Bari Weiss: I hear congratulations on your Palestinian studies department? | Mustafa Bayoumi
To Bari Weiss and the founders of the new University of Austin,
I am writing to you today to warmly congratulate you on the inauguration of a courageous new institution of higher education, the University of Austin, Texas (UATX). As someone who has spent their career in the golden halls of the academy (or, in my case, the ugly two-tone hallways of peeling paint found in my public facility), I have witnessed exactly the kind of destructive group I think that your new president, Pano Kanelos, courageously writes in his essay announcing this much needed new venture.
How refreshing to read that President Kanelos describes how universities today are too often “unopened and pluralistic” and how they “cool the rhetoric and ostracize those with unpopular views”. Many of us know exactly what he describes, and for these reasons, I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to welcome the new Department of Palestinian Studies at the University of Austin.
While it is true that you have not yet announced the establishment of a Department of Palestinian Studies, you surely know how ostracized and damaging the mention of the rights of the Palestinians or their struggle for liberation can be. American campuses. A few years ago, for example, one of the world’s most recognized philosophers, Judith Butler, came to my campus in Brooklyn with a well-respected Palestinian activist, Omar Barghouti, as part of a nationwide speaking tour. . They came to discuss their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. BDS, as you know, is a global, non-violent initiative aimed at recognizing and restoring Palestinian rights.
Not only was my college then under extraordinary outside pressure to cancel the event, but members of New York City Council even threatened to withhold funding for the campus if the event took place. Reason was only restored when this legendary fighter in the Palestinian revolution – of course, I’m talking about Mayor Michael Bloomberg – said: I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea. (In the same press conference, he also declared his opposition to BDS.)
This is just one example, as all of you proud protectors of free speech and academic freedom obviously know. There are, unfortunately, so many more. You surely remember how Professor Norman Finkelstein, a fierce critic of the Israeli crackdown on Palestinians and the son of Holocaust survivors who were imprisoned at Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, was denied the post at DePaul University after Israel-aligned Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz aggressively lobbied the university to deny the young professor his job.
World-renowned Noam Chomsky called Finkelstein an “outstanding scholar,” saying: “It’s amazing that he hasn’t had a full professorship a long time ago. Meanwhile, Finkelstein has not had a permanent university job since.
Or there is the case of Professor Steven Salaita. Days before he became a full professor at the University of Illinois, his job offer was canceled due to objections raised by his tweets criticizing Israel after its bombing of Gaza in the summer of 2014. Since then, he wrote eloquently about becoming a school. bus driver after losing his tenure as a full professor.
I won’t bore you with all the details, but there are, well, oh so many other examples. The Associated Press, for example, recently fired a young journalist, not for her work with the AP, but because of the policy tweets she wrote when she was a student at Stanford. Members of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at various campuses across the country, including mine, recounted how they were subjected to much higher levels of scrutiny from their campus administrations compared to to other campus groups. At Fordham University in New York, administrators even banned students from forming a student club for justice in Palestine because they said it would be “polarizing.”
Indeed, from 2014 to 2020, the Palestine Legal organization documented 1,707 speech suppression incidents relating to Palestine in the United States, the vast majority of them targeting students and academics. These cases constitute clear violations not only of First Amendment rights of expression, but also of academic freedom.
But that’s where my optimism comes in. Fortunately, the University of Austin will provide the space and leadership to reverse this kind of undemocratic speech suppression. I don’t need to tell you that we even have a shorthand for this question when such censorship occurs among liberal open-minded types. We call it PEP: progressive except for Palestine. With such a commitment to its principles of free inquiry, the University of Austin will finally put an end to such unjust exceptionalism.
In fact, I have to say that I am especially happy that one of the founders of your company, Bari Weiss, is so dedicated to open investigation and freedom of expression, especially since she has a history. well-known of trying to suffocate – dare I say “cancel” – Palestinians.
This story began when she was a student at Columbia University. There, she led a campaign that accused a group of professors of bias against Jewish students, and even participated in a documentary on the topic. Columbia (my alma mater, in full disclosure) conducted a lengthy and costly investigation into these accusations and found the allegations to be baseless. In fact, the investigation ended up uncovering rudeness on campus, but with “pro-Israel students disrupting Middle Eastern Studies classes and some faculty members feeling like they were being spied on,” such as says The New York Times, which raises all kinds of questions about exactly who is “canceling” who.
Oh, cancel the culture. What does this term even mean? As you will no doubt see, the way in which ‘cancel culture’ is invoked is often misleading, if not downright dishonest. The way it’s used is more akin to canceling your flight than canceling your apartment lease. The first is boring, no doubt. But you always get to where you go at the end. To be fair, sometimes you even get an upgrade along the way because your belligerent ass raises such a stench. It is like that for some people. Just pretending to have been “canceled” makes it easier to upgrade. Have JK Rowling, Dave Chapelle or Kevin Hart lost anything substantial after the calls for their “cancellation”? They are all larger than life. More discussed than ever.
But lose your lease? This is the real “cancellation culture”. It is then that people who do not even know your name now believe that your ideas or principles threaten their very existence. It’s when the so-called ordinary people are forced to sacrifice your livelihoods to keep their status quo afloat. And this is precisely what happened to Norman Finkelstein or Steven Salaita or any of the legions of Palestinian rights supporters whose positions and livelihoods have been threatened simply because they believe the Palestinians should. be free.
The University of Austin will finally (and fortunately!) Be a beacon of light in the darkness of America’s anti-Palestinian political orthodoxy. To this I just want to say a big “Phew!“It’s been a long time coming, and I’m so excited to see this institution start and grow. Know that I am here to help make this idea work and prosper. I have so many ideas on who you could hire for your Palestinian studies department and what courses we could offer. Text me, okay? In the name of freedom. I’m basically all day tomorrow. Let’s configure a Zoom.
Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem ?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York