a “disaster” for the academic conference if the Sri Lankan military didn’t attend. You know what an actual disaster is? The Sri Lankan military’s systematic violation of the human rights of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans — the very acts that make the conference in question so necessary.

I guess it’s more important to discuss human-rights violations among the perpetrators than among those who work to end the violations. Shameful.

NOTE: You can find the powerful open letter the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice sent to participants in the conference — ironically entitled “Enhancing Human Rights and Security in the Asia Pacific” — here. Key line: “By allowing the Sri Lankan Army to dictate who can or cannot attend, the organisers of this conference are, in effect… potentially making themselves complicit in the Sri Lankan government’s systematic attempts to suppress dissent and intimidate critical voices within civil society, and to legitimize that policy internationally. “

13 Responses

  1. For several years I have decried the absence of “political opinion” from the list of forms of impermissible discrimination that U.S. universities typically publicize. We know that human rights law includes “political opinion” in lists of impermissible forms of distinction or discrimination, but the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools would not include “political opinion” in their lists re: review and approval of U.S. law schools.

  2. One of Salaita’s books is titled “Israel’s Dead Soul”. Seems to me obvious that Israel has a much livelier soul than Salaita’s word-clogged prose.

  3. Well! I said something derogatory about Professor Salaita’s writing. What makes me so dogmatic? Here is an excerpt: Chapter 1 of his book Israel’s Dead Soul.

    It’s Israel Awareness Week. He visits the multicultural student office at Virginia Tech, sizes up the decor and declares he doesn’t understand “why the promotion of Israel would be housed in an office devoted at least nominally to intercultural understanding and the elimination of racism… My goal in this chapter is to use systemic cultural and political analysis to make some sense of these phenomena, particularly the ways that Israel and Jewish culture are conflated to varying ends with varying levels of sincerity.”

    Salaita is arguing in a circle. If his analysis is to be of any value he must first determine WHETHER the symbols of Israel are racist BEFORE he “can make some sense of these phenomena.” Read the rest if you want.

  4. Ed,

    I appreciate your making the case against Salaita’s firing so effectively. As you point out, there is nothing new about Salaita’s tweets; he was a harsh critic of Zionism long before he was offered the position at Illinois. Yet every level of the University other than the Trustees, who were always a rubber stamp — including Chancellor Wise, who admitted yesterday she initially approved Salaita’s appointment — approved making Salaita an offer. The fact that the University was stricken by buyer’s remorse after wealthy donors put pressure on it is no justification whatsoever for denying Salaita the tenured position he was offered, accepted, and relied on.

  5. Kevin, you claim that the Univ “already knew about” his anti-Jewish feelings when they hired him. Actually, we all know that decisions on hiring are often not done in response to all the facts. It could very well be that until his offensive and racist beliefs were made known the school did not realize the depth of his dislike for jewish folk. Admit it, sometimes hiring decisions are based on connections, self-interest or personal friendships. Happens in business and academia all the time. But this fake academic – (yes saying jewish culture has “sincerity problems” is a sign of racism and intellectual bankruptness) did not deserve the position and the Univ was correct in having “buyer’s remorse.” I certainly would not want someone like this teaching my children; would you?

  6. First, it is simply false to say that Salaita is racist. He is anti-Zionist, which is not the same thing. It is only possible to conclude he is racist or anti-Semitic by reading a few tweets out of context — which is precisely what his attackers hoped the University would do. (And it obviously works, because people are still making uninformed comments like yours.) I note you provide no link to a statement by Salaita that Jewish culture has “sincerity problems”; that’s not surprising, given that he has never said anything of the sort.

    Second, good luck arguing that his appointment with tenure was approved at every level of the university, including by the same Chancellor who later changed her mind, because of connections or self-interest (?) or personal friendships. Moreover, even if that was the case, it’s beside the point — that doesn’t justify firing him 11 months after the offer was made and accepted.

    Third, since you are not surprisingly commenting anonymously, I have no idea whether you are more qualified to judge his scholarly credentials than the department that wanted to hire him and the presses and journals that have published him. I’m guessing not. Your metric of scholarly merit seems to be “do I like the things he’s saying?”

    Fourth, the time for Illinois to have buyer’s remorse was before they offered and he accepted the position and quit his tenured position at VT in reliance on the University’s offer. If they can’t be bothered to do their due diligence (and there is no indication they did not; the buyer’s remorse is the result of the concerted campaign to malign him as an anti-Semite and pressure by wealthy pro-Israel donors), they have no one but themselves to blame.

