Today, PatriotNotPartisan welcomes Steven Salaita for a conversation with contributing Editor Dr. Keith Pochick. Steven Salaita was born in Bluefield, a town which straddles the Virginia-West Virginia border in the middle of Appalachia. A former professor of English and American Studies, he is now a full-time writer, contributing essays and opinion pieces to various publications. He is the author of eight books, most recently ‘Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom’, an account of his public firing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for sending tweets critical of Israel, and ‘Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine’, which compares Native and Palestinians political movements. He’s currently at work on his next book, tentatively titled ‘We Could Be Free: Palestine in the Revolutionary Imagination’, which explores the intersections of Black, Native, and Palestinian activism.
Keith Pochick: Thanks for joining us, Professor. I think it’s best we let our readers know that you and I go way back. We were both born in the same small hospital in the hills, and we grew up together in the same town in Appalachian Virginia. You graduated high school in 1993, correct?
Steven Salaita: That’s right.
KP: I graduated in ’95. As I recall, you and I were on the same winless youth soccer team one year, which perhaps foreshadowed our respective lackluster athletic careers. Hahahahaha. Your dad was maybe the most enthusiastic high school hoops fan I remember. Your mother taught me Spanish, and is an absolute saint – I truly mean that. When I get where I’m going after I die, I’m going to take a look around for Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Salaita. If I don’t see them, I’m going to start worrying that I didn’t make it to the good place. Twenty years ago, I probably lacked the insight, courage, and empathy to ask you this question, but could you tell me more about what it was like growing up in Appalachia with an Arab and Latino background?
SS: Happy to talk about it. I probably wouldn’t have known what to say twenty years ago. Things emerge over the years that weren’t apparent or comprehensible in real time. It was a mixed bag. I have fond memories of Bluefield, our hometown. I was just there a few weeks ago and felt very at home. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I experienced lots of xenophobia and racism—not simply from classmates, where that kind of silliness can to some degree be expected, but from teachers and adult neighbors and other authority figures. My mom was a Spanish teacher, as you remember, and so people would sometimes take out their resentment over academic struggles on me. Again, I’m talking about parents more than peers. It’s probably a sloppy methodology, but I couldn’t help but connect my experiences, with a Latina mom and Arab dad, to the fact that our county (and the surrounding counties) had one of the highest rates of support for Donald Trump in the nation during the 2016 election. All in all, though, I’d say my experience was common in that I hated the place as a young man but have grown to miss it, deeply at times, in middle age. The people I keep in touch with from Bluefield, few as they are, have a similar trajectory.
KP: Your academic career has certainly been colorful. As I’ve grown and read, I’ve tried to seek out opinions which challenge my own. I remember the first time I read your article on compulsory patriotism, and feeling upset at first. But I read it again, and the logic behind your argument was impressive. After 40 years as an American, I think that dissenting and minority opinions are the ones which must be MOST fiercely guarded. To me, that’s the central theme of the entire Bill of Rights – protecting the citizenry’s freedom to dissent against its leadership and government. Am I the space cadet, or have Americans lost sight of what is important?
SS: As the kids say, why not both?
KP: Hahahahaha. I guess I tossed you an alley-oop there.
SS: Seriously, though, I don’t think you’re a space cadet at all. Dissent is critical not only to meaningful civic life, but also to intellectual growth. I’m not talking about dissent from a particular ideological point of view, either, but as a practice or even an ethic. My dissent comes from the left, though I don’t like to label myself politically, but it’s a sign of intellectual and civic health wherever it exists, from across the political spectrum. It usually means we’re thinking, that we’re not willing to merely accept the fact of authority as if it’s immutable, that we trust in our own ability to understand the world rather than having it interpreted for us, usually to another party’s benefit. Besides all that, it makes life more interesting. I have a deep aversion to politicians, talking heads, and institutions that seek to stifle dissent or shame people into compliance. Conformity helps them, not society at large. Not all dissent is equally useful, of course, but it’s something to be accepted, not demonized. Without it, we’ll never grow and we’ll exist at the bidding of the powerful. I don’t think the US these days is especially tolerant of dissent, and certainly not on par with how it imagines its democratic sensibilities.
KP: Thank you. We certainly have some common ground there. If I may shift toward a vexing international topic, I’d like to discuss the Palestine/Israel relationship for a bit.
KP: Most Americans have, at best, a rudimentary understanding of the history of Palestine and Israel. There is undoubtedly a bias toward Israel, as America and Western Europe were the forces which established Israel as a sovereign state after WWII in 1945. Could you explain the difference between native Jews in the Middle East and those who relocated to modern-day Israel (the Zionists)?
