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A professor's freedom to tweet: The Steven Salaita affair

A Palestinian American professor’s withering tweets against Israel’s offensive in Gaza cost him his job. If his freedom of speech isn’t protected, it could be me or you next.

By Shachar Pinsker

In 2013, the American-Indian Studies Program at The University of Illinois decided to hire Steven Salaita, who then held a tenured position at Virginia Tech University. The university’s administration approved the appointment via a standard procedure that seemed to go smoothly. So in 2014, Salaita resigned from Virginia Tech, sold his house and moved with his family to Urbana-Champagne. But then, something very unlikely happened.

On August 1, Salaita received an email from Phyllis Wise, the U of I chancellor, informing him that his job offer had been rescinded. Wise wrote that the position was subject to approval by the university’s Board of Trustees, but in his case, the appointment would not even be submitted to the Board.  “We believe that an affirmative Board vote approving your appointment is unlikely,” Wise wrote. “We therefore will not be in a position to appoint you to the faculty.”

This was a very unusual decision, because Board approval is typically no more than a formality. However, that changed when Salaita, an American citizen of Palestinian decent, expressed his rage against Israel in a series of tweets about the war in Gaza in July, which he posted on his Twitter account. (The New York Times published a report with a selection of those tweets so you get an idea). Until the summer of 2014, nobody at U of I questioned Salaita’s scholarship on Native American and Palestinian issues (his scholarship and publications are strongly tied to his political activism).

However, after an exposé on Salaita in The Daily Caller, an extreme right-wing electronic newspaper, as well as a charge of anti-Semitism from The Simon Wiesenthal Center  Campus Outreach program, there was major concern about his tweets and political positions. There seems also to be a trove of documents showing that the university administration turned against Salaita due to pressure from rich donors, whose interest is apparently well represented by the Board. “Having been a multiple six figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” wrote one U of I business school graduate, for example.

Wise’s decision attracted much attention and condemnation both from within the University of Illinois, and from large academic organizations such as the American Association of University Professors, the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. Several prominent professors of Jewish and Israel studies wrote in a statement that they found the actions against Salaita “deplorable.” On September 9, Prof. Salaita, who later wrote in an op-ed that the university had “destroyed” his career, released a statement declaring that he did not intend to give up. He added,

[m]y Twitter messages are no doubt passionate and unfiltered; they reflect my deep dismay at the deaths of more than 2,000 innocent Palestinians, over 500 of them children…My comments were not made in a classroom or on campus; they were made through my personal Twitter account. The University’s policing and judgment of those messages places any faculty member at risk of termination if University administrators deem the tone or content of his or her speech “uncivil” without regard to the forum or medium in which the speech is made.

On September 13, the Board of Trustees of the University took a vote, but Salaita’s case lost 8-1. Most of the trustees agreed with Wise’s “philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights,” and her decision to withdraw Salaita’s offer two weeks before classes started.

Steven Salaita day of action (Photo: Filckr/JeffreyPutney CC by 2.0)

Steven Salaita day of action (Photo: Filckr/JeffreyPutney CC by 2.0)

In the weeks since the Salaita affair became public, there has been much debate regarding the nature of the controversy. Some argue that this is about Israel and Palestine. Others that it is about when the fine line between outrage at Israel’s actions blurs into anti-Semitism. Or that this is an issue about the difference between “personal” assertions on social media, vs. “public” statements and published scholarship. Then there is the issue of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Or is this really about money, donors and the consequences of having a public university run according to a corporate-capitalist model? All these issues play a part in the Salaita affair. But, as Professor Michael Rothberg argues, by dividing themselves into camps, those who oppose the university’s decision to rescind its offer to Salaita are missing a crucial opportunity to mobilize for positive action. And it does not look as though this case will be resolved any time soon.

The next, perhaps unavoidable, step in this saga seems to be the American court system, which will have to deal with some of these questions on a legal basis. Salaita has stated that he is ready to sue the University and fight his case. But it has emerged that the Board of Trustees already took this possibility into account, and even considered the consequences of losing the case. Cary Nelson, a professor of English, who was consistent in his support of the Chancellor’s decision, said that a settlement of $1 million “would not be unreasonable.” Christopher Kennedy, the chairman of the board, seems to agree. He said “there’s a lot of case law about what you should do when this sort of thing occurs. So we’ll try to be consistent with best practices in the university environment and the corporate world as well.”

