Holocaust scholar cancels prestigious Illinois lecture over Steven Salaita firing

Todd Presner (via UCLA)

A prominent Holocaust scholar has canceled a prestigious lecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in protest over the firing of Professor Steven Salaita.

Professor Todd Samuel Presner, the director of Jewish studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), wrote to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise to tell her he would not visit the campus as long as she was in charge.

His letter, dated 28 March and addressed to Wise and UIUC trustees, was publicly released today (full text and a PDF copy are below).

Presner had been scheduled to deliver the 2014-15 Rosenthal Lecture, titled “A Message in a Bottle: Holocaust Testimony and the Jewish Future,” on 27 April.

He said a workshop also planned during his visit would not be canceled, but would be moved off campus and he would not accept any funding or payment from UIUC.

Silencing dissent

“I have thought long and hard about whether I should join with thousands of colleagues in an academic boycott of UIUC due to your actions in the Steven Salaita case,” Presner wrote, noting that “sixteen departments have passed votes of ‘no confidence’ in your administration and others expressed ‘grave concerns’ about what they see to be ‘the abrogation of shared governance’ and ‘the right to free speech.’”

Presner said he would not second guess the decision of the American Indian Studies faculty to hire Salaita as they were the ones qualified to evaluate his scholarship, nor defend the tweets criticizing Israel over which he was fired.

“At the same time,” Presner wrote, “I also believe that we need to thoughtfully and honestly confront the complex and violent reality that spawned these speech acts (and many others, on both sides). That’s a tall order when the silencing of dissent at all levels of public and private discourse is ever‐more prevalent and particularly when that silencing comes from the very places that are meant to protect it.”

Presner criticized Wise’s infamous claim that Salaita lacked “civility” and said that a “far more chilling” message came from the disregard Wise and the university trustees showed for the opinions of faculty, shared governance and the recommendations of the university’s own Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

“To deliver the Rosenthal lecture at UIUC while you are at the helm of this institution would be to condone your actions and the leadership of your office and Board,” Presner wrote. “It would essentially mean that it is acceptable to carry on with business as normal. I will not do that.”

Jewish ethical tradition

Presner also wrote about the ethical values that informed his decision: “As a scholar of the Holocaust, I am particularly attuned to the horror of anti-Semitism and the return of fascism throughout Europe and the world. My research on the Holocaust is deeply connected to the Jewish ethical tradition, linking memory with the possibility of building a more just future.”

Presner’s action follows other high profile cancelations of speeches at UIUC, including by Princeton professor and noted public intellectual Cornel West, and Brandeis University law professor Anita Hill.

Salaita has sued university trustees, administrators and donors over his firing last August as he was about to take up a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program.

Todd Samuel Presner’s Letter

28 March 2015

Dear Chancellor Wise and Members of the Board of Trustees,

In December of 2013, I was invited by Professor Matti Bunzl, then Director of the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois, to deliver the 2014-15 Rosenthal Lecture in Jewish Studies and also to present a second research project at UIUC’s Jewish Studies Workshop. As the Director of UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and a professor of German-Jewish studies, I enthusiastically accepted the honor. I planned to deliver two talks at the end of April at UIUC: The first, the Rosenthal lecture, was called “A Message in a Bottle: Holocaust Testimony and the Jewish Future.” It looks at a unique trove of letters and messages that were literally buried in bottles during the Holocaust to ask what it means to write to the future from the standpoint of present annihilation. The second, a workshop, was called “The Ethics of the Algorithm: Close and Distant Listening to the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.” Using methods from the digital humanities to analyze the entirety of the archive’s database, the project asks where questions of ethics are to be found in algorithms, information systems, and data structures. As a scholar of the Holocaust, I am particularly attuned to the horror of anti-Semitism and the return of fascism throughout Europe and the world. My research on the Holocaust is deeply connected to the Jewish ethical tradition, linking memory with the possibility of building a more just future.

I have thought long and hard about whether I should join with thousands of colleagues in an academic boycott of UIUC due to your actions in the Steven Salaita case. At UIUC, sixteen departments have passed votes of “no confidence” in your administration and others expressed “grave concerns” about what they see to be “the abrogation of shared governance” and “the right to free speech.” I have followed closely the details of Salaita’s complaint posted on the Center for Constitutional Rights’ website, the university’s motion to dismiss, the report of UIUC’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and your unwillingness to respond to the investigation by the UIUC AAUP Chapter Policy Committee on Academic Freedom and Shared Governance, which concludes that you have “violated [the] principles of shared governance and of academic freedom, both in procedure and in substance.” What standards and values could be more central to the entire enterprise of higher education?