    Fifth, and finally, I would be delighted to have my children taught by him. He has nearly a decade of teaching evaluations at VT, not exactly a left-wing bastion, and they have been absolutely stellar. Not a single student has ever complained about him making them uncomfortable, much less saying anything racist:

  7. There are a lot of non sequiturs in the first chapters of Salaita’s book, linked to above. Here are a few:

    “It is not Israel’s enemies but its advocates who juxtapose Israeli citizenship and Jewish identity.” (p.16, top) — In some cases, not in all. Consider the Agudists. Or secular people.

    “Hillel’s depoliticization of Israel’s colonial mandate facilitates its marketing strategy.” (p. 19) — Israel has no “colonial mandate”. The claim of a right to build settlements in the West Bank is based on the prior document controlling Palestine, i.e. the Mandate, which existed BEFORE Israel. (Does Salaita know this?) Israel’s origin was not “colonial”. The Jews in Mandatory Palestine were governed by Britain, just as the Arabs were; the Jews were not agents of the Brits.

    Israel “prevents an indigenous population from accessing even the most basic rights of citizenship.” (p. 22) No it doesn’t; Israeli Arabs have in fact far more in the way of rights than their brethren outside of Israel and equal legal rights to Jewish Israelis. Nor are they always indigenous; in 1947 many Palestinians were recent illegal immigrants.

    “The very notion of birthright … is profoundly unjust and has repeatedly caused bloodshed in Palestine, a devastating variety caused by settler
    colonization …” (p. 22) The birthright is based on parenthood, not race. Would Salaita be ready to say that everything in the law based on parenthood is
    “profoundly unjust”? I don’t think so.

    “Hillel and other Jewish civic organizations render themselves distinctly responsible for Israel’s violence by proclaiming themselves guardians of the
    state’s consciousness.” (p.23) No, all Hillel does (by Salaita’s account) is market Israel to college students as a fun place. Who are the “guardians” of any state’s consciousness? I conjecture that Salaita thinks of people like himself as guardians of Palestinian consciousness, but no one has to accept his say-so.

    Salaita’s argument in these pages can be summarized very briefly: it is fraudulent for Hillel to claim Israel is multicultural, and make Israel and
    Judaism “coterminous”, in view of the oppression of Palestinians. This is of course banal. But the real problem with his presentation is that he doesn’t look
    at history. If you want to understand the present situation of Israel, you have to understand the past. This means examining, say, the Nebi Musa riots. If
    Salaita did consider history, I think he would show more awareness of Palestinian responsibility for the present situation. But it’s much easier to make fun of Hillel festivals, especially when you’re teaching VTI undergraduates. None of Salaita’s pages here shows the slightest awareness of history. The problem is not that he is an not so much an anti-Semite as a
    deliberate ignoramus.

  8. Not surprising that Kevin supports the academic freedom of Palestinian critics of Israel but is conspicuously absent from any defense of the academic freedom of Israeli academics. Or did I miss his post on the Americans Studies Association boycott of Israeli academics?

  9. Michael,

    How exactly is it a violation of academic freedom for academics to voluntarily choose to boycott Israeli universities? Do you really not understand the difference between a voluntary boycott and a state institution firing someone because of his political views? I find that difficult to believe.

    (And note that academic BDS does not target “Israeli academics.” PACBI guidelines, which you might want to read, specifically state that “Mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is… not grounds for applying the boycott.”)

  10. You might also have noticed, if you were more interested in discussion than taking cheap shots, that I have never endorsed academic BDS. On the contrary, my only comment on academic BDS on this blog (or anywhere else) has been that I am “generally wary of academic boycotts.”

  11. “Hey guys” the main point gets lost re: Israel and Palestinians. Is discrimination on the basis of “political opinion” impermissible? Should it be in universities? “Academic freedom”?

  12. As far as I am concerned, QUALITY OF THOUGHT is the deciding issue. Chapter 1 on Salaifa’s book on “Israel’s Dead Soul” is on free public display. So the man has favorable recommendations; hoe did he get them?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. […] For those who haven’t followed, Steven Salaita was to be hired by the University of Illinois, until a series of tweets regarding the recent events in Gaza were invoked in order to rescind the job offer. This has led to a very heated debate online regarding “academic freedom” and its limits/violation. Some justify what can only be called a firing, while a considerable number of academics defend him under the banner of “academic freedom“, including my friend Kevin Jon Heller. […]