SS: Before the onset of Zionism in the late 19th century, Palestine was multi-confessional. It had around a 75 percent Sunni Muslim majority with a 20 percent Christian minority. The third largest religious minority were Jews, who have had a continuous presence in historic Palestine for nearly three millennia. They too were Palestinian. The national identity isn’t, or shouldn’t be, contingent on religious identity. Palestinian Jews were integrated into the social fabric and, like the Christians, had an outsized influence in civic and intellectual life. The Zionists who settled Palestine, and would later become Israelis, were largely European and carried with them different cultural and political sensibilities than Palestinian Jews.
KP: Thank you for that historical perspective. For many reasons, Americans are isolated from the geopolitics of the Middle East, and without a more solid understanding, our policies can seem clunky and reactionary. If I may use America as an example in hopes of establishing clarity, Europeans began colonizing the Americas 500 years ago. There were atrocities committed against the native population, justified by a belief that the natives were savages, and “an inferior race.” Like much of the world, America’s history is written in blood. A major academic theme of yours is to highlight the parallels of America’s colonization and the Zionist movement. I tend to view history as the greatest teacher of all, and though none of us can travel back to change it, we can use it as a touchstone to achieve progress. Perhaps I am rambling here, so I will get to the point. After 75 years of Israel’s existence as a sovereign state, am I naïve for believing that a two state solution is possible?
SS: Not necessarily, but the logistics of a two-state solution become more daunting by the year. It still predominates as the preferred solution in diplomatic circles, but a significant minority of Arabs and Jews are agitating for a one-state solution or binationalism—a secular state that safeguards the rights of all inhabitants. Binationalsim is popular among activists and intellectuals, but politically it’s a nonstarter. Israel won’t even consider it, and the interests various demographics have in a final outcome are often more concerned with the preservation of power than with democracy. The Israeli settlers on the West Bank—now numbering around half a million according to some counts—have serious clout and many of them are ideologically attached to the land. Israel continues to increase their ranks, despite international condemnation. Israel is going to settle its way out of the possibility of two states, perhaps it already has. Some of its political leaders, who are devoted to Zionism, have pointed out that on its current trajectory Israel will either have to displace a hell of a lot of Palestinians or formalize itself as an apartheid state.
KP: Wow. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but I haven’t even heard of the binationalist movement. I imagine this illustrates my desire and need to reach out to you. Do you espouse a two-state solution, and whether you do or not, what are the pitfalls and impasses on the road to achieving one?
SS: I find the one-state solution attractive, and increasingly I see it as more viable given the West Bank’s extraordinarily complex demographic topography. I’m a bit of a dreamer, though, and believe that we ought to proceed from what we consider an ideal outcome and then take it from there. Ideally, everybody in the so-called Holy Land shares the space, shares the resources, lives together, and all of that. I can’t imagine how anybody could disagree with that vision, except on the grounds of political realism. But political realism has also helped lead to the current mess, so my attitude is to agitate for what I consider the best outcome and hope that whatever emerges is satisfactory to the aggrieved party, in this case the Palestinians.
KP: I still shudder at the horrors of the European holocaust. It should never have happened, yet it did. Modern history is rife with genocides and “ethnic cleansings,” which still occur around the globe. Are there ways to temper the intense tribalism in America and the Middle East, and if so, what are they?
SS: It has to happen on an international scale. The way the world is currently organized lends itself to the kind of violence you describe. There’s been a lot of great writing about the underlying factors of genocide (Iris Marion Young, Mohammed Abed, Mahmood Mamdani, and the original coiner of the term “genocide,” Raphael Lempkin) and it emerges from a combination of resource scarcity, economic insecurity, majoritarian anxiety, racist rhetoric, political opportunism, and so forth. In other words, it’s not irrational in the literal sense of the term—it’s not random or divorced from politics. So we should always be diligent about discourses and narratives that seem to suggest ethnic violence as a solution to social problems. In the Middle East, it’s useful to consult history. Many Westerners don’t believe it, but while genocides were being carried out by European states there were none in the Arab World. Jews, Christians, and other minorities faced discrimination, sometimes hardship, but there are also examples of cosmopolitan harmony—in Baghdad and Damascus, for example. In other words, I don’t believe that people are predisposed to genocide and in the Arab World there’s a history of tolerance, even though today’s politics don’t lend themselves to unity. It can be achieved, though. It requires work and compromise and uncomfortable conversations, but it can be done.
KP: I don’t have to tell you that America has some shameful moments in her history. At various points, white Americans have exterminated, subjugated, imprisoned, alienated, and criminalized entire races and groups of people. In spite of this our nation has, at times, lived up to that “city on a hill” ideal. What is striking to me is that every time I read American History, the moments of which I am most proud are the moments we were most progressive. The Revolution, the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women and blacks, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement prove that we can be great, as long as we are willing to be good and push for human rights.
