[Marxism] Fwd: 'I am no anti-Semite' says Steven Salaita, lecturer-cum celeb who was fired for tweeting - Weekend Israel News | Haaretz
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Fri Dec 5 12:22:24 MST 2014
'I am no anti-Semite' says Steven Salaita, lecturer-cum celeb who was
fired for tweeting
A few rude anti-Israel tweets during the Gaza war cost Dr. Steven
Salaita an academic appointment, but earned him celebrity status on the
lecture circuit. So, is there still freedom of speech in the U.S.?
By Neta Alexander | Dec. 5, 2014 | 3:45 PM
That tweet, by Dr. Steven Salaita, appeared at the height of Israel’s
Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer. Salaita, a
Palestinian-American university professor, has been a hot figure lately
in the American media, after he was abruptly fired by the University of
Illinois under pressure from Jewish students and organizations.
Google Salaita’s name in Hebrew, and you’ll get fewer than 10 relevant
links. But in English there have been thousands of mentions of his name
in the past three months: magazine articles in The New York Times and
The Guardian, op-eds in The Chicago Tribune and The Huffington Post,
television interviews and detailed reports about his lecture tour in
November at leading universities such as Northwestern, Princeton,
Columbia and the University of Chicago.
In many senses, the disparity between the Hebrew and English Google
counts is the essence of the story. While the media in the United States
are engaged in heated debates over whether Salaita is an anti-Semitic,
anti-Israeli provocateur or the victim of a campaign by Jewish
organizations to silence him, few Israelis have even heard of him.
Had it not been for Operation Protective Edge, it’s unlikely anyone
would know of the 39-year-old Salaita, born in America to a mother of
Palestinian origin who grew up in Nicaragua, and a Jordanian father.
After teaching for a few years as a senior lecturer in the English
literature department of Virginia Tech, he applied two years ago for a
tenured position in the American Indian studies program of the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The university signed a
contract with him in October 2013, and this past summer Salaita and his
wife, Diana, were busy preparing for their move with their 2-year-old son.
However, on August 1, weeks before the start of the academic year,
Salaita received a letter from the chancellor of UIUC, Dr. Phyllis Wise,
informing him that the university had decided unilaterally to cancel his
contract, as the board of trustees had refused to approve the appointment.
Later, Salaita discovered that this unusual move meant the university
was acceding to the demands of Jewish students and organizations who
were infuriated by his provocative, anti-Israeli tweets during Operation
Protective Edge. Example: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m
not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” Other
tweets included curses aimed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Salaita was accused of being anti-Semitic. He says Jewish donors
threatened to withdraw funding then and in the future if the university
approved the appointment. But a spokesman for UIUC told Haaretz that “no
donor was involved in the decision not to approve Salaita’s appointment.”
However, in an interview via Skype with Haaretz from his home in
Virginia, Salaita sounds far more conciliatory. In his words, “I had the
suffering in Gaza on my mind throughout the summer. Twitter can be a way
of articulating viewpoints and being a conversation with like-minded
people. This is also its appeal: When something horrible is happening
you hope that somebody out there will read what you are writing and will
perhaps make these terrible things stop.”
On the other hand, your tweets condemned every effort by Israel to
defend itself. Why did you criticize every attempt to stop Hamas’
attacks on Israelis?
“The very reality of Gaza is one that exists under continual Israeli
violence, so I‘m not sure about the utility of separating rocket attacks
from the context in which they occur and thinking about them as somehow
exceptional. There have been dozens of times in which Israel has
launched an unprovoked attack on Gaza. In terms of the rockets, I just
don’t see what kind of actions justify the cruel slaughter of so many
civilians and the destruction of so much property.
“Look at the numbers. The absolute indignities of the occupation mean
that if Israel wants to prevent rocket attacks, carpet-bombing Gaza is
probably not the best tactic they could use. With a little bit of
political vision and creativity this sort of violence need not occur in
the first place, but I don’t think the current Israeli leadership
possesses these qualities.”
In retrospect, the letter telling Salaita that he was unemployed – he
had resigned his tenured post at Virginia Tech after being hired by UIUC
– was only the beginning: Instead of licking his wounds and looking for
a job at another university, Salaita decided to counterattack. Last
month, he filed a lawsuit against UIUC, demanding that the university
make public the minutes of the meetings and the email correspondence of
the members of the committee that dealt with his case.
