|Hate for hate's sake|
Steven Salaita (1975–) is an American scholar who specializes in Native American studies. A Christian Arab, he was born in 1975 to Jordanian and Palestinian immigrants to the US. According to one of Salaita's colleagues, "His mother's parents were forced out of what is now Israel." On August 6, 2014, after being inundated with protests about Salaita's tweets in response to Israel's 2014 attack on Gaza, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) revoked an offer they had made to Salaita as a tenure-track professor in their American Indian Studies Department. While the approval of faculty hires is typically rubber-stamped by a university's governing body, in a "rare, if not unprecedented" decision, UIUC's board of trustees voted not to ratify his hiring, a power the university argued was explicitly reserved to them in the text of his job offer.
The tweets and their context
On July 19,2014 Salaita tweeted:
If it's "antisemitic" to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have? #Gaza
Immediately followed by:
Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.
He had similarly stated the day before that by conflating Jewishness and Zionism "Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror." Salaita wrote these tweets after people from Gaza and elsewhere uploaded photographs of dead and wounded people, terrified fleeing civilians, and bereft parents holding the bodies (living and dead) of their injured children being pulled out of rubble. Israel's Operation Protective Edge was in full swing in Gaza and the results of an occupied people being bombed and shot at by a regional power — with state-of-the-art weaponry — was being broadcast to the world on social media. Indeed, one website titled a piece (perhaps hyperbolically): Israel Has a New Worst Enemy — Twitter.
Salaita also tweeted about the ever-increasing, violent, and illegal settlers on the West Bank. In reference to the three Israeli teenagers whose kidnappings and brutal murders by Hamas eventually led to the 2014 War in Gaza:
You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.
Early weeks and months after the firing announcement
UIUC professor Cary Nelson heartily supported and led the public defense of UIUC's then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise's decision to fire Salaita, declaring:
"I think the chancellor made the right decision. I know of no other senior faculty member tweeting such venomous statements—and certainly not in such an obsessively driven way. There are scores of over-the-top Salaita tweets... I'm glad the chancellor did what had to be done."
Nelson had just finished serving three terms as president of the American Association of University Professors and had a strong reputation as a defender of academic freedom. Some commentaters, including Mondoweiss columnist Phan Nguyen, suggested that Nelson suffers from a blind spot about Israel such that his usual principles were not on display in the Salaita case, though Nelson noted that he had previously defended consideration of civility/collegiality at the time of hiring.
Prof. Robert Warrior, an Osage Nation citizen and Director of American Indian Studies and professor of American Indian Studies, English and History at UIUC, stated: "Steven was a candidate in an open field search where we were looking for the best person available in the field of American Indian and Indigenous studies." Warrior continued, "What became compelling about his work is the comparative analysis of the experiences of American Indian people and Palestinian people, which is at the heart of his work.” Warrior is also an expert in the field of "comparisons of Native Americans to Palestinians," so Salaita would have been an additional such.
In early September of 2014, more than 5000 scholars announced that they would boycott UIUC until the university reinstated Salaita. Salaita himself spoke at the university that month:
Two weeks before my start date, and without any warning, I received a summary letter from University Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing me that my position was terminated, but with no explanation or opportunity to challenge her unilateral decision. As a result, my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom.
… Even more troubling are the documented revelations that the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors – individuals who expressly dislike my political views. As the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups have been tracking, this is part of a nationwide, concerted effort by wealthy and well-organized groups to attack pro-Palestinian students and faculty and silence their speech. This risks creating a Palestinian exception to the First Amendment and to academic freedom.
As of October 6, 2014, 14 UIUC departments had voted "no confidence" in Chancellor Wise due to the Salaita matter. By December of 2014, thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at UIUC had written a scathing letter to the University of Illinois’s president, pointing out serious fall-out from the firing:
More than three-dozen scheduled talks and multiple conferences across a variety of disciplines – including, for example, this year’s entire colloquium series in the Department of Philosophy – have already been canceled, and more continue to be canceled, as outside speakers have withdrawn in response to the university’s handling of Dr. Salaita’s case. The Department of English decided to postpone a program review originally scheduled for spring 2015 in anticipation of being unable to find qualified external examiners willing to come to campus. Tenure and promotion cases may be affected as faculty at peer institutions consider extending the boycott to recommendation letters.
Most troubling of all, the ability of many departments to successfully conduct faculty searches, especially at the senior level, has been seriously jeopardized. While the possible negative effects on even junior searches remain to be seen, the Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate. An open rank search in Philosophy attracted 80% fewer applicants at the rank of associate or full professor than a senior search in the same area of specialization just last year.
While Salaita and his supporters are up in arms over the question of academic freedom, Salaita condones excluding what he describes as an ethnocentric Jewish student organization from participating in campus multiculturalism activities.