Kennedy’s statement demonstrates the extent to which American universities have become a mirror of corporate America, rather than independent institutions of learning. But this is not just about the big money that cash-starved public universities desperately need. This should be a red flag for anyone who cares about academic freedom, and the autonomy of academic governance. Whatever people might think of Salaita as a scholar, or about his tweets against Israel, the way his case was handled by the University of Illinois is a major failure of university administration and academic governance. But it is also a violation of the principle of academic freedom that stands at the heart of the American university system, and of academic and civil freedom everywhere, which insists that “when they speak or write as citizens, [professors] should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

The Salaita case is not an isolated one. Rather, it is the latest in a series of recent attempts to silence dissent in the academic world and in the public arena. This has been going on in the U.S., in Israel and around the world. Recent examples include an attempt by a right-wing organization with the dubious name AMCHA (In Hebrew AMCHA means “your nation,” which the U.S organization has translated as “the masses” in the “grassroots” sense of the term, but in colloquial Israeli Hebrew the term is used to refer to “the mob,” or common, uneducated people), which published a blacklist of Middle Eastern scholars who called for the boycott of Israel. This attempt to silence is, once again, done in the name of combating anti-Semitism and “protecting” Jewish students on campus.

Part of the complexity of the Salaita case is the permeable line between legitimate criticism of the policies and actions of the Israeli government and army – even if done with inappropriate “uncivil” language – and anti-Semitism. This line should be clearly drawn. There is plenty of real, virulent anti-Semitism in the world today, including in the US. Confusing harsh words by Salaita or others with real anti-Semitism is dangerous.

Another example is happening in Israel: Tel Hai College threatened to fire Gabby Weinrot, a teaching assistant who, like Salaita, made comments against the war in Gaza on Facebook. The college admitted to monitoring its faculty’s activity on social media, and indeed invited Weinrot for an investigation. In this case the college decided to censure him rather than fire him, perhaps because it was difficult to make the claim that an Israeli Jew is an anti Semite. Besides, Tel Hai College doesn’t have donors with deep pockets to cover the cost of litigation. There was also the 2012 attempt to shut down the “leftist” Department of Politics at Ben Gurion University.

Everyone who is alarmed by these cases and by the Salaita affair must fight this dangerous trend. Today it was Steven Salaita, but if you are voicing criticism of Israel’s actions (even as a Jewish critic in Israel), tomorrow it could be you or me.

Shachar Pinsker is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. He publishes widely on Hebrew, Jewish and Israeli literature and culture on his personal academic website.

Related:
Silencing dissent in Israel – continued
Israel’s Left forgot what dissent really means
Dissent in Israel: On the margins, yes, in the mainstream, no

 

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    COMMENTS

    1. bir

      What a sympathetic write-up of poor old Salaita.

      First of all, there is no evidence that wealthy donors influenced the outcome here. 430 emails were released by the university that included all of the correspondence relevant to this matter and the large majority of emails were from concerned students, alumni and outsiders. There were only a handful of emails suggesting that donations would be cut off and they were written in the past tense.

      Second, the author entirely evaded what Salaita actually wrote and tweeted. Perhaps if he had, this article would have been very different. Salaita’s book, Israel’s Dead Soul, is available on the internet and it is a piece of junk. It is entirely unserious and quite hateful – just like his tweets.

      The university had not hired him yet and was within its rights to terminate him. His letter of acceptance, which is included in those emails released by the university is absolutely clear that final approval of the hiring must be given by the board. Normally it is a formality, but there is nothing normal about a new hire who hasn’t started yet tweeting hateful messages that prove he will be exclusionary to those people who disagree with him politically.

      Finally, you and others here have a choice to make. If you’re all for academic freedom, then you cannot, by definition, support a boycott of Israeli academe. If you’re against academic freedom for Israelis, then be quiet and watch as the BDS activist who hates not just Zionists but Jews as well (read Israel’s Dead Soul) loses his job.

