Palestine “will never be decolonized unless it is first demythologized,” stated Steven Salaita, a controversial academic whose job offer from the University of Illinois was rescinded last summer after a series of anti-Semitic tweets came to light. Speaking on “Natural History Under Siege” before an audience of about twenty-five persons at Washington, DC’s anti-Israeli Jerusalem Fund think tank on February 13, Salaita employed pseudo-intellectual rhetoric to apply his own mythology of hackneyed postcolonial themes to his ancestral Palestinians.
For those who have come to expect puerile packaging of anti-Israel screeds with fact-free, high-flown, often incoherent verbiage on the basis of his past writings, Salaita did not disappoint. In his introduction, he described the geography of a “Palestine” (including apparently Israel) as a “cacophony, but also an ensemble,” even though “not everybody can see it.” This geography “is a simulation of ideology,” a “diversion into mythic cultural adventure,” and “for the crooked and pious alike it is always in some way holy.” Despite “continuous reinvention . . . we can still speak of Palestine as an actual place” whose soil once “was rendered tactile and knowable” to him when he got dirt under his fingernails during a visit as a graduate student. Sometimes it’s the little things.
Yet “colonization and conflict” from Israel, Salaita lamented, created a situation in which “human habitation partners with military occupation to destroy the . . . tenuous existence of flora and fauna . . . Palestine’s natural history.” “Palestine is forever shrinking” under Israeli settlement and security installation building, but Palestinians have a supposedly “luminous, living history” that “no bulldozer can destroy.” His father-in-law would speak of a “West Bank devoid of Jewish settlement” (Judenrein?) in a “narrative . . . filled with flora and fauna.” In this imagined pristine Palestinian Eden, “children . . . could explore the surrounding environment for miles,” while today “there is no area of the West Bank wild enough for children to explore unfettered.”
Salaita focused on olive trees, a staple of the Palestinian economy and an iconic cultural symbol, to argue that “Israelis are fundamentally outsiders to the land.” “Palestine endures in the way” diaspora Palestinians “select olives from the grocery store,” while Palestinians often possess olive wood icons. He condemned the alleged Israeli destruction of 800,000 olive trees since 1967 in territories won by Israel in that year’s Six Day War, although 2010 estimates count some ten million olive trees under Palestinian cultivation. He only briefly mentioned security concerns as one Israeli motive for their destruction, even though Palestinian ambushes of Israelis from olive groves have prompted their occasional clearcutting.
His claim that a “Palestinian would never destroy a healthy olive tree” ostensibly answered questions such as “who is indigenous, Jews or Palestinians . . . who is the aggressor . . . who wrecks the environment?” Yet Salaita neglects the fact that Palestinians and their leftist allies have destroyed olive trees in order to falsely blame Israelis in the disputed territories. Simultaneously, Israeli olive oil production in recent years has equaled Palestinian output with a fruit that has great significance for Judaism and whose trees enjoy Israeli legal protection.
Refuting Salaita’s illusion of Palestinians living harmoniously in a beloved environment, population growth, overgrazing, and poor sewage treatment have had deleterious effects such as deforestation in Palestinian territories. Tree cutting for firewood, particularly by the Ottoman Empire in the years before and during World War I, has also caused significant damage to the region. By contrast, Jewish National Fund (JNF) planting of 240 million trees (sometimes targeted by terrorist organizations like Hezbollah) since 1901 has made Israel one of only two countries worldwide with more trees today than a century ago.
Salaita’s fictions support his slanderous depiction of an Israeli Jewish state fundamentally foreign to its region. Absurdly, this supposed nature lover criticized the JNF in Israel because it “facilitates development” and “plants trees” to create “geostrategic gentrification” in an “Orientalized theme park” for “those of a certain ethnic background.” In incomprehensible jargon he asserted that “incongruities of biological determinism” created modern Israel, whose Jewish people supposedly revived the Hebrew language to sound artificially like Arabic. “Zionists play Arab to inscribe themselves as indigenous to a foreign geography,” he ranted, while condemning a Virginia Tech Hillel presentation on Israel for using a camel as Middle Eastern “orientalist imagery.” Yet Camels, brought to the region by ancient Egypt, are not at all foreign to Judaism’s biblical scriptures.
Equally hostile to the United States, Salaita compared Israel to an “American landscape . . . still undergoing a process of colonization.” Therefore, a “squandering,” capitalistic “commodification of natural resources” is a “central feature” of colonialism everywhere. He ignored considerable evidence for the benefits of efficient market societies on the environment, as exhibited in Israel’s environmental ratings, which are superior to its Arab neighbors’. Israeli know-how, for example, has improved the region’s water economy and benefitted Palestinians, which contradicts Salaita’s repetition of the canard that Israel deprives them of water.
Despite his politicized, counterfactual assertions, Salaita maintains credibility and influence within great swaths of academe. One audience member bemoaned how Salaita was “really discriminated against for his views” when rejected by the University of Illinois. Reflecting upon the lecture, the audience member quipped that “nobody’s perfect” when discussing whether Palestinian groups like Hamas or Israel better represent “American values” like democracy. In a shocking display of moral equivalence, he criticized the “power imbalance” between Hamas terrorists and Israeli democracy.
Salaita admitted to being at times a “terrible classroom student”—a fact no one subjected to his intellectually vacuous, poorly delivered lecture could doubt. Nonetheless, his tired, cliché-ridden theme of evil Westerners exploiting indigenous peoples and environments—narratives now applied to Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land—are common in academia and beyond. The depressing, undeserved respect enjoyed by Salaita and his ilk in academe deserves exposure to a wider audience.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.