Steven Salaita’s Subpar Scholarship

Diana Muir Appelbaum

Diana Muir Appelbaum

Writer and historian, author of Reflections in Bullough's Pond (University Press of New England, 2000)

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Diana Muir Appelbaum ~

From the Blog

Is Steven Salaita, who lost an academic job offer after he shot off some nasty tweets, a victim of curtailed academic freedom? Or is he a polemicist trying to build a career off injecting anti-Israel animus into lousy research?

Steven Salaita became a news story when the University of Illinois withdrew a job offer in its American Indian Studies program, allegedly because of his uncivil tweets. But a close reading of his academic work suggests that the quality of his scholarship might also have created doubts about the hire—or should have. This essay reflects my attempt to give a close and civil reading to the 2006 book that is the foundation and center of Salaita’s scholarly career, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan.

Although I will not address Salaita’s tweets in this essay, I note that it is legitimate for hiring committees to do so. This is because Salaita does not tweet about movies or gardening. He tweets as a scholarly expert.  His Twitter profile reads: “Palestine. Native America. BDS. Decolonization. Indigenous Studies. Author of six books, most recently Israel’s Dead Soul.” When scholars tweet on their core fields as scholarly experts, tweeting becomes part of their scholarly persona, and it is legitimate for hiring committees to view the tweets as part of a scholar’s work; a lesser part—unreviewed and often impulsive, but part of a scholar’s public life and work nonetheless.

Salaita earned his doctorate in the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma in 2003 with a thesis entitled The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan, published as a book by Syracuse University Press in 2006. The book presents Salaita’s theory that the settlers of North America were seeking a Holy Land, a new Canaan, in the belief that their faith entitled them to expropriate and expel the native inhabitants—and, remarkably, that Zionism is a deliberate imitation of the American quest for Canaan. For Salaita, “[n]atives and Palestinians, the indigenous inhabitants of these quixotic Edens,” are “the incidental Others who had the misfortune of living in lands promised at their expense to superior beings by a God…”

A close reading of Salaita’s academic work suggests that the quality of his scholarship should have created doubts about his hiring.

The book has a personal aspect. With all the grandeur of youth, Salaita writes that his “entire life has [thus] been dedicated to Palestinian politics and activism.” He was, he tells us, raised by “Arab immigrants.” Salaita was born and reared in West Virginia, his father a Christian from “the Old Testament town of Madaba,” Jordan; his mother was born and grew up in Nicaragua, to a family that, according to Salaita, came from “Palestine.” Salaita says that he discovered Native American literature in a college course and at some point along the road to a Ph.D. in English was struck by the similarity of discourse by the “dominant” cultures in the U.S. and Israel towards Amerindians and Palestinian Arabs. And yet, he tells us, he hesitated: “Had I found only similarities, this project would never have been conceived.” It was only after he “discovered that Zionist leaders drew inspiration from American history in conceptualizing ways to rid Palestine of its Indigenes” that he settled on this narrative as his thesis topic—and a major focus of his career.

Salaita’s argument is not merely that Israel and the United States have both drawn on the Bible as a source of national self-definition. It is not merely that Israel is situated in a world of nation-states, all of which to some degree share political assumptions about the right of a people to self-determination or hold dear beliefs in their own specialness. It is not even Salaita’s point that all nations built on immigration, or all nations that settle frontiers, share a narrative. (“It should not be insinuated that these instances of colonial discourse simply exist parallel to one another…”) Rather, Salaita’s grand claim is that Zionist settlement of Israel was copied directly from the colonization of the United States: “Imitation best contextualizes the type of rhetorical interplay with which I am concerned…Zionists drew inspiration from American history in colonizing Palestine.” More specifically, “Zionist leaders drew inspiration from American history in conceptualizing ways to rid Palestine of its Indigenes.”

These are grand claims. Supporting them on the sweeping scale on which they are made would require evidence that the Yiddish and German-speaking subjects of the 19th century Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires who founded the movement first called Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) were inspired by Daniel Boone and Miles Standish. Or, at least, that “Zionist leaders” regularly framed their movement in reference to the American narrative.

Salaita brings three proof texts that he describes as demonstrating the “scholarly and political connections” between the American and Zionist narratives. He offers the first in a long sentence in which we learn both that Franklin Roosevelt was “fond of referring to the Arabs as ‘noble savages,’” and that there is a “connection” between this fact and a eulogy given by Moshe Dayan. The latter took place at the funeral of “a Jewish farmer,” in which Dayan epitomized “the stark philosophy of the ‘Arab fighter,’ that is, the equivalent of what Americans used to call the Indian fighter, a type common in the second generation of settlers in a country where newcomers are forced to fight the native population.”

