The New York Times Blog Publishes Shoddy Defense of Steven Salaita

Under the false pretense of providing an informed discussion of the University of Illinois’ withdrawal of an offer to Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita, the New York Times’ Opinionator Blog published a deceptive and error-filled brief for Salaita. University of Massachusetts professor Joseph Levine, the author, flunks the most basic elements of scholarship. He conceals the most damning tweets sent by Salaita, presents terrorist claims about this summer’s Israel-Hamas war as “facts” and misrepresents statistics from a United Nations damage assessment report.

In his Dec. 14, 2014 Opinionator blog item, Did Salaita Cross Line of ‘Civility’, Prof. Levine purports to be looking into the circumstances of Salaita’s case. The initial appearance of dispassionate scrutiny quickly gives way to an obvious political agenda.

Levine claims that Salaita was denied a tenured teaching position because “of some strongly worded tweets he published regarding Israel’s attack on Gaza this summer.” Levine specifically cites as the “tweet in question” what Salaita wrote on July 8, 2014

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.

It is disingenuous that the only tweet he reproduces was the most benign of a series of bigoted tweets made by Salaita. In fact, this one is not even mentioned in the explanation provided by the university’s chancellor.
The Chicago Tribune reported some examples of Salaita’s other tweets:

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

“Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”

Then there is the one posted by Salaita in June after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered:

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

Salaita retweeted from an account name Free Palestine what could be interpreted as a personal threat, complaining that a story by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg “should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.”

Levine resorts to shoddy scholarly practice; for “the university’s explanation for its actions” he links to an article on the case in The Chicago Tribune rather than to the published statement by the university chancellor that is readily available on-line. That raises the question as to whether Levine even read the chancellor’s statement or simply relied on secondary sources.

In a letter to the faculty published Aug. 22, 2014, Chancellor Phyllis Wise stated that

the decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy… What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them…

[A reproduction of the full statement issued by Chancellor Wise is provided at the end of this article.]

Levine’s failure to fully and accurately convey the substance of Chancellor Wise’s statement reflects more than just carelessness. He has an obvious anti-Israel political agenda that is also evidenced by his recitation of misleading statistics about the Gaza conflict during the summer of 2014. He writes,

By the time a cease-fire went into effect in late August, according to the United Nations, more than 2,100 Palestinians had been killed, over two-thirds of them civilians, among whom almost 500 were children; 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, 20,000 homes were destroyed, and 500,000 people over all were displaced.

The claim that two-thirds of the fatalities were civilians comes from the Hamas-dominated Gazan Health Ministry. An analysis by CAMERA based on published reports from Palestinian media revealed that the majority of those killed were young men between the ages of 17 and 29. Such an age demographic casts considerable doubt on the claim that such a large portion of the fatalities were civilians caught up in indiscriminate attacks. More recently, the Meir Amit Terrorism and Information Center investigated the identities of 1,165 fatalities and was able to connect 52% of the fatalities to militant groups. Was Levine uninformed about conflicting casualty claims or did he simply choose to place complete trust in figures provided by a ministry acting on behalf of a terrorist organization?

His claim that 20,000 homes were destroyed and 500,000 people were displaced is an incomplete and deceptive recitation of statistics from reports issued in September by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Occupied Palestinian Territory [OCHA] and by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA]. The OCHA report puts the number of displaced after the conclusion of the fighting at 110,000. It claims that during the fighting over 200,000 were temporarily displaced and another 200,000 chose to evacuate their homes and stay with relatives. But the vast majority of these returned to their homes once the fighting subsided. Similarly, Levine incompletely reproduces the statistics on damage to homes. The report states that 18,000 were “destroyed or severely damaged.”

Prof. Levine also asserts that “the vastly disproportionate violence visited on the trapped and totally vulnerable Gaza residents renders the Israeli claim that its forces acted in justifiable self-defense completely unreasonable.” Consistent with his unscholarly approach, he makes no effort to investigate the charge that Israel’s response was vastly disproportionate. Nor does he define what that term means. Contrary t
o Levine’s implication, proportionality in war has nothing to do with the relative number of casualties on the two sides or to the damage inflicted. Rather it refers to the military value of a target (how much of an impact would the target’s destruction have on the outcome of a battle or war) versus the expected threat to the lives or property of civilians. If the target has high military value, then it can be attacked even if it seems there will be some civilian casualties in doing so. Article 51 of Protocol 1 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1977 discusses this topic in more detail.

Levine fails to note that Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired 4,500 rockets at Israeli communities, a war crime by any measure. He also makes no mention of the tunnels dug by Hamas to infiltrate terrorists into Israel using thousands of tons of cement that was provided to the Gaza Strip for the purpose of rebuilding its civilian structures. Levine’s selective omissions and distorted recitations of statistics on the conflict expose him as a polemicist and not a scholar. That such polemics are necessary to defend Salaita indicates that the university was correct in barring him from its faculty.


Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s full statement:

As you may be aware, Vice President Christophe Pierre and I wrote to Prof. Steven Salaita on Aug. 1, informing him of the university’s decision not to recommend further action by the Board of Trustees concerning his potential appointment to the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Since this decision, many of you have expressed your concern about its potential impact on academic freedom. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that all of us – my administration, the university administration and I – absolutely are committed to this bedrock principle. I began my career as a scientist challenging accepted ideas and pre-conceived notions, and I have continued during my career to invite and encourage such debates in all aspects of university life.

A pre-eminent university must always be a home for difficult discussions and for the teaching of diverse ideas. One of our core missions is to welcome and encourage differing perspectives. Robust – and even intense and provocative – debate and disagreement are deeply valued and critical to the success of our university.

As a university community, we also are committed to creating a welcoming environment for faculty and students alike to explore the most difficult, contentious and complex issues facing our society today. Our Inclusive Illinois initiative is based on the premise that education is a process that starts with our collective willingness to search for answers together – learning from each other in a respectful way that supports a diversity of worldviews, histories and cultural knowledge.

The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel. Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them. We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner.

A Jewish student, a Palestinian student, or any student of any faith or background must feel confident that personal views can be expressed and that philosophical disagreements with a faculty member can be debated in a civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner. Most important, every student must know that every instructor recognizes and values that student as a human being. If we have lost that, we have lost much more than our standing as a world-class institution of higher education.

As a member of the faculty, I firmly believe that a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois is a tremendous honor and a unique privilege. Tenure also brings with it a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility upon which our university is built.

I am committed to working closely with you to identify how the campus administration can support our collective duty to inspire and facilitate thoughtful consideration of diverse opinions and discourse on challenging issues.

Phyllis M. Wise, Chancellor

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