Appeasing Zionists is the only lesson the University of Illinois will ever learn

Appeasing Zionists is the only lesson the University of Illinois will ever learn
6 min read
09 Oct, 2017
Comment: The university of Illinois is constitutionally incapable of supporting real anti-racism, doing so would undermine its devotion to the ruling class, writes Steven Salaita.
'Chancellor Robert J. Jones banishes the essential things that constitute Palestinians', writes Salaita. [Wikimedia commons]
Palestinians aren't welcome at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign [UIUC]. If this judgment sounds too harsh and thus ridiculous on its face, I ask you to consider the evidence.

Let's leave aside the university's infamous hiring foibles, which are enough to justify any skepticism. UIUC, after all, once gave me a job and then spent millions of dollars to keep me away from campus. And I'm only half Palestinian.

There's also the matter of donors who attach more strings than a banjo repairman, pro-Israel organisations in Chicago who have a direct line to the governor (and to a tough-talking pushover in the mayor's office), an Israeli consulate whose mandate includes harassing student-activists, and a local business leadership adamant that UIUC maintain political respectability (read: fidelity to capitalism). Their presence at UIUC occupies the space where Palestine might otherwise dwell.

Earlier this month, UIUC reaffirmed its disdain for Palestinians. The disdain arrived in a message sent out by chancellor Robert J. Jones to assure everybody that the university doesn't like racism. Said Jones:

All of us at the University of Illinois are concerned about the growing national instances of intolerance, especially on college campuses. Painted swastikas, chalked epithets on sidewalks, KKK costumes and anti-Semitic attacks hidden under the guise of anti-Zionist rhetoric are all too common. 

Members of our Jewish, African American and Latino/a and many other residents of our diverse community find themselves asking whether they are welcome and safe here. The answer to that - whether in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, or any place in this country - must be a clear and resounding: "Yes, you are."

UIUC essentially declared that Palestinians are to make themselves invisible

Certain things in the passage jump out: The absence of evidence for some serious claims; a compulsion to talk a lot without doing anything; and an inconsistent use of the Oxford comma. If anybody wants a reason to be skeptical of liberal multiculturalism, the search needn't go beyond this whimsical exercise in frivolity. 

Jones isn't being entirely frivolous, though: His message affirms the comfort of a largely white community (American Jews) by positioning it as victim of a multiethnic coalition that views the Palestinians as worthy of equality.

Jones' slavish tone indicates that his statement was influenced by Zionist pressure, and possibly even vetted by one of the pro-Israel groups to which UIUC is beholden. (Of course, by this point the fealty could simply be an impulse.) In fact, casting aspersions on the anti-Zionist movement may be its actual purpose. 

Read more: : Isolating radicals: America's new academic blacklisting

As with any managerial narrative about Palestine, we must understand what the message implies and whom it deems worthy of institutional protection.

Jones banishes the essential things that constitute Palestinians - a disdain of military occupation, a long and resilient history, a vivid and sometimes acrimonious politics, a strong and unambiguous identity, a deep sense of loss and mourning, a beautiful tradition of dance and embroidery and storytelling and architecture and poetry - and replaces them with the irritable shrieking of settler anxiety. 

UIUC essentially declared that Palestinians are to make themselves invisible. Their presence runs afoul of the institutional effort to assure that Zionists (in no way equivalent to "Jewish students") can extol settler colonisation without the inconvenience of sanction or resistance. The statement reinforces Israel's mythic self-image as enlightened. 

Worst of all, it exalts Zionism, an ethnocratic movement enjoying the unconditional support of the US government

Worst of all, it exalts Zionism, an ethnocratic movement enjoying the unconditional support of the US government, as an embattled underdog, thereby demeaning the truly courageous and ethical activism undertaken by students of colour (long suppressed, incidentally, by the same university now branding itself as a saviour of the downtrodden).

You can't be Palestinian at UIUC. To people from Palestine who aspire to inhabit the most basic elements of their personhood, that's the sum of the chancellor's message.  The university prioritizes Zionism. And Zionism's priority is to erase Palestinians. It doesn't require a degree in logic to see the problem.

Reread the conflation of Nazism and anti-Zionism. Does UIUC sound like a place eager to host Palestinians? 

This problem isn't isolated. Natives can only exist at UIUC in racist caricature. The university recently suffered an exodus of American Indian Studies faculty. An art installation by Edgar Heap of Birds, "Beyond the Mascot," was repeatedly vandalised.

The local newspaper continues to antagonise Natives. UIUC leaders are too busy humouring the hideous Chief Illiniwek mascot to address the underlying problems. 

Natives can only exist at UIUC in racist caricature

It's no accident that the chancellor's message ignores Natives and Palestinians despite the visible antipathy both communities suffer. In this environment, the failure to mention Muslims as an aggrieved group is likewise troublesome. 

The university is constitutionally incapable of supporting real anti-racism; doing so would undermine its devotion to the happiness of the ruling class. In UIUC's defense, plenty of other universities suffer the same deficiency. 

Upper administrators around the country regularly juxtapose anti-Zionism with white racism, or suggest an alliance between the two. If one researches the Palestine solidarity movement - BDS, say, or Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP] - it's clear that no such connection exists. 

In contrast, one will find ample evidence of the community abhorring white supremacy and swiftly distancing itself from any attempt at appropriation by reactionary forces. 

Palestine solidarity is involved in every meaningful racial justice initiative in the United States, from Black Lives Matter to sanctuary cities. 

Any relationship between the alt-right and anti-Zionism, as led by Palestinians, is an invention. Alleging an affiliation, formal or informal, is inaccurate and, given the dangers to which Arabs and Muslims are currently subject, profoundly irresponsible.  

Indeed, one of the groups in this drama ought to be questioned about shady relationships, and it's not Palestinians. Alt-right leaders have been known to compare their project to Zionism. 

If we measure Palestinians by political commitments, or merely by cultural practices, US campuses are spaces of great hostility. Upper administrators, awash in phony humanistic discourses, are often the most hostile actors, especially when they pretend to care about students. (They always justify political witch hunts by feigning concern for students.) 

How else, anyway, can we measure Palestinians (or any other group)? What is a people without its land? Can anybody survive a prohibition on national identity? How can a community endure the indignity of constantly being negated? These questions now dominate Palestinian life on campus. 

Equating a desire for equal rights to neo-Nazism is an effort to punish Palestinians for attempting to exist. Unfortunately for opportunistic university administrators, despite centuries of effort nobody has yet been able to lie a colonised people out of existence.

Steven Salaita is an American scholar, author and public speaker. His latest book is Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom

Follow him on Twitter:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.