The Dayan eulogy was given at the 1956 funeral of Ro’i Rotberg (or Ruttenberg), a member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz who was ambushed and murdered by fedayeen, militants who came across the Egyptian-Israeli border in peacetime. Dayan, however, did not reference America in his eulogy, nor did he use the phrase “Arab fighter.” Salaita here asserts the Zionist “mimesis” of American history with a proof text drawn not from Dayan’s eulogy, but from a book by Avi Shlaim, a strident critic of Israeli policy. It is Shlaim, not Dayan, who uses the phrase “Indian fighter,” a phrase Shlaim attributes to Uri Avnery, another harsh critic of Israel.

What Dayan actually said, in a eulogy still quoted by Israelis, was that Israel is “a nation of settlers,” hated by Arabs who “sit in their refugee camps in Gaza and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.” Dayan urges Israelis to face this reality with the knowledge that they must either defend themselves or be killed, like the young farmer who did not perceive danger because he “was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush.”

People protesting the revocation of Steven Salaita’s job offer at the University of Illinois, September 9, 2014. Photo: Jeffrey Putney / flickr

People protesting the revocation of Steven Salaita’s job offer at the University of Illinois, September 9, 2014. Photo: Jeffrey Putney / flickr

Salaita next offers an actual reference to American history from a speech by David Ben-Gurion, who used the phrase “how fierce the fights they fought with wild nature and wilder redskins.” Salaita does not cite the speech itself, but a book by scholar-activist Naseer Aruri that quotes from a speech delivered in New York by Ben-Gurion in 1915. I tracked down a copy of the speech, which is short and repays reading on many levels. It is worth pointing out that one of the most troubling and unscholarly aspects of Salaita’s work is his apparent obliviousness to the difficulties that arise when texts are encountered only in translation. Salaita fails to mention that Aruri was quoting a 1954 translation from the Hebrew.

Ben-Gurion’s topic was “Earning a Homeland.” In his speech he rejected the imperialist model of “[seizing] land by force of arms,” asserting that a homeland must be made “with the sweat of the brow. It is the historic creation and the collective enterprise of a people, the fruit of its labor, bodily, spiritual, and moral, over a span of generations.” America is an example brought in support of the proposition that “No nation… is automatically built and held with no exertion of will, with no dedication of its first founders…” Americans, he was telling his audience, had worked hard to build America, and Zionists pioneers would have to work together to build a Jewish country. It was a good analogy to use when speaking to Americans. But speakers routinely throw in references to the local culture as a way of connecting with their audience. To prove his case, Salaita would need to show that Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders used America not just as a comparison, but as a model, and did so not merely when speaking in America, but when speaking in Baghdad, Salonika, and Kiev.

Salaita’s “proof texts” that supposedly back up his thesis are quotes taken wholly out of context.

Salaita’s third and final “scholarly and political” proof text comes from a 2004 newspaper interview, a long back-and-forth between historian Benny Morris and writer Ari Shavit, in which Morris maintains, “When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy.” Pressed by Shavit to condemn Ben-Gurion’s decisions in the 1948 War, Morris argues, “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.” Morris is not an Israeli “leader,” he is a 21st-century Israeli historian referencing American history for purposes of comparison and justification.

Salaita next moves from what he has called “scholarly and political connections” between the American and Zionist narratives to “popular/polemical” arguments, beginning with a misstatement. According to Salaita, “A particularly relevant example comes from former Lehi member Amos Kenan, who describes the mindset of Yishuv soldiers during the 1948 War.” I read this as implying that the quotation came from 1948 or from the memory of a man who fought in 1948. Late-life memoirs being less dispositive than period documents, I followed Salaita’s citation to a 1998 essay by Kenan in The Nation. In the essay, Kenan explicitly imagines not the mindset of fighters during the 1948 war, as Salaita states, but rather, in his own words, “The Jewish pioneers who settled Palestine in 1882, 1905 and 1920…,” years before Kenan was even born.

No scholarly book is ever entirely free of errors; it would be meanspirited and unfair to pluck a few factual errors, or a handful of miscitations from a book, and use them to indict the whole. But in Quest for Canaan, the mistakes are not infrequent and they are not peripheral. They abound, and they lie at the very heart of the argument.

Salaita moves from this series of four examples—some paltry and others invalid—to a long section drawing on the work of Ward Churchill, a former academic disbarred by the University of Colorado for plagiarism, fabrication and falsification. Checking Salaita’s footnotes is a disillusioning occupation.

