Academic civility and its discontents

Young people carry signs in support of free speech, academic freedom and reinstatement of Steven Salaita

The outcome of the ongoing battle at Illinois will set a precedent for university communities across the country. (Jeffrey Putney/Flickr)

The charge of incivility has invariably functioned since the nineteenth century and through the present as a form of racial and class denouncement, both in Western Europe and the United States. Indeed, it has been a white European and Euro-American, mostly Protestant, accusation leveled at East European Jews, the Ostjuden, for what anti-Semitic epistemology has always regarded as their “vulgarity.” Even assimilated German Jews, and their American descendants, would be held in its grips, telling jokes about the failure of Jewish assimilation in Western Europe and in the US, when at certain moments of distress the Jewish performance of civility fails and reverts to an un-Protestant Jewish “vulgarity” that anti-Semites love to denounce and ridicule.

In his important 1974 book The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity, John Cuddihy historicizes the coming to being of this anti-Semitic value and trait. Cuddihy demonstrates how assimilating the Ostjuden has often centered on their acquisition of European and Euro-American Protestant civility as a trait that would be key to their entry into modern civilized European society. Surrendering their vulgarity, the Ostjuden were told, would be the price they have to pay to become part of European and Euro-American Christian civility. This would become a charge that Jewish converts to Protestantism and assimilated German Jews would continuously level at their unassimilated co-religionists, including in New York, where German-American Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century invented the epithet “kyke” to describe East European Jews.

The charge of incivility was not effective only because assimilated German Jews and converts insisted on imposing it on East European Jews but primarily because European Protestant anti-Semites had imposed it on both groups as a modern value without which, they were told, all Jews would remain relics of the past.

A similar situation exists today with some of the assimilated Arab- and Muslim- Americans, including those who are half-white and carry Arabic or Muslim patronyms, who often charge unassimilated Arab- and Muslim-Americans, especially those who come from the Arab and Muslim worlds and were not born in the United States, with incivility, indeed with an ignorance, or worse, a refusal to learn the civil and hence civilized language of Euro-Americans, which some of the assimilated American Muslims and Arabs have learned very well.

The charge of incivility against Steven Salaita was recently responded to in this precise vein. Palestinian-American professor Beshara Doumani, while expressing concern about the violation of Salaita’s academic freedom, felt it necessary to declare at a public forum he organized at Brown University last month that Salaita’s tweets are “of the kind that I personally would never tweet.”

Indeed, ever since the campaign that sought to deny me academic freedom at Columbia University started with the official acquiescence of the university administration in October 2004, some of my own Arab-American colleagues at Columbia showed and continue to show similar concerns about my vulgar Arab “incivility” and “immoderation” (which is how they describe my extramural defense of the colonized Palestinians and my attacks on anti-Palestinian colonial racism in my journalistic articles and public lectures) compared to my Arab-American colleagues’ own mastery of these key white Protestant traits.

It is these traits, which enabled the Columbia University administration to parade some of my Arab-American colleagues as “good Palestinians” as opposed to the “bad Palestinian” that I seem to constitute. In contrast, it was some of my liberal Jewish colleagues who gave me their unequivocal support and showed no discernible concern about the question of “civility.”

The non-official campaign against me had in fact started in June 2002, three months before the establishment of Campus Watch, when Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer began to publish articles targeting me and calling for my dismissal from Columbia and escalated to include then Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner’s public call in October 2004 on Columbia to fire me.

Civility and policing

The charge of incivility in an academic setting is hardly new and goes back at least to the 1960s student movement. Since the late 1970s, and during the 1980s, Edward Said was subjected to it and to related charges — rage, anger, immoderation, extremism; indeed one attacker dubbed him “Professor of terror.” Dangerous as these charges were, they were made before the neoliberal order had been fully established, before the 11 September 2001 attacks, before the many “Gulf wars,” before Islam and Arabs were declared as the primary, if not the only real, enemy to the American way of life, including its increasingly much touted value of white Protestant “civility.” This is why Columbia University defended Said then against these and later charges.

But times have changed. In today’s neoliberal climate where US President Barack Obama is putting the final touches on the dismantlement of the welfare state, and continuing the country’s war against various Muslim enemies, increased repression inside the United States has become a necessity. This has not only been carried out through legislations like the Patriot Act and legal and illegal police surveillance, but also through the much more thorough militarization of police forces across the country. As peaceful demonstrators against economic ills and poverty have been deemed “not non-violent” demonstrators, this has required a whole new mindset of how to crack down on them.

But as the militarized police has been deployed to take care of these “not non-violent” dissidents, it cannot do so as easily with dissidents inside the walls of the academy. This is where “incivility” comes in as a primary policing mechanism of dissident academics. Achieving this, however, would not be easy in a university culture that values academic freedom and freedom of opinion. A weak link in the chain of academic freedom had to be found, one around which people could more easily mobilize — one that could set a precedent. Enter the Question of the Palestinians and Israel.

The Question of Palestine and suppressing dissent

Since 1948, there has been a solid consensus across the different branches of American elite opinion in the US on Israel, accompanied by broad public support. Whereas dissent from this consensus always existed, it was confined to marginalized political groupings and individuals — and in the case of the latter if the individual was not already marginalized, her or his marginalization would ensue immediately.

In the last ten years, however, dissent on the Question of the Palestinians and Israel has traveled from the margins to mainstream America — to artists, scientists, journalists, academics and students, including prominent Jewish academics and scores of Jewish students. Whereas once Noam Chomsky was the only prominent Jewish academic who dissented on Israel and who was marginalized from mainstream public opinion as punishment for his dissent, today a whole slew of prominent Jewish academics are dissenters, including Ella Shohat, Richard Falk, Joan Scott, Judith Butler, Ann Stoler and many more.

