The Historiography of Victimhood

Had the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign not nixed Steven Salaita’s appointment as professor of American Indian studies after his extended string of vituperative, vulgar Tweets, blog posts, and other communications exposed his anti-Semitism and radicalism to a broad audience, he would have likely remained an obscure academic. Today his legions of professorial supporters view him as a cause célèbre and alleged victim of the “Israel lobby” and rich alumni.

Salaita may not have presented himself as a victim of academe’s alleged perfidy before Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s action in August, but his fields of study assume the victimhood of indigenous peoples worldwide. Since world history is replete with conquests, intermarriage, assimilation, and the rise and fall of expansive empires, separating victims from victimizers through the millennia is a difficult process -- unless, that is, the purpose of one’s academic work has less to do with the pursuit of truth than with achieving political goals through a quixotic, politicized reading of history.

Salaita embodies these incongruities. Given his would-be appointment in American Indian studies, one would assume that the bulk of his scholarly work treats the cultures and history of the various tribes of North America. In fact, all six of his books deal with modern Arab studies, Arab Americans, or Israel. How this West Virginia native of Arab ancestry could be offered a position in American Indian studies in spite of this fact is illustrated through the convoluted, jargon-laden work of Salaita’s mentors. His greatest, or most immediate, intellectual debt is to Robert Warrior, the director of American Indian studies at UI who served on Salaita’s dissertation committee at the University of Oklahoma.

Warrior is a member of the Osage Nation “who stands in solidarity with other tribal peoples around the world.” In contemporary ethnic studies this signifies that he, like Salaita the Palestinian, can claim victimhood and oppression at the hands of conquering powers -- the European colonizers of North America, and the Jewish “colonizers” of modern Israel, respectively. This alliance of the oppressed unites in theory if not in fact these disparate fields of study.

This is made explicit in the most accessible and concise example of Warrior’s historiography, his influential 1989 article, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today.” Drawing on Edward Said’s critical 1988 review of Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution, Warrior argues that the story of Exodus, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and their settlement in the Promised Land, is an unsatisfactory archetype for other oppressed peoples to follow. Because God gave the land of the indigenous Canaanites to the Hebrew invaders and told them to “have no mercy” on them, the narrative is in fact one of conquest, not of liberation. Therefore, oppressed indigenous peoples, like Warrior himself, are typologically like the Canaanites rather than the Hebrews.

Moreover, the use of the Exodus narrative by the Pilgrims and others in the New World gave them leave to slaughter the Indians and conquer their lands. Native Americans, therefore, and all others who have been oppressed, are Canaanites, while their oppressors are the Israelis. The God of the Hebrews and later Christians is therefore unsuitable for Native Americans, who are victims of this same religious tradition.

In his 2006 book The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan, Salaita transfers this typology from antiquity to the modern world to argue that Palestinians are typologically indigenous Canaanites, while Zionists are typologically ancient Israelites. While he does not deny “Jewish Indigeneity” in Palestine, he writes that Zionism was and is:

…a separatist colonial movement that far from being an innocent foray into an empty land promised by God, in reality led to a brutal and well-planned displacement replete with atrocities Israel continues to deny.

He cites alleged Israeli brutality as a central element of his intellectual development:

My entire life has thus been dedicated to Palestinian politics and activism, and nothing has occupied my thoughts more than Israeli brutality. …

Yet Salaita thought little about Native Americans until, during an American Indian literature seminar, he had an epiphany. For as he read for the class

I gradually realized that I had seen all the concepts before and that I had already read the history inspiring those novels’ creation. And indeed I had. It was simply in the form of Palestinian history.

Then he “discovered that Zionist leaders drew inspiration from American history in conceptualizing ways to rid Palestine of its Indigenes,” and, one could posit, his life’s work was found. Put simply: America/Israel are the oppressors; Palestinians/Canaanites/American Indians are the victims.

His latest book, Israel’s Dead Soul (2011), purports to examine Zionism’s “irreconcilable contradictions. It promises liberation through colonization. … one cannot support Zionism without eventually encountering its ugly side.” Throughout the book, Salaita resorts to hackneyed stereotypes and tendentious, ahistorical assertions that draw on the settler/colonial model, such as “[Palestinians] are indigenous to the land that foreign Jews settled,” and “Since the advent of Western colonization, it has been remarkably difficult for white subjects in the metropole to access their deepest psychological sensibilities.” As Liel Leibovitz has noted, although history offers myriad examples of nations founded in “bloody conflict with an indigenous population,” for Salaita, “Israel stands alone, an unparalleled and monstrous offender like no other, logical and historical demands be damned.”

Logical and historical demands are damned throughout the work of Salaita and his fellow travelers. They have no patience for a philosophy of history that attempts to account for the morally compromised human agent at the heart of any people’s past, or the necessity for the historian to learn to live with doubt. In their Manichaean view, there are the good people (politically chosen indigenous tribes), and the bad (politically chosen conquerors). Their compromised historiography is written less to enlighten than to motivate, less to discover the past than to demand retribution in the present.

Winfield Myers is director of academic affairs and of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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