On August 6, 2015, Judge Henry Leinenweber of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled that UIUC had breached its contract with Steven Salaita. As The Chronicle of Higher Education put it:
If the university truly regarded such job contracts as hinging on board approval, [Judge Leinenweber] said, it would have the board vote on them much earlier in the hiring process, before paying a prospective faculty member’s moving expenses and offering that professor an office and classes. "Simply put, the university cannot argue with a straight face that it engaged in all these actions in the absence of any obligation or agreement," he said.
Based heavily upon his determination that such an agreement existed, Judge Leinenweber said Mr. Salaita can proceed in trying to prove that university administrators and board members conspired to breach his contract, violate his free-speech rights under the First Amendment, and deny him academic due process.
Judge Leinenweber also signaled that if Salaita's free speech claims against UIUC went forward his case was strong:
"The university’s attempt to draw a line between the profanity and incivility in [Salaita’s] tweets and the views those tweets presented is unavailing; the Supreme Court did not draw such a line when it found Cohen’s [jacket bearing the words "fuck the draft"] protected by the First Amendment," Leinenweber wrote. Quoting the Cohen ruling, he said, "We cannot indulge the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also running the substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process."
Referring to Salaita’s social media profile, Leinenweber added, "The contents were certainly a matter of public concern, and the topic of Israeli-Palestinian relations often brings passionate emotions to the surface. Under these circumstances, it would be nearly impossible to separate the tone of tweets on this issue with the content and views they express."
University of Illinois officials drop like flies
On August 7, 2015, 1100 of Chancellor Wise's emails were released, showing, among other things, that she had told individuals in July of 2014 that the university had decided to hire Salaita and he had, in fact, accepted the offer. In the same cache of university emails she advised individuals that she would prefer using private email accounts to hide the communications. Wise immediately resigned upon release of these emails.
On August 23, 2015, 41 department chairs and program heads at UIUC called for Steven Salaita to be reinstated. By August 24, 2015, Ilesanmi Adesida, provost of UIUC; Board of Trustees member Chris Kennedy, and; UI President Robert Easter, had all stepped down from their positions.
Salaita and UIUC reached a settlement of $875,000, which was announced on November 11, 2015. Salaita will not rejoin the faculty there. In his immediate statement, Salaita said: "We settled the case against UIUC today, and I am deeply grateful for the support and solidarity from so many individuals and communities. Together, we sent a strong message to those who would silence Palestine activists and limit speech on campus." But then he took to the pages of the Nation magazine to declare that the most important point of his case had been obscured:
Much has been said about me and UIUC, the majority of it useless. Almost without fail, though, commentators ignore the war crimes that inspired my infamous tweets.
Israel’s destruction of Gaza remains imprinted on my memory, contextualized by the cruelty that came before and continues today: women carrying possessions in bedsheets no longer fitted for home; fathers holding doll babies in front of little corpses, begging children to wake up and play with their favorite toys; skin flaked off like filo dough from chemical weapons, leaving only a thin layer of sticky red flesh to protect muscle and bone; mangled steel wires emerging from concrete rubble, no longer hiding within the structures they hold...
No significant interval passes that I don’t think of the people whose suffering galvanized the incivility that upended so many. I condemn injustice. I will always do that, no matter my state of employment.
- Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, by Steven Salaita.
- See the Wikipedia article on Steven Salaita.
- Who is Steven Salaita? | News-Gazette.com
- U. of Illinois apparently revokes job offer to controversial scholar | InsideHigherEd
- U. of I. trustees vote 8-1 to reject Salaita - Chicago Tribune
- [c Mirror of the Twitter post on legalinsurrection.com]
- Israeli bomb hits Gaza center for disabled, as civilian casualties mount | Al Jazeera America
- IDF begins evacuating Gazans before stepped up air strikes - Operation Protective Edge - Jerusalem Post
- IDF starts Gaza ground offensive - Operation Protective Edge - Jerusalem Post
- America and the Regional Powers in a Transforming Middle East | Middle East Policy Council
- Prominent Saudi Columnist Notes Arab Support for Israeli Strike on Hezbollah - The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
- Timeline: The Month That Brought Gaza Back To The Breaking Point | ThinkProgress
- Israel Has a New Worst Enemy — Twitter - Israel – Forward.com
- From The President: Campus Equity Year | AAUP
- Cary Nelson faces backlash over his views on a controversial scholar | InsideHigherEd
- Salaita’s Background Is What the College Wanted, Not His Free Speech - ICTMN.com
- Statement by Steven Salaita | The Academe Blog
- Wise speaks on Salaita, College of Medicine, unionization - The Daily Illini
- Open Letter on the Salaita Case from University of Illinois Department Heads | The Academe Blog
- It's time, U. of I.: Offer controversial scholar Steven Salaita a job - Chicago Tribune
- "Reports circulate that American of Beirut has blocked a permanent appointment"
- Eighty faculty from American universities signed a letter urging that the American Association of University Professors continue to boycott UIUC until this concern is addressed: "a cash settlement without an offer of reinstatement leaves unaddressed the unjust terms by which [Salaita's] employment was terminated....the settlement demonstrates that the university can abridge such rights at a price, setting a perilous precedent."