      Otherwise, you can be like me and simply accept that this has nothing to do with academic freedom. Academic freedom is not about tweeting hate, it is about the right to research and provide that research to others without fear of punishment or loss of job, status, income, etc. That does include the right to behave like an asshole outside of the university, but first you need to secure the job. Salaita forgot to dot his i’s and cross his t’s.

      Reply to Comment
      • Hayley

        Totally agree. Freedom of speech is one thing, but hateful tweets are another. I wouldn’t accept them from a pro-Israel individual and I won’t accept them from a pro-Palestine guy. In his situation, he should have known to not be so OTT.

        Reply to Comment
      • MTS

        “Otherwise, you can be like me and simply accept that this has nothing to do with academic freedom. Academic freedom is not about tweeting hate, it is about the right to research and provide that research to others without fear of punishment or loss of job, status, income, etc. That does include the right to behave like an asshole outside of the university, but first you need to secure the job. Salaita forgot to dot his i’s and cross his t’s.”

        Yes. This, exactly. Thank you.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Pedro X

      I do not know about the United States, but here in Canada there is no right of hate speech, which is what 972mag is attempting to protect when the object of that hate speech is Israel, Israelis or Israeli Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard

      A non-tenured job candidate broadcast a bunch of deranged, unhinged nonsense that would make most Jewish students feel unsafe. Palestinian children’s teeth? Seriously? Non hiring this guy was common sense and the free speech argument is BS because the guy DIDN’T HAVE TENURE.

      Reply to Comment
      • bir

        He had tenure, actually. The problem was different. He accepted the new position, gave notice at his former school (where, surprise, surprise, he had some problems because of his public statements) and moved to Illinois to begin his new job. In that middle phase, but before the UIUC board of trustees gave its final approval for his hiring, he went on a tweet festival attacking “Zionists” and Israel supporters in vehement and quite ugly terms. He also tacitly supported the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli teens and wish a similar fate upon all “settlers.”

        Then the trustees got wind of this, after a local newspaper got hold of the story and people began to write to them to complain. At that point, he lost his pending job and since he was between jobs, he also lost tenure. He may still be hired elsewhere with tenure but for now he’s in limbo.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Matt

      Salaita had a right to tweet whatever he wanted, and Illinois had the right to not want a sociopathic bigot on their staff.

      If 972mag has such a problem with that, let them hire Salaita on to write for them. Show how “tolerant” they are of people like him who want Israeli teens to “go missing.”

      Reply to Comment
    5. Danny

      Salaita was railroaded because Jewish donors made phone calls to the school’s principal and demanded his ouster. Pretty simple cause-and-effect here.

      As to his views: Are they any more controversial than the views of one Alan M. Dershowitz, who maintained a comfortable career as a Harvard professor all the while espousing some of the most bigoted, hateful, Islamophobic and xenophobic views in American academia? Of course not.

      So what’s the difference here? Answer: Jewish donors. Case closed.

      Reply to Comment
      • bir

        Is that why Stephen Walt published his book on the “Israel Lobby” while holding a chair funded by a Zionist?

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          Which zionist would that be?

          Reply to Comment
          • bir

            Have you ever heard of this newfangled technology called Google?

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            I’m too lazy.

            If you won’t (or maybe can’t?) tell me who this mystery man/woman is, then we’ll leave it at that.

            Reply to Comment
          • bir

            Of course I can.

            Too bad you’re lazy.

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            I’m lazy and uninterested about all information that comes from hasbarists. I have better uses for my time.

            Reply to Comment
          • bir

            Do you feel like an idiot or a clown when you use the term “hasbarist?”

            Reply to Comment
          • I normally stay way out of these internal comments now, but you lost this one to Danny, Bir. Danny asked you to document your claim. You’ve failed completely. If he could validate the claim via Google, so can you, in less time, for you purportedly know the answer beforehand.

            If you continue to fail his request, it is quite reasonable to assume you cannot support your statement, no your own “Google” terms.

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            You mean like you?

            Reply to Comment
          • bir

            Danny, couldn’t you come up with something as pithy and witty as Brian. A virtual poet, he.

