Scholar Behind U. of Illinois Boycotts Is a Longtime Activist

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at CUNY’s Brooklyn College 
and one of academe’s most persistent brawlers.
September 19, 2014

On a Friday night in early August, Corey Robin put out a call on his blog. There had been plenty of grumbling over the University of Illinois’s decision to revoke a job offer to Steven G. Salaita, who gained notoriety for incendiary tweets about Israel. But it had not been enough to persuade the university to reinstate the professor. So Mr. Robin, a political theorist at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, ratcheted up the pressure.

He suggested that scholars in every field begin organizing public statements refusing to accept any invitations to speak on any campus of the University of Illinois—a serious disruption of academic business.

"Nobody’s gonna do this," Mr. Robin remembers telling his wife, who was reading in the bedroom of the Park Slope apartment that the couple shares with a daughter and five cats.

To his surprise, they did. Philosophers, citing CoreyRobin.com, took up the challenge. The boycotts snowballed. English professors. Political scientists. Anthropologists. All signed on, and Mr. Robin blogged each fresh step. By the professor’s last count, more than 5,000 scholars have joined boycotts.

The Salaita Affair has riveted academe. One story line that has drawn less attention is the role played by Mr. Robin. For more than a month, the professor has turned his award-winning blog into a Salaita war room, grinding out a daily supply of analysis, muckraking, and megaphone-ready incitement.

"We’ve all looked to him as a central source of information about new developments," says Katherine ­Franke, a Columbia law professor who has advised Mr. Salaita’s legal team.

Mr. Robin’s performance is a window into the mind and methods of one of academe’s most persistent brawlers.

The scholar, 46, cut his political teeth as a graduate-student union activist at Yale University, where he led a controversial mid-1990s grade strike. By the time the Salaita story broke, Mr. Robin had already fought in a series of Israel-Palestine-related battles at the City University of New York.

The graduate student who lost his teaching gig. The playwright who had his honorary degree withheld. The political blow-up over a forum on Israel boycotts. Each time, Mr. Robin’s side prevailed.

"A lot of people see him as an intellectual leader," says Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of the magazine Dissent. "He can be counted on to battle people." (Those people include Mr. Kazin, who crossed swords with Mr. Robin last year when Mr. Kazin published an article critical of academic anti-Israel boycotts.)

Now Mr. Robin is struggling to figure out a path forward in the wake of the Illinois Board of Trustees’ September 11 vote against Mr. Salaita.

"We’re trying to preserve the academy as a space for people to actually be able to think and to speak without fear and without intimidation," Mr. Robin says.

Unlikely Blogger

Mr. Robin is something of an odd fit for his current role.

Although people constantly ask him to speak about the Israel-Palestine question, he turns down the invitations because he does not consider himself an expert on the subject. His current scholarship focuses on the political theory of capitalism. His last book, The Reactionary Mind (Oxford University Press), was a much-debated collection of essays about conservatism.

And although he has been lauded as the "quintessential public intellectual for the digital age," Mr. Robin is really something of a technology dinosaur.

The professor does not own a smartphone. He flees the Internet by riding New York’s subway trains for four hours at a time after dropping off his 6-year-old daughter at school or camp. He devotes these trips to reading: ­"Schumpeter in Queens, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Bronx, Hayek in Brooklyn," as he wrote in one post.

Like an addict, Mr. Robin tries to set boundaries for his habit. For instance: No blogging first thing in the morning. That way the process won’t eat up his whole day.

"I’m always telling myself, ‘OK, this is the last day I’m blogging,’" Mr. Robin says.

When I arrived at his apartment for an interview around noon one day this week, he had already violated his no-blogging-in-the-morning rule. Twice.

Mr. Robin folded laundry in his living room as he told me how he had stumbled into a starring role in the academy’s Israel wars.

The Jewish professor, who attends a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn, long ago came to consider himself an anti-Zionist. But he was always quiet about it. It was painful to talk about, particularly among Jews.

Then, in early 2011, Mr. Robin went through an episode not unlike the Salaita affair. Brooklyn College rescinded the appointment of a graduate student, Kristofer Peter­sen-Overton, who had been hired by the political-science department to teach a course on Middle East politics. The student accused the college of succumbing to opposition from critics of his work.