However, the persistent mainstream consensus on Israel is what makes the powers that be convinced that the success of their campaign to suppress dissent in the universities will be more likely if its entry point was the Question of the Palestinians and Israel, whereby they could highlight related questions around which there is consensus, namely the question of anti-Semitism, the history of the Jewish holocaust, and how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

Using the Question of the Palestinians and Israel as the entry point to suppress dissent inside the walls of the academy is both tactical and strategic:

It is tactical because once successful, it would take away key aspects of faculty governance and transfer them to neoliberal university administrations, and would set a precedent and an ensuing chilling effect on other, perhaps even more dangerous, kinds of dissent that command larger public support than do the Palestinians. Let us recall here that the Ford Foundation used the Question of the Palestinians and Israel in 2003 to impose a limitation on its funding until potential grantees signed a statement pledging to oppose “violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state,” a move that, at the time, elicited condemnation from some university provosts including Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Yale and Cornell.

The provosts wrote Ford a letter in April 2004 (six months before the official witch hunt targeting me at Columbia had started) expressing “serious concerns” about the new language, on the grounds that it attempted to “regulate universities’ behavior and speech beyond the scope of the grant.” “It is difficult to see,” they wrote, “how this clause would not run up against the basic principle of protected speech on our campuses.”

Using the Question of the Palestinians and Israel in this manner is also strategic in order to stop the growing tide of academic dissent on Israel, specifically with the question of boycott and divestment affecting neoliberal forms of investment and overall US policy in the Middle East.

The success rate of this plan has been mixed. It was finally partially defeated at Columbia University in 2009 — when I was granted tenure — despite its initial total success, aided as it was by the ideological collusion of the university top brass in this repressive campaign for reasons that were not confined to ideology but were also concerned with the neoliberal corporate expansion of the university. The university was throughout this period campaigning for the necessary political support to annex a large section of upper Manhattan, which it secured before granting me tenure.

It was more successful at DePaul University and more recently at the University of Illinois, both of which deployed the anti-Semitic and racist charge of incivility against an American Jewish professor, Norman Finkelstein, and an Arab-American professor, Salaita, respectively.

The war to control the university rages on; but the forces of repression, which hide behind white Protestant normative civility that they deploy to advance neoliberal control, are sharpening their knives and learning from their past mistakes. In the case of DePaul and Illinois, they are, or, in the case of the latter, may be willing to pay the financial costs for a settlement or even may accept to lose in court — in Salaita’s case, the cost-benefit analysis by the administration at the University of Illinois is clearly not strictly financial in the short term but rather in the long term, wherein they could pay a high sum to Salaita now for the price of transferring faculty governance to the administration and of suppressing dissent once and for all. This is part of the ongoing neoliberalization of the university characterized by the rise of an astronomically paid managerial class, the erosion of tenure and the adjunctification of faculty.

In the best case scenario, even if Salaita sues the University of Illinois, wins the lawsuit, and the University of Illinois pays him a large sum, the University of Illinois will still be the winner while Salaita, faculty governance and dissent will be the losers. Unless the campaign against the University of Illinois is intensified, including a continuation and an expansion of the ongoing boycott, working with the American Association of University Professors to deny the university accreditation based on its suppression of academic freedom and its usurpation of faculty rights, continuing protests by students and faculty at the University of Illinois itself to force it to reinstate Salaita, this battle will be lost and will set a most dangerous precedent for university communities across the country, where administrations would not brook tolerance of that which they deem uncivil, and therefore un-Protestant.

The Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley Nicholas Dirks, who as dean of the faculty at Columbia, had organized the official McCarthyist witch hunt against me before he left to greener pastures (in the process, he co-opted a number of leftist and “post-colonial” academics to assist and defend him in his violation of academic freedom), might have been the first university leader to declare solidarity with the University of Illinois and threaten the uncivil on his new campus with dire consequences, but more are following in his footsteps with little fear.

The war is not lost and there will be many battles to come, but who wins the battle of the University of Illinois could largely determine the war’s outcome.

A version of this article was presented at a Princeton University panel organized by Professor Max Weiss titled “The Salaita Case and Beyond: Academic Freedom, ‘Civility,’ and the Future of the University” on 6 October 2014.

Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. His book Islam in Liberalism is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.




"The Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley Nicholas Dirks, who as dean of the faculty at Columbia, had organized the official McCarthyist witch hunt against me before he left to greener pastures (in the process, he co-opted a number of leftist and “post-colonial” academics to assist and defend him in his violation of academic freedom)"
Not that I am surprised regarding "leftist" imperialists, but still it could be enlightened to know more


Brilliant article! I am now aware of the tactics used to stifle vital info in the academic settings. I hope the essential battle continues! What would you recommend, as the best and most effective way, for people who oppose these repressive tactics to help support Salaita and future Finklesteins? Thank you so much for posting this article!


3rd to last paragraph is important. i finally got around to reading Incite's The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, and it made the point that one of the ways the non-profit industrial complex diffuses dissent is by channelling it into lawsuits--often successful lawsuits that appear to be wins for larger social justice movements.


1. Covering all of Historic Palestine, with guaranteed equal rights for all.
2. Openness toward regional cooperation.
3. Methods for enhancing voluntary cultural autonomy of sub-groups as well as
enhancing inter-group understanding and cooperation.
4.Restitution for all external and internal refugees as well as other civilians substantially (criteria to be determined) harmed by the Israel-Palestine conflict.
5. Plans for substantial and innovative economic development.
6. A n inclusive planning process for future social/economic/holistic future development..
7. Other...

Howard Cort, Political Science MA , SUNY/Albany, is a researcher/activist since before 2000, and he reviewed '"The Battle for Justice in Palestine" in the Tikkun Daily Blog..