            Reply to Comment
          • Sluggo

            The term hasbarist is completely overplayed. Typically it is employed by those who whine about being labelled anti Semites. Using the term does not give privilege to dismiss reasonable arguments that are pro Israel. Yet, this is exactly what those clowns do

            Reply to Comment
          • MuslimJew

            “Using the term does not give privilege to dismiss reasonable arguments that are pro Israel.”

            Keep telling yourself that that mountain of shit you’re shoveling somehow constitutes “reasonable arguments”, hasbara-clown.

            And keep telling yourself the hasbara that you hasbara-clowns can’t stop crapping out is “just explaining” and not bullshit propaganda, anti-semite.

            Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            What a jerk you are, Bir.

            Reply to Comment
          • MuslimJew

            “Do you feel like an idiot or a clown when you use the term “hasbarist?”

            Do you feel yourself up and think of Israel when you crap out your hasbara, idiot clown, hasbarist?

            Reply to Comment
          • JohnW

            Some people are scumbags for the sake of being scumbags.

            Some are just scumbags because they were born that way.

            Danny and Brian are BOOTH of those.

            Reply to Comment
          • Piotr Berman

            There are a lot of bits from Hasbara troopers (male Hasbaratniks, female Hasbaratchicks, robotic Hasbarots, transgender Hasbarawhats), but very little information in Shannon sense.

            Reply to Comment
          • JohnW

            While we are on the subject of information theory, you, Piotr Berman, failed the Turing test. You revealed yourself as a robot.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Joel

      Wasn’t Salaita’s story ‘done to death’ last month?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Victor Arajs

      Kudos to Professor Sharhar for exposing the deplorable situation at the University of Illinois. It seems that Illinois is under the heavy zionist jackboot as much as Palestine is. I call upon all academics to boycott the “University” of Illinios until Salaita is reinstated and those who opposed him are expelled and imprisoned

      Reply to Comment
    8. Sluggo

      There is absolutely no valid reason for Shalita to be employed at U,of I. Why is this still topical? End of story.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Avdim

      What a silly interpretation of the freedom of speech right. Freedom of speech is a political right. It means that unless what you’re saying falls under some legal limitation (like libel or hate speech) there’s nothing legal the government can do against you.

      Freedom of speech DOES NOT mean you don’t have to take responsibility for your words. Other people may not like what you’re saying and they have every right to legally react according to their beliefs.

      Maybe one should think twice before tweeting about children’t teeth hanging on a necklace?

      Victor Arajs – I liked your comment, it summarizes the entire article in one silly paragraph.

      Reply to Comment
    10. FRED LAPIDES

      The guy shown to be lousy scholar (see Martin Kramer on this), but that said, though i do like the guy etc., as a former academic, I would go with the dept decision. The problem with such decisions, alas, is often dept begin to feel sorry or care for someone and so suggest tenure not for good reasons but for compassion.

      I recall an instaqnce where a friend told me about a decision to turn down a white South African for tenure because he was racist and the dept members felt he would not bew a decent companion in a community college with many blacks…is that reason sufficient? you decide.

      Reply to Comment
      • freespeechlover

        Thanks for posting; I will share with colleagues. I’m so glad that 972 decided to write about the attack on faculty governance and academic freedom involved.

        Reply to Comment
    11. His tweets were deplorable including the exposition of his desire that all of us, residing in Judea and Samaria, should die just like the three kidnapped boys. And even worse: His maintaining that we, in Israel, enjoy making sexual provocations and dirty-minded sexual investigations of Arab women as they enter our country. Reminds me of the blood libels and Passover plots of Jews kidnapping Gentile boys to steal their blood for our bread. Essentially, Salaita’s ugly renditions of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” all dressed up to fit his miserable rhetoric. Do we really want him teaching anywhere? Does “freedom of speech” not have limits? Is that all “post-modern” academic freedom is about? Is that what is being advocated by the liberal academic masses? I say, academia gone awry. No longer worth our tax money. And the author here and his deliberate choices about academic “freedoms” such asat Ben Gurion University.; he appears to have no in-depth knowledge of what is going on, just a remarkably high-pitched rhetoric without sufficient understanding nor analysis. So far, I have realized how weak and superficial most of the responses to Salaita and his non-hiring have actually been. Dissent in academia is actually trivial.

      Reply to Comment
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