The college president and CUNY’s chancellor had each received a letter from Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn assemblyman and CUNY alumnus, complaining about the "slanted nature" of Mr. Peter­sen-Overton’s writings. Mr. Hikind told The New York Times that he had spent 20 hours immersing himself in Mr. Petersen-Overton’s output, and "it was all about Israel being the bad guys in every way." Protests succeeded in restoring the scholar’s job.

Last year, however, Mr. Robin’s department found itself in yet another Israel imbroglio. The department came under pressure to pull its co-sponsorship of a planned event about BDS, the movement that backs boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

Two aspects of that campaign were particularly chilling, the department’s then-chair, Paisley Currah, wrote in a Chronicle blog post. One, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and 18 other legislators publicly demanded that the department withdraw its endorsement of the event. And two, a group of 10 City Council members issued what the department chair described as "an explicit threat" to CUNY’s funding.

Long story short: The event went ahead, with the department’s sponsorship, after Mr. Robin’s side mobilized and then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg intervened.

And Mr. Robin ended up blogging about the controversy. A lot.

Theory Into Action

Mr. Robin can be a pugnacious online presence. During the BDS donnybrook, for example, he ripped a former student, Jumaane D. Williams, who had gone on to become one of the City Council members critical of the event. "U took my class on civil liberties," Mr. Robin wrote in a series of tweets directed at Mr. Williams. "Pressure from govt officials on campus speech is ok? That’s what U learned?"

In person, though, he comes off as polite and cool-headed (mostly). The professor is a compact man with rosy cheeks and light brown hair that falls over his forehead; on the day of our interview, he wore a wrinkled white shirt and dark slacks, which gave him the look of an off-duty waiter.

Recent years have radicalized his views on the role of the academy in Israel debates. Previously, he didn’t have a position on BDS and even sympathized with critics who questioned the relevance of such boycotts. He now supports the movement. "I think the academy actually is quite important on the Israel debate," he says.

In July, Mr. Robin was arrested for lying down in the street in front of the Israeli mission to the United Nations, an act of civil disobedience he and others staged to protest "the Israeli battering of Gaza."

He sees his activism on Salaita and other cases as an extension of his political-theory work. His first book probed the politics of fear. He has long been interested in issues of intimidation and coercion.

Mr. Robin argues that, in a legally constrained liberal society, the private, nonstate sector often becomes the sphere in which coercion happens on behalf of the state. He offers the McCarthy period as an example. Most of McCarthyism, he says, took place at the level of the workplace, where as much as 40 percent of the American work force was subjected to political investigation and surveillance for their beliefs.

"And here we come to the question of Israel-Palestine," he says. "Where do you see the bulk of coercion and censorship happening? It’s happening in the nonstate sector—in the universities."

‘Extreme Pronouncements’

Mr. Robin’s stances have drawn criticism from fellow academics, not just politicians.

Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College who blogs for the magazine Commentary, argues that Mr. Robin has attached himself to a BDS movement "that seeks to persuade academics and students to make extreme pronouncements about matters they don’t know much about."

Those uninformed foreign-policy statements "break down the wall between scholarship and propagandizing and so make our colleges, universities, and associations vulnerable to outside interference of the sort Robin is now deploring," Mr. Marks writes in an email.

In the Salaita case, Todd Gitlin faults Mr. Robin for failing to engage with the substance of Mr. Salaita’s tweets, at least as far as Mr. Gitlin has seen. Mr. Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, points to this Salaita tweet from July: "There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel’s aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion." As Mr. Gitlin views it, "Salaita crossed the line from incivility to rank hatred."

Mr. Robin has actually blogged about one of the most potentially offensive tweets. More broadly, though, he acknowledges "deliberately not engaging in the content."

As he explains why, he seems on the verge of exploding.

"Todd Gitlin and I could go back and forth for days," he says. "Parsing tweets! Like, tweets! Tweets!"

"The serious thing to do is to figure out what’s actually happening," he says. "An outspoken critic of Israel, speaking in an inflammatory way about it, being punished and drummed out of the academy—that’s what’s happening."

Getting into the details of the tweets, he says, is "missing the forest for the trees."