a proud, indecorous tradition

I wanted to be sure to share this remarkable letter from Natalie Zernon Davis, an emeritus professor of history from Princeton, in protest of the firing of Steven Salaita for his criticisms of Israeli actions in Gaza. She writes in part,

I write you as an admirer of the remarkable achievements of the historians, literary scholars, and anthropologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I have seen the lively and creative exchange among professors and graduate students close up as an invited guest of the History Department, and cannot believe that you would want to jeopardize this learning experience by the inappropriate and misguided criterion of civility.

I write further as a Jew, growing up in Detroit during the rise of Nazism and the anti-Semitic sermons of Father Coughlin; a Jew committed to that strand in the Jewish sensibility that still places justice and universal values at its heart; committed to the uses of rabbinical and Talmudic debate, which sought truth by language not always decorous; and to the old tradition of Jewish humor, which put laughter and mockery to the service of helping the oppressed.

It is that recognition that we risk losing in situations such as the Salaita affair: that we have debated passionately, even angrily, in the past, and have emerged stronger rather than weaker for having done so.

As much as some insist that it is not the case, I think it is absolutely possible for all of us, including gentiles like myself, to argue about Israel and its occupation directly and with passion, in clear and frank language, the way we discuss every other issue of political controversy. As I wrote at the Dish, I do not believe that the issue of Israel requires preemptive apologetics or showy acts of balance in a way that no other issue we discuss does. People sometimes say to me, “I can’t believe you puts that stuff on your professional website! Other academics will see! Senior academics!” To which I say, good! I stand by what I write here, and I specifically stand by it as a matter of political and moral objection to the inexcusable actions of a state’s government and its military, not any kind of statement about the character of an ethnicity or religion. I define my own beliefs, I am in fact defining them here, and they are critical of the nation of Israel and not the Jewish people.

Situations like that of Dr. Salaita, and Norman Finkelstein and Juan Cole, demonstrate that there are reasons that people are afraid to  speak out on this issue. I firmly believe that this is a mistake in the long run, even for defenders of Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories. There is no good that comes from acting as though we cannot discuss this issue, and only this issue, rationally. I don’t avoid anti-Semitism by tying myself into a pretzel to avoid saying things that could be misconstrued by interested parties, but by not being anti-Semitic. What is at issue is a matter of character, and that exists independent of how some might use conversation to entrap others. If some job search committee discovers that I have written critically of Israel and rejects me for that reason, then that is indicative of a deeper problem than my decorousness. We need to argue, so we will, and the truth will out. We have to have faith in people’s  ability to recognize the right and responsibility to forcefully argue, even in the face of situations like this one, which call the very future of academic and intellectual freedom into doubt.

Read the rest of Dr. Davis’s letter.