I am writing to let you know that I have decided to cancel my Rosenthal lecture in Jewish Studies at UIUC out of protest but that I will still come to Urbana-Champaign in April to meet with faculty, staff, and students. I will not accept any payment, including honoraria, from the university, nor meet on campus or make use of any campus facilities. But rather than unilaterally boycotting UIUC, I will come to Urbana Champaign – with my own funding – to meet with faculty and students as well as to give my promised workshop in Jewish Studies off campus. To use the words of Professor Susan Koshy at UIUC, I believe that academic boycotts are “a blunt instrument,” levelling punishment in an undifferentiated way at an institution. Although they may, indeed, have exerted some pressure on your administration, the boycotts have also prevented some critical conversations from happening and possible, new coalitions from forming.

Let me provide you with a bit more about my reasoning in arriving at this position. Your faculty, who are experts in the field, selected Salaita for a position in your American Indian Studies Program. I respect their judgment, and since I was not asked to evaluate his scholarship, I will not do so here. As you know, much has been written, on all sides, interpreting, justifying, condemning, and explaining the tweets that Salaita sent during the Israel-Gaza conflict this past summer. I neither defend his tweets nor do I offer an assessment of his scholarship, which was vetted by your faculty members, the hiring committee, and outside peer reviewers. While I vigilantly defend freedom of expression and the special protections afforded unpopular speech, I will not defend anti-Semitic remarks or racism of any kind. I’ve read passionate indictments of Salaita’s tweets and also passionate defenses. The same goes for his scholarship. I want to be unequivocally clear about my own position: I condemn anti-Semitic speech and also recognize his right to express his views. At the same time, I also believe that we need to thoughtfully and honestly confront the complex and violent reality that spawned these speech acts (and many others, on both sides). That’s a tall order when the silencing of dissent at all levels of public and private discourse is evermore prevalent and particularly when that silencing comes from the very places that are meant to protect it.

The reason that I have decided not to give the 2015 Rosenthal lecture has to do with the way that your office – together with your Board – circumvented the principles of faculty governance, rejected the process of academic peer review, and ignored every level of faculty and decanal jurisdiction beneath the Chancellor’s office. Besides your insistence on “civility” as the dubious touchstone for all academic discourse, the other – far more chilling – message that you sent was this: The faculty members in the American Indian Studies Program, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, UIUC’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and all the existing procedures and practices of shared governance no longer apply in UIUC’s new “state of exception.”

Without consulting UIUC’s scholarly community, your office and Board now decide what constitutes appropriate scholarship and speech on campus. I am deeply disturbed by this precedent and fear that faculty governance at UIUC has been undermined. To be sure, public institutions like UIUC (and UCLA, for that matter) must be responsive to the diverse communities they serve. This includes listening to voices outside of the formal levels of shared academic governance including students, alumni, elected officials, taxpayers, and philanthropic partners. But until now, these voices have always been and should properly remain advisory to the academic experts – the faculty – of the university.

To deliver the Rosenthal lecture at UIUC while you are at the helm of this institution would be to condone your actions and the leadership of your office and Board. It would essentially mean that it is acceptable to carry on with business as normal. I will not do that. At the same time, I do not agree with punishing your faculty and students. As such, I will come to Urbana-Champaign on my own to give my workshop and meet with faculty, staff, and student leaders to formulate ways that we can work together to preserve the principles of shared governance and academic freedom while also engaging with the broader public and our donor communities for the common good. I also hope that we can discuss ways that the Jewish tradition actually enables productive dissent and how we can responsibly support freedom of speech without spiraling toward anti-Semitism or unilateral boycotts (whether of institutions or of whole countries).

By way of concluding, I would like to draw your attention to some of the most “uncivil” speech acts in the history of Judaism, ones that certainly wouldn’t be tolerated at UIUC because they are, among other reasons, disrespectful to those in power, critical of injustice, and downright uncivil. You will find them in the Hebrew Bible, and they go by the name of the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, and Hosea. They spoke very harshly and used some of the most critical language imaginable to condemn violence and critique avarice, injustice, nationalism, and war. They have their modern incarnations, too, such as Heinrich Heine, not to mention civil rights leaders such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Cornel West, and Anita Hill, of whom the last two, I understand, recently declined invitations to speak at your institution. What these figures have in common is an unimpeachable commitment to ethics and justice. They speak truth to power and pay the price for doing so.

Chancellor Wise, I fear that you have done significant harm to UIUC. I will close by reminding you of another tradition within Judaism: the notion of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, or making whole again that which has been smashed. I remain hopeful.

Very sincerely,

Todd Samuel Presner

Sady and Ludwig Kahn Director, UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies Chair, Digital Humanities Program
Professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature
University of California Los Angeles

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.