What Salaita’s four proof texts establish is that Ben-Gurion once drew a comparison to American history when speaking to an American audience, and that by the beginning of the 21st century, the comparison between the Israeli-Arab conflict and the American Indian wars had acquired currency among critics of Israel. Salaita’s claim, however, is that “Zionists drew inspiration from American history in colonizing Palestine.” That they, as he puts it in a footnote, “appropriated some techniques from that conquest.” Perhaps. But the texts Salaita bring fail to prove it.

Then Salaita doubles down.
Jewish cowboys and Arab Indians accurately reflect the social dynamics at play in Zionism, which had (or has) no philosophical basis that did (or does) not exist outside American history despite the claim by Zionists that Zionism’s foundation rests in the Bible.

The number of misstatements in that sentence is enormous. Beginning with the claim that mimesis of America is the sole “philosophical basis” of Zionism. Like all national liberation movements, Zionism’s “philosophical basis” is the right of a people to self-determination, the classic articulation of which is found in Article 3 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. As a political movement, Zionism is best situated not within American history, but within the wave of national revival movements that swept Central, Eastern and Southern Europe in the 19th century. And as for denying the Zionist “claim… that Zionism’s foundation rests in the Bible,” Salaita might as well deny that there are stones in the Judean hills.

To be clear, if Salaita had argued that Zionism, like the process of nation building in the United States, and like European national movements going back at least to the Dutch Republic, can trace traces its intellectual roots in some part to the Biblical narrative of liberation from slavery and the achievement of sovereign nationhood, he would be making an obvious and supportable claim. He could also easily support a claim that there are parallel aspects of American and Israeli political memory and narrative. Salaita’s claim, however, is that Zionism was so wholly an imitation of the American narrative and that it “did (or does) not exist outside American history.”

Rather than acknowledging the “complexity that exists when competing ethnic groups battle for land”—Salaita’s own description of the wars among Maronite Christians, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Druze in Lebanon—Salaita insists on tendentiously categorizing the Israeli-Palestinian situation as a copy of the settlement of the United States.

Among the most puzzling aspects of Salaita’s career is the fact that his analysis of the political thought and literary output of Palestinian Arabs and Israelis appears to be based entirely on sources written in English or on sources that have been translated into English from Arabic and Hebrew by others. As Iraqi poet, novelist, and scholar Sinan Antoon puts it in a review of Salaita’s book, limiting “the bibliography to works in English (or translations) narrow[s] its scope.” Antoon is a gentleman. The problem here is that we broadly expect scholarly interpreters of Japanese culture and political thought to read and cite sources in Japanese, that scholars of French literature will read the novels they write about in French, and so forth. When writing in English, scholars of foreign peoples and literatures usually provide annotated translations of key words and passages. A series of tweets to Salaita’s Twitter account asking for clarification of the extent of his reading in Hebrew and Arabic have gone unanswered.

Salaita also exhibits broad ignorance of Zionism. To choose just one example, he finds the fact that Israel Zangwill wrote of Israel as “A land without a people,” even though he knew that there were people living there, “mysterious.” But there is no mystery here. Zangwill’s assertion was simply and unmysteriously that the Arabic-speaking population did not in the pre-WWI era form “a people,” in the sense of sharing a national identity tied to the Holy Land. Ignorance such as Salaita’s is no crime. Except, of course, if you are an academic conspicuously ignorant of the topic that is a major focus of your scholarly work.

Salaita asserts that Zionism was produced within the American narrative of indigenous dispossession and the search for a promised Holy Land, he exhibits no awareness of the European national revivals that formed the actual context within which modern, political Zionism arose. Nor of the Russian pogroms that directly influenced Herzl and other founders and supporters of the Zionist movement. Nor of any other context for the origins of Zionism with the lone exception of a single factoid, “In 1898, when Hitler was nine years old, Herzl proposed…”

Steven Salaita speaks about his firing. Photo: UPTV6 / YouTube

Steven Salaita speaks about his firing. Photo: UPTV6 / YouTube

Salaita repeatedly employs highly speculative numbers in conjunction with inflamed language. “Many believe that up to 10 million Natives were slaughtered in the lands North of the Rio Grande, in the Americas, the number may be as high at 100 million.” All pre-Columbian population numbers are extrapolations from meager data, with estimates for population north of the Rio Grande range from James Mooney’s pioneering estimates (900,000) to Henry Dobyns’ very high numbers—up to 18 million. Careful modern studies by William Denevan (4.4 million) and Russell Thornton and Joan Marsh-Thornton (5.13 million excluding Canada) are more widely accepted. What is certain is that Salaita’s assertion that “up to 10 million Natives were slaughtered in the lands North of the Rio Grande” is absurd. Horrifying slaughters happened. But the appalling death of upwards of half of the pre-Columbian population (possibly as high as 90%) was the result of contagious diseases interacting with social disruption, not “slaughter.” Salaita provides no source for his assertion.

