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Middle East

Professor’s Angry Tweets on Gaza Cost Him a Job

SEPT. 12, 2014

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    By ROBERT MACKEY

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    The trustees of the University of Illinois voted on Thursday to block the appointment of Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor who had been offered a tenured position last year, following a campaign by pro-Israel students, faculty members and donors who contended that his Twitter comments on the bombardment of Gaza this summer were anti-Semitic.

    “Hate speech is never acceptable for those applying for a tenured position; incitement to violence is never acceptable,” Josh Cooper, a college senior who collected 1,300 signatures on a petition against the appointment, told the trustees before the vote. The student, a former intern for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, added that “there must be a relationship between free speech and civility.”

    “The lack of civility itself is a mechanism for silencing alternative views,” he said.

    Speaking after the vote, the university’s president, Robert Easter, endorsed the contention of pro-Israel students, saying, “Professor Salaita’s approach indicates he would be incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions would be given equal consideration.”

    The professor strongly rejected those accusations, telling The Jewish Daily Forward that a selection of his most inflammatory comments, quoted in letters of complaint to the university’s chancellor, Phyllis Wise, were “pulled out of a much larger history of tweeting and general political commentary that indicates quite strongly and clearly that I’m deeply opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism including anti-Semitism.” His lawyer told The Urbana News-Gazette on Friday that Mr. Salaita could now seek a court order to force the university to make good on the job offer he accepted late last year.

    Mr. Salaita had been scheduled to teach two classes in the university’s American Indian Studies department this fall before supporters of Israel drew attention to his Twitter feed, where he had expressed outrage over Israel’s Gaza offensive in polemical comments that often seemed intended to shock.

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    Let's cut to the chase: If you're defending #Israel right now you're an awful human being.

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 8, 2014
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    This is not a conflict between #Israel and "Hamas." It's a struggle by an Indigenous people against a colonial power. #Gaza #FreePalestine

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 16, 2014
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    The logic of "antisemitism" deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody not a sociopath "antisemitic."

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 16, 2014
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    If it's "antisemitic" to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have? #Gaza

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 19, 2014
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    Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 19, 2014
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    I repeat: if you're defending #Israel right now, then "hopelessly brainwashed" is your best prognosis. #Gaza #FreePalestine

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 19, 2014
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    At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 19, 2014
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    #Israel's bombardment of #Gaza provides a necessary impetus to reflect on the genocides that accompanied the formation of the United States.

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 19, 2014

    In a statement released after the vote, the professor said that he was disappointed that the trustees had ignored “a less-notorious tweet,” in which he wrote that his objections to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians were not motivated by race.

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    I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs.

    — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 26, 2014

    In an open letter to the chancellor, Michael Rothberg, the head of the university’s English department and the director of its Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies, also defended Mr. Salaita against charges of anti-Semitism. “The tweets that have been reproduced again and again in reports on this case are not expressions of antisemitism,” he wrote, “but criticism of how charges of antisemitism are used to excuse otherwise inexcusable actions.”

    “I would not deny,” Mr. Rothberg added, “that Professor Salaita’s tweets are frequently expressed in strong language, and I share what I imagine is your preference for a civil tone in public discourse. But there are moments — like the recent bombing campaign — when we may need to expand our notion of what constitutes an acceptable tone so that it is commensurate with the events at stake.”

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    Several of the comments that supporters of Israel took exception to referred to parallels Mr. Salaita has drawn in his work between the experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians. When he was recommended for tenure last year, this was seen by the university as a strength. “The uniqueness of his scholarship on the intersection of American-Indian, Palestinian, and American-Palestinian experiences,” one reviewer argued, “presents a rare opportunity to add an esoteric perspective on indigeneity to our cultural studies programs on campus.”

    But last month, just two weeks before he was scheduled to begin work, the university’s chancellor abruptly informed Mr. Salaita that the job offer had been rescinded because approval by the trustees, who usually defer to faculty on hiring matters, was unlikely in his case. Her decision was strongly opposed by the American Indian Studies department and other members of the faculty who argued that it was an infringement of academic freedom.

    In a blog post written last month, the chancellor insisted that her decision to stop Mr. Salaita from taking up his post “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.” The issue, she said, was the “uncivil” tenor of his comments, and concerns expressed by pro-Israel students who said that they would feel intimidated by the professor.

    “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois,” Ms. Wise wrote last month, “are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

    “It’s about feeling safe on campus,” Noah Feingold, a member of a pro-Israel student group, told The Forward. “This is a professor who tweeted that if you support Israel, you’re an awful person.”

    A trove of internal university documents released after Freedom of Information requests showed that the chancellor acted after hearing from dozens of students and alumni, including donors to the university who threatened to stop giving if Mr. Salaita was allowed to teach at the school.

    In an address to his supporters at the university earlier this week, Mr. Salaita said that the chancellor’s claim that his comments on Twitter were “uncivil” set “a perilous standard that risks eviscerating the principle of academic freedom.”

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    Video of Steven Salaita addressing his supporters at the University of Illinois on Tuesday. Illinois Public Media, via YouTube

    “Even more troubling,” he added, “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.”

    The campaign against him, Mr. Salaita said, was just “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.”

    The case has divided the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus, and its handling has been condemned by academic groups concerned about the implications for free speech and the principle of shared governance, which means that the administration generally defers to the faculty when it comes to hiring and tenure.

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    After Thursday’s vote, the director of the American Indian Studies program, Robert Warrior, called the decision to rescind the job offer to Mr. Salaita, who gave up a tenured position at Virginia Tech, “despicable,” in an interview with The Electronic Intifada, a website founded by the Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah.

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    Robert Warrior, the director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, spoke on Thursday about the blocked appointment of Prof. Steven Salaita. Ali Abunimah, via YouTube

    Mr. Warrior’s department, and 10 others at the university, voted to endorse a “no confidence” motion against the chancellor as a result of her decision.

    However, Cary Nelson, an English professor and a former president of the American Association of University Professors, who has been an outspoken advocate of academic freedom in the past, gave strong support to the university’s decision. Mr. Nelson told Inside Higher Ed that he knew 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,” he added.

    Mr. Nelson, an adviser to the advocacy group Israel on Campus, is also a leading opponent of the movement to isolate Israel through a campaign known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (or B.D.S.). Late last year, two months after Mr. Salaita accepted the offer of a tenured position there, the chancellor said in a statement that “the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign opposes the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

    According to The Electronic Intifada, Mr. Salaita “was a prominent campaigner for the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions last December.” In fact, Mr. Salaita even wrote a post for The Electronic Intifada in May headlined “How to Practice B.D.S. in Academe.”

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