When I watch civilians and children starving and being murdered in Syria and Yemen, my heart falls. I have read about an America in decades past which stood tall against oppressive regimes. Many people resent the idea of America as the world’s police force. As someone who has lived there, and understands Middle East opinions and policy much better than me, what is the best course of action for the US in Syria right now?
The feelings of empathy you express, first of all, are critical. In my opinion, empathy is the most necessary ingredient to a decent politics, and it’s something that can take many forms—in other words, no ideology has a stranglehold on the emotion. We can care for one another and want everybody to be fed and clothed without a political scripture telling us to think that way. Regarding Syria, it’s difficult. The US left (and, to a lesser degree, its center and right) have been torn to shreds over Syria. The arguments are intense, in ways I can’t describe. Among Arab and Muslim Americans, long friendships are gone. This tells us lots of things, but most obviously that people are invested in Syria. Translating that investment into cogent action is difficult, though. We’d like to believe that we have a government that makes policy based on humanitarian concern, but we don’t. I’m not sure that anybody does. I oppose US intervention on principle, because we can glance at history and see that US intervention normally accelerates catastrophe rather than mitigating it. Many would argue that it’s by design. It’s useful to look at who profits from US foreign policy—arms manufacturers, the intelligence community, mercenary outfits, corporations with their eyes on resources, and so forth. Seen in that light, we can understand intervention as something largely based on economic rather than moral factors. Since our concern, as citizens, is fundamentally moral, we have to search through these complex dynamics and try to envision a system that prioritizes human beings rather than capital. The horrors in Syria, in other words, provide an opportunity for Americans to consider how our policy norms contribute to global suffering. At a legislative level, I’d say that the US ought to quit arming and funding every shitty potentate and armed group, including al-Qaeda, in the region. That seems to me a good start. All the actors in the Syria Theater are supported by external powers and the US has long sponsored various groups, some of them at odds with one another.
KP: Thanks for that. To an extent, I agree. But after seeing the horrors in Syria, I can’t help but ask myself how our intervention could foul things up any worse than they already are. In the Iraq war blunder of the G.W. Bush Administration, we invaded a country where things were fairly stable, and plunged a nation into utter chaos. I’m not sure we could plunge Syria into further chaos at this point. I certainly understand the skepticism of US military aid in the Middle East, as it has proven to be a double edged sword. Lately, our American leaders openly admit that we should raid any country we invade for its petroleum resources. It is nauseating to hear. So much of our military accepted their commissions in order to help the afflicted, war torn, and disadvantaged. Many of them signed on not to kill people, but to help those who lack the resources to fight for themselves. Regarding Syria, there doesn’t seem to be a good answer. But I appreciate your points on empathy and human rights. A Progressive America can find the will, honor, and empathy to fight for human rights – period. As I hinted earlier, throughout her history America has never been great without first being good.
Shifting gears, after the furor surrounding President Trump’s “Muslim ban,” I was heartened to see Jewish Americans pushing back against it. Is there a Jewish or Israeli official, journalist, or pundit who has impressed or challenged you in a productive way?
SS: Lots of them have. The politicians I’m not very interested in. But there are lots of great writers whose views in some way differ from mine: Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, and, going back in time, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Any good writing challenges me in a productive way. I don’t view it along ideological lines so much as a simpler binary: is it serious or is it garbage? If it’s serious, then it can knock around my head for days, even if I hate it.
KP: I think what I most admire about you is your conviction. It seems that when your beliefs and outspokenness land you in a tough place, you display confidence and passion instead of regret. It’s as if you had it to do all over, you’d do it all over again. That brings a level of my respect that most never achieve. I truly appreciate you spending some time answering my questions.
SS: Thank you! And the same to you. Get back on Facebook. It’s awfully boring over there without your provocations (a word, I swear, I’m using in the best sense).
KP: I appreciate that, but I have quit Facebook, and I don’t think I’m going back. I realized that my Facebook page was a tool which angered real life friends and family members. But on Twitter, no one is obligated to follow me, and random strangers insult me on a daily basis. It just seems so much more democratic. Hahahahaha. Thanks again for spending some time with me. Please stay in touch, and my best to your family.
Contributing Editor: Dr. Keith Pochick
Keith Pochick is a residency-trained Emergency Physician and Freelance Writer in North Carolina. He mostly explores ways to maintain humanism in medicine and the importance of promoting health of doctors and healthcare workers. An avid, albeit amateur American History buff, he currently thinks and writes about sustaining America’s identity and ideals. He is married to a pediatrician, and spends his free time cleaning his own gutters and coaching a 4th grade hoops team. Though he cut his teeth on Led Zeppelin, at times he will sing along to Taylor Swift songs in his minivan, even when no one else is in there. He has found Taylor Swift songs to be catchy as hell.