Similarly, Salaita asserts, “Sterilization of Native American women peaked in 1975, when 25,000 were permanently sterilized, many by force.” Here again, Salaita uses a problematic phrase, “by force,” in conjunction with an enormous number, but cites no source.

Words lose meaning in Salaita’s quest to score political points. In his examination of Palestinian political narratives in novel form, Salaita discusses a passage in which fictional Israeli interrogators shave away half of an Arab prisoner’s moustache, symbolizing “the degradation of being a refugee.” Salaita describes it as “an example of torture.”

Palestinians are, according to Salaita, “the Indigenes once in control” of the “landmass” of Palestine. But there never was a Palestinian government of Palestine. To find a time when “indigenes” were “in control” it is necessary to go back 2,000 years in time.

Even in passages of literary analysis, which occupy the second part of the book, Salaita’s approach to meanings, words and facts can be idiosyncratic.

Words lose meaning in Salaita’s quest to score political points.

For example, in discussing a Lebanese family’s refusal of a marriage proposal from a fictional Palestinian refugee, Salaita describes the context in which Palestinians are discriminated against by Lebanese Muslims. By contrast, when a character asserts, “People standing near the frontier on our side were forbidden to look over onto the other; and if anyone so much as stretched out their hand or put it over the border, they were killed straightaway by the Israelis,” the passage stands unexamined. This reader was left wondering who forbade people to look, how a hand could be stretched across a border that is a not a line but a zone, and whether a responsible author would discuss the assertion that anyone who “stretched out their hand” was “killed straightaway” as hyperbole employed by the novelist to highlight the reality of fear and tension.

Salaita can be clear-eyed about polemical aspects of the novels he discusses; as when he accuses Lyana Badr of engaging in “selective amnesia.” However, coming as it does exactly four pages after a passage in which the Palestinian protagonist gets his marriage proposal accepted by proving that some of his ancestors immigrated from Lebanon to Palestine, and two pages after Salaita repeats his recurring assertions of the deep and pure Palestinian origin in the “Filistin, the ancestral land,” the accusation that novelist Badr engages in “selective amnesia” reads as unintended self-satire.

Salaita has drunk regularly at the well of pseudohistory, or to be more generous, he has an unfortunate inclination to accept at face value unsupported and problematic narratives.

For example, he tells us that the narrative perhaps most comparable to that of Palestine “is that of ancient Egypt, which was displaced from its black reality and appropriated, along with ancient Israel, into the European imagination as a crucial foundation of its civilization,” citing the discredited racialist theories of Cheikh Anta Diop.

Salaita himself dabbles in a species of racial or genetic essentialism, arguing for a Palestinian right to the land based on “the assertion of biological continuity among Palestinians with the ancient tribes occupying the Holy Land during the initial arrival of the Jews.” Even setting aside the wholehearted, simple, and pure faith Salaita here exhibits in the historical accuracy of the Bible as history—not to mention the implications of awarding national sovereignty based on DNA—Salaita has a problem. Palestinian Muslim DNA clusters with that of Arabic-speaking Muslims from the coast of Morocco to the valley of the Euphrates. It shows significant ancestry from Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa, and is distinguishable from that of Samaritans, Maronites, Kurds, and other populations that pre-date the Arab conquest. Conclusion: the history of peoples is complicated, but Palestinian Arabs do not have a unique or simple “biological continuity” with the original inhabitants of Israel.

Salaita informs readers in a footnote that “[p]re-Columbian landings occur at various points in the history of North America.” They did not. The sole documented pre-Columbian voyagers to North America were Vikingswith the tantalizing but unproven possibility that Basque or other European fishing fleets may have seen the coast shortly before Columbus. By “implicating Europeans” for “aggressive actions,” Salaita establishes that he refers here to the cottage industry of identifying an ethnically-related figure who beat Columbus to the prize, of whom the recent favorites are an early-modern Chinese admiral and medieval Arabs.

Salaita’s characterization of Zionism as a colonial project is based on a false analogy. A colony is a population and territory governed by an imperial state or mother country by which it was conquered or founded. Applying this label to Zionism is a kind of political rhetoric, albeit hardly original to Salaita. Salaita then makes a series of enormous conceptual leaps to lump Palestinian Arabs together with Native Americans in the category of indigenous peoples.

