Jewish Profs at UW Feud Over Salaita Speech

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University of Washington Professor, Michael Rosenthal said he was “appalled” to learn of the upcoming lecture by controversial academic Steven Salaita.  The statement was published in an online letter on the UW-centric blog “The Ave”. Salaita has become a poster child for academic freedom after the University of Illinois rescinded a job offer in response to a series of anti-Israel and what some have deemed to be anti-Semitic Tweets and comments.  

Prof. Michael Rosenthal. "offensive speech directed against Jews is acceptable to some people on campus"

Prof. Michael Rosenthal. “Offensive speech directed against Jews is acceptable to some people on campus”

Rosenthal, who is Professor and  Chair of the Department of Philosophy at UW and a member of the Stroum Jewish Studies Program, made clear his conviction that “academic freedom is a central value for universities and that it is important to stand up for it.” But, adds Rosenthal “I do not see how this excuses [Salaita’s] use of language that many (especially Jews and myself among them) find deeply offensive.”

In his letter addressed to Professor Rob Wood, the UW chair of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Rosenthal explains his objection…

“[Salaita’s] use of well-known tropes of anti-Semitic discourse to express his anger—for instance, his claim reminiscent of the blood libel that “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” [Salaita tweet,  July 19, 2014]—contributes to a climate in which Jews around the world are blamed for the actions of the Israeli government.  Murderous attacks against innocent Jews in a synagogue in Copenhagen, a supermarket in Paris, or in the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle have all been justified in the same way.”

Lamenting the double standard practiced by many members of the American left, Rosenthal notes “It seems easy for many people to see the difficulty here in the case of speech that many liberals find offensive, such as invective directed against racial and sexual minorities.  I cannot imagine any academic unit on campus sponsoring the talk of a professor who lost his job due to the use of hateful speech directed against these minorities.  It seems that the case of offensive speech directed against Jews is different and is acceptable to some people on campus.”

It seems that the case of offensive speech directed against Jews is different and is acceptable to some people on campus.

Steven Salaita. "Zionists are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit".

Steven Salaita. “Zionists are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit”.

The AAUP has justified the sponsorship of the Salaita lecture as a principled defense of free speech. Rosenthal questions the sincerity of this assertion. “Let’s not pretend that this is a matter of principle.  If it were, then the AAUP would be sponsoring talks by every academic who has been accused of or disciplined for using speech that is racist, homophobic, or sexist, etc.  I don’t see that happening.”

Professor Rosenthal narrows down the motivations of the AAUP sponsorship of the Salaita lecture to two possibilities. “The only plausible explanations are either that the UW-Chapter of the AAUP believes that hateful speech directed against Jews is acceptable or that it supports the political causes that Mr. Salaita advocates.  The first explanation is deplorable.  The second is problematic because I do not see the purpose of the AAUP as supporting a partisan political agenda related to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.”

Either the UW-Chapter of the AAUP believes that hateful speech directed against Jews is acceptable or it supports the political causes that Mr. Salaita advocates.

Prof. Steven Schwartz. "Israel deserves a good reprimand".

Prof. Steven Schwartz. Israel “may well deserve the kind of strong talk we are likely to hear from Steven Salaita”.

Steven Schwartz, Professor of Pathology and Director of the Cardiovascular Pathology Training Program at the University of Washington, differs with his colleague, saying “I could not disagree with Professor Rosenthal more.” Schwartz complains that Salaita was denied a position at the University of Illinois because University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise “was afraid of reaction that should be guaranteed to every American under the First Amendment.”

Schwartz, who self describes as a member of the Israel critical left wing group Peace Now, is certainly consistent in his support of free speech for all, along with other political links his website features an image of a swastika along with a hyperlink to the American Nazi Party.

Without addressing Salaita’s prior inflammatory comments, Schwartz advises “If Professor Salaita does go too far in his speech, then Professor Rosenthal, as well as I, have the right to speak out or walk out.” Schwartz notes that Israel deserves a good reprimand for electing Benjamin Netanyahu and Salaita may be just the right man to deliver it. Says Schwartz…

“Professor Rosenthal’s message also comes at a time when the Israelis have greatly endangered the future of Israel by electing a Netanyahu led coalition of extremists more than a few of whom sadly may well deserve the kind of strong talk we are likely to hear from Steven Salaita .”

Rosenthal on the other hand explains that standing up for academic freedom does not oblige one to support hate speech.  “I do not think that standing up for academic freedom requires us to ignore the content of the speech that it protects. It is one thing to support Mr. Salaita’s grievance against the University of Illinois, it is entirely another to give him a forum, on the supposed grounds of academic freedom, to defend the content of his offensive speech.”

Schwartz says he will be using his blog “The Ave” to publicize and promote attendance at the Salaita lecture.

Steven Salaita wil be speaking at the University of Washington, Gowen 301 at 6:00 pm on Monday, April 6th.

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