Academic Freedom and Anti-Racism

By Dr. Melanie J. Newton

As a Black faculty member at the University of Toronto who is outraged by the University administration’s actions in the Law School scandal, I was glad to read Masha Gessen’s recent analysis of it in the New Yorker. Most of it is excellent, highlighting core issues of human rights, donor influence and academic freedom that make this scandal so complicated and important. The more I thought about it, though, the more discomfited I became. My discomfort, I think, has everything to do with race.


I ask that we pause and reflect on the invisible ink in these lines: “The most notorious case [of the Palestinian exception] is that of the former English professor Steven Salaita, whose offer of a tenure-track appointment at the University of Illinois was rescinded after he wrote a series of tweets about Israel’s policies in Gaza. (The university later paid eight hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars to settle two lawsuits by Salaita.) Salaita’s tweets included profanity and most problematically**, comparisons between Israeli and Nazi policies. By contrast, the positions that apparently led the University of Toronto to withdraw its offer to Azarova were expressed not in tweets but in peer-reviewed scholarly publications.”


Obviously, there are connections between these two situations but why bring up the Salaita case to contrast it with Azarova’s? Why is Salaita’s language framed as ‘problematic’ and his case ‘notorious’? Who (pun intended) gives a shit that he swore?


I’m not going to rehash the Steven Salaita case. However, I want to highlight the fact that Gessen chooses to educate readers about Azarova’s case by contrasting her with a scholar who is (a) a person of colour and (b) lost his job offer for tweeting about the coloniality of the Palestine-Israel relationship in language that pro-Israel groups didn’t like. Salaita did not advocate violence or illegality in his tweets, yet the words “most problematically” in Gessen’s essay actually lead readers directly to a 2014 article in a right-wing, pro-Israel publication that quotes Salaita out of context and describes his tweets as “hateful”. Gessen doesn’t mention that Salaita’s “profanity” laden tweets made a comparison that Palestinians have made before, and there is no mention of the fact that Salaita is himself of Palestinian descent.


Gessen seems to distinguish between Azarova and Salaita because Azarova’s critiques of Israel were in a more respectable context (her peer-reviewed scholarship) and didn’t include any polemic or emotive language. Gessen mentions that Salaita was awarded more than $800,000 in compensation. They don’t mention that the scandal ruined his career or that, at least for a time, he had to take a job as a bus driver. They frame his language as ‘problematic’, with no discussion of who finds it so. I am pretty sure that there are other Palestinians, in Palestine and (like Salaita) in its diaspora, who do not.


When I read those lines as a member of the Black diaspora, I see all sorts of sinister parallels. I see powerful white people firing football quarterbacks for taking the knee on the football pitch to the U.S. national anthem. I see them making sure that, even after other white people ‘see the light’ and start taking the knee as well, that quarterback’s career is ruined forever. I see Black women in the U.S. who speak at public rallies about ‘taking the capitol’ being disciplined by white people who try to equate their critiques of authoritarianism with comments made by white supremacists who use the same language.

Gessen’s article, for all its good points, may read very differently to an audience of Palestinians who, unlike Azarova, are more likely to express their feelings about their dispossession in language that white people don’t like. Azarova, is a white scholar who used the ‘right’ channels and respectable language for her critique. Salaita, even though he eventually got compensation, used Twitter. Bringing him up in an influential publication like the New Yorker, in contrast to Azarova, reminds Palestinians, especially those in western academia, that there is a very limited space allowed them to critique Israel. They can only do so in the temperate language that white elites have decided is acceptable. The more their critiques reflect their experience, their anger and their efforts to get others to draw lessons from history about the systemic violence Palestinians are facing, the less acceptable those critiques are. They need to talk like white people if they want to be heard.

I am neither suggesting nor assuming that any of this messaging was intentional on Gessen’s part. However, in the article, and some of the uncritically positive responses to it, I see the same problems that are at the heart of how we got to this terrible place at U of T. This crisis is about Palestinians, yes, but it is also about race and white privilege. I can’t speak for all Black people but I feel confident saying that a lot of Black intellectuals signed a letter asking Michaëlle Jean to respect the censure precisely because they see that connection. Some people no doubt signed because they identify professionally with Azarova… but I suspect more people signed because they identify personally with Palestinians.


Academic freedom should defend even the most indecorous critiques of human rights violations, especially when they are coming from members of dispossessed communities who are themselves the targets of those human rights violations. The kinds of connections that Salaita drew are the very ones that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism does not want people to feel safe making. The supporters of IHRA want people to see such critiques as anti-Semitic rather than structural critiques of an occupying, racist state. They want people to be afraid of associating with Palestinians who speak up in their own defense with indecorous words.


The speech of the dispossessed stings and is polemical usually because others who do not live that dispossession have yet to catch up with reality. As a Black Caribbean person coming of age in the early 1990s, I often heard Black activists explain the continuities of authoritarianism and racism between slavery, European imperialism, Jim Crow, the Holocaust, apartheid and the occupation of Palestinians. South African anti-apartheid activists made these comparisons during apartheid. Kashmiri activists and Indigenous residential school survivors in Canada have made them about the Indian and Canadian states. Such comparisons center the lived experiences of the violated, not the identity of the perpetrators. The reference to Salaita in Masha Gessen’s article delegitimises and frames such perspectives, which are unlikely to find their way into the pages of the New Yorker, as marginal.


A fulsome defense of academic freedom needs to be committed explicitly to the kind of academic community that protects, not just human rights scholarship in support of Palestinians, but actual Palestinians as colleagues and students. This, ultimately, should be the core of the struggle for academic freedom at the University of Toronto.


Melanie J. Newton
Associate Professor of History
University of Toronto

**To support their discussion of Salaita, Gessen’s article links to a publication of The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), an American non-profit pro-Israel media-monitoring, research and membership organization. The source cannot be considered credible, and the linked article has several of Salaita’s quotes taken completely out of context. I have thus opted not to reproduce the link here.