Salaita’s grouping of Palestinian Arabs and Amerindians does have its moments of political insight. For example, he highlights the reality that the sense of unity among Palestinians is, like that shared among Native Americans, a creation of modernity, produced by 20th-century “circumstances” that joined “once discrete peoples” in a newly imagined, shared identity. Before Zionism, Arabs living in what is now Israel understood themselves as Muslims, as Arabs, as Ottoman subjects, as members of patriarchal clans, and as residents of specific places. The idea of uniting the disparate pre-Columbian peoples of the United States under a group identity as “native Americans” is similarly modern.

However, the differences between the situation of Native Americans and Palestinian Arabs are enormous—and telling. Among the most relevant to Salaita’s thesis is the reality that Native Americans north of the Rio Grande were a series of pre-literate tribes, while Palestinian Arabs were Arabic-speakers embedded within of one of the world’s dominant cultures. Unlike Amerindians, Arabs possessed a literary language, academies, libraries, intellectuals, and printing presses—not to mention a wealthy, cosmopolitan, highly-educated upper class, making them a poor fit for an Indigenous Studies narrative in which Native voices are silenced.

Discussing the Palestinian novel A Balcony over the Falkihani, Salaita argues that the authorial voice arises from “a historical reality wherein Native people have been excluded from discourse concerning their own cultures.” This description applies forcibly to Native American cultures, but surely not to the Arabic-speakers of the Levant, with their great literary tradition.

People protesting the revocation of Steven Salaita’s job offer at the University of Illinois, September 9, 2014. Photo: Jeffrey Putney / flickr

People protesting the revocation of Steven Salaita’s job offer at the University of Illinois, September 9, 2014. Photo: Jeffrey Putney / flickr

It is also significant that Native Americans were members of small, tribal-level societies unequipped with iron tools, draft animals, or even the wheel, when they were suddenly confronted by settlers armed with guns, germs, and steel. Arabs, by contrast, not only shared disease exposures and immunities with European Jews, they were part of an Ottoman Empire that until quite recently was capable of conquering European territory, and that repulsed the British Empire at Gallipoli in 1916. The Palestinians, moreover, began the wars of 1948 and 1967 backed by the formidable, modern armies of neighboring Arab states.

What Salaita finds are not the parallels of cultural situation that he claims, but parallels in the narrative of dispossession. He offers evidence that some Palestinians perceive themselves as the Indians in Hollywood cowboy movies, and on this basis launches a comparative study of the literatures of Palestinian Arabs and Amerindians. How impressive Salaita’s literary insights are is ultimately a matter of opinion, but there are times when I read a passage Salaita analyses and see it very differently.

For example, he reprints a section from a novel about the Lebanese Civil War, a tale of horror in which families flee along a road lined on both sides by “armed men with crosses on their necks.” A teenage boy is pulled from the line of refugees by these men, who demand, “Lebanese or Palestinian?” When he answers “Palestinian,” they shoot him.

To Salaita, “[t]he violence appears to occur without human agency, as if the guns shot themselves”; the shootings are “impersonal.” I, however, cannot imagine anything more personal than Christian militiamen with crosses emblazoned on their necks pulling a 15-year-old boy out of a line of refugees and shooting him in front of his helpless family. He and I read the same passage and see different realities. But literary analysis fills only a small part of Salaita’s book; his focus is on grand ethno-political narratives.

For Salaita, colonization of the United States was a kind of original sin. “Were it not for the destruction of Native nations in North America, there would have been no destruction of Palestine.” Salaita exhibits an awareness of the flaws in his argument. He acknowledges “the continuous Jewish presence in Palestine/Israel since the ancient Davidic Kingdom,” and, by implication, the fact that the Zionist narrative is fundamentally about return to the homeland, and therefore, intractably different from American settlement. Salaita fails to prove his thesis because it cannot be proven, and yet he does not come entirely empty-handed to the scholarly table.

The fact is that Salaita’s more persuasive argument is not the one he leads with—that Zionism is an imitation of America—but rather the argument that “there is something inherent in settler colonialism that transforms discrete colonized societies in fundamentally related ways.” These ways enable a literary scholar to analyze cases that are as fundamentally different as the settlement of the United States and the Zionist movement according to the similarities of impact that these movements have had on the culture and literature of the inhabitants he groups under the rubric “native peoples.” There is no need to guess Salaita’s reasons for making this argument: he explains them: “By situating the history of Palestinians with those of Natives, Palestine scholars furnish ontological validity to their subjects.”

Salaita recognizes that the two narratives are only “superficially bound,” and that his argument “relies more on a political than a cultural approach.”


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