Saturday, October 24, 2020

The unlawful sacking of Arab-American Professor Steven Salaita

By Charlotte Drax - August 18, 2014
Section: [Main News] [BDS]
Tags: [Education] [Gaza] [Freedom of Speech ] [US Universities ]


The Imperial University brings together scholars to explore the policing of knowledge by explicitly linking the academy to the broader politics of militarism, racism, nationalism, and neoliberalism that define the contemporary imperial state. Steven Salaitia contributed to the writing of the book.

Steven Salaita, an Arab-American Professor of American Indian Studies, was recently fired from his position as associate professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Although the University asserts that his contract was merely “rescinded,” many believe that Salaita was sacked for tweeting criticisms of Israel’s latest large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Salaita has long been an outspoken critic of Israel and Zionism. He is the author of “Israel’s Dead Soul” and “The Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought,” as well as a contributor to a number of publications including Salon and The Electronic Intifada.

He is also part Palestinian and was a prominent campaigner for the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions earlier this year. In an article published on Salon last December, Salatia defended the boycott campaign: “Academic boycott, quite simply, is a rejection of complicity in the Israeli government’s brutalization of Palestinians, a form of nonviolent resistance at the nexus of the globe’s greatest confluence of geopolitical power.”

In the article he goes on to state, “Boycotts in themselves are not especially controversial among academic communities. In other words, BDS [Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions] isn’t controversial. Criticism of Israel is controversial.”

Controversial enough to lose one’s job, it seems. 

Academic freedom 

According to Inside Higher Ed, sources familiar with the University's decision say that concern grew over the tone of Salaita’s comments on Twitter about Israel's policies in Gaza.

For instance, there is this tweet:  “Perhaps #Obama can melt down his Nobel Prize and recast it as body armor for the children of #Gaza.” 

Or this one: “Members of the Knesset routinely call for the elimination of Palestinians, so #Israel can spare us the bullshit about restraint in #Gaza.” 

There is also this one: “Too much of Israeli society is cheering the bloodletting in #Gaza for me to make a firm distinction between the government and the people.”

At the center of this scandal is Cary Nelson, a self-proclaimed Zionist and past president of the American Association of University Professors. Nelson has made multiple public statements in defence of the university, condemning Salaita’s anti-Zionist comments on social media as crossing the boundaries of “collegiality and civility,” as well as crossing “the line into anti-Semitism.”

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada, Nelson acknowledged that he has been closely monitoring Salaita’s Twitter account for months. “There are scores of tweets. I have screen captures,” he said. “The total effect seems to me to cross a line.”

However, there has been a strong and unified response from prominent academics, as well as academic and civil rights organizations, condemning Nelson’s remarks and the University’s decision to revoke Salaita’s tenure. 

Michael Bérubé, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in a letter to the University’s Chancellor: “Nothing in Professor Salaita’s Twitter feed suggests a violation of professional ethics or disciplinary incompetence. The University of Illinois is therefore clearly in violation of a fundamental principle of academic freedom with regard to extramural speech.”

Twenty prominent professors also wrote to Chancellor Phyllis Wise urging Salaita be immediately reinstated. “The Israeli military’s targeting of Palestinian civilians in Gaza has been condemned by major human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch ... The content of Salaita’s tweets were in fact consistent with the sentiments of leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including Jewish-Israeli scholars, to the degree that they expressed outrage and dismay at Israeli actions.”

Supporters have also launched an online petition, which as of this writing, had already gathered more than 14,930 signatures.

Salaita has maintained a dignified silence throughout the whole affair. The only comment he has made was a message of gratitude published on Twitter: “Thank you, everybody, for your support. I have received your many messages and am deeply grateful.” 

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