In the past few weeks, he has given dozens of talks across the United
States to tell his story and protest against the wrong he believes has
been done to him. In the course of his lecture tour, he spoke at eight
universities in New York State within less than a week under the rubric,
“Silencing Dissent.” In most cases, including NYU, Columbia and Brooklyn
College (as can be seen on YouTube videos) there were hundreds of
students and faculty in the audience, and he generally drew
enthusiastically supportive responses.
In the light of his provocative tweets, many Israelis will probably
understand the decision not to grant him an academic post. However, that
approach would contrast starkly with the waves of support Salaita has
received from numerous organizations in America and abroad.
Beyond ardent backing from pro-Palestinian groups such as Justice for
Palestine, the Modern Language Association, one of the largest academic
organizations in the United States, issued a public statement of support
for Salaita, as did the American Association of University Professors.
The Middle East Studies Association followed in their footsteps and
subsequently also published a draft resolution of support for BDS – the
movement calling for boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel,
which has been gaining momentum in the United States. Salaita, who is
also a longtime writer of articles for the Electronic Intifada website,
is a fervent advocate of BDS.
Amid all this, he is acquiring growing numbers of supporters. His
Twitter account has more than 11,000 followers, his recently opened
Facebook account garnered several thousand Likes within weeks.
What accounts for this phenomenon? Should a distinction be drawn between
statements made in the social media and remarks made in an academic
framework? And if not, where is the line drawn between legitimate
comments and those that may serve as grounds for dismissal? And, most
crucial: How does one conduct a critical debate on the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict without stirring the wrath of students,
lecturers, academic organizations and donors on both sides of the divide?
Those questions can explain why Salaita’s struggle is getting public
support from American academics, among them Corey Robin, a professor of
political science at Brooklyn College, and law professor Katherine
Franke from Columbia.
Prof. Brian Leiter, from the University of Chicago Law School, went so
far as to call Salaita’s dismissal “the single most brazen attack on
freedom of speech at American universities in my lifetime.” He added, in
a speech in Chicago, that it was a violation of the First Amendment to
the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and “prohibits the
government, including a state university, from punishing individuals for
expressing their views on matters of public concern.” Moreover, “that
First Amendment right does not come with a caveat to the effect that
only civil or respectful expression is actually protected.” What was
done to Salaita, Leiter added, is “both a legal and a moral outrage, and
it is a threat to the integrity of public discourse… that is essential
to university life.”
A panel discussion at Brooklyn College, part of his lecture tour last
month, provides an instructive example of the reception Salaita is
getting in some leading institutions of higher education. An unusually
long line formed outside the building where the event took place.
Despite the bitter cold, people had to wait while three security guards
checked their IDs and opened their bags – an unusual procedure at
American academic institutions. Signs posted en route to the large
lecture hall read “We have the right to speak” and “Uphold indigenous
The audience consisted of about 200 students and lecturers, many wearing
kaffiyehs and black T-shirts emblazoned with the inscription, “Stop the
massacre in Gaza.” Others wore jerseys identifying them with Justice for
Palestine, the event’s sponsor.
Salaita was clearly on home ground here. Asked by Prof. Corey Robin from
Brooklyn College why he posted the tweets against Israel in recent
months, he replied that they expressed his anger and frustration at the
suffering in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.
“There was a sense of anguish which I shared with many people,” he said.
“We all felt that there was nothing useful we could do in order to
prevent the abject suffering that the people of Gaza were enduring. The
images of dead and wounded infants and toddlers were coming across our
social media feed. I remember seeing a picture of children being stored
in an ice-cream freezer because the morgues had run out of space, and
since there was no electricity the bodies were to decompose rapidly in
the summer’s heat.
“I was outraged by the way this slaughter was being covered. The media
treats it with a sense of equivalence – ‘Hamas and Israel exchange fire’
– and there is a complete lack of the colonial context. They keep
focusing on reprisal and rockets. I don’t give a damn who fired first.
The point is that Israel displaced 700,000 people in 1948. That’s what
Salaita continued, “They talk about violence as if violence is something
that happens in self-contained moments or events that can be identified
and categorized. But for the people of Gaza they endure continual
violence. Everything about the military occupation is violent. They have
been starved and confined for years. It is not a violence you can shield
In response, Dr. Robin, who moderated the discussion, quoted from one of
the tweets that led to Salaita’s dismissal in August: “Zionists:
transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something
honorable since 1948.”
To this, Salaita replied, “I’m not anti-Semitic. Twitter conversations
happen in a specific moment of time, and they only stand for a minor
part of an overall narrative. Conceptualizing criticism of the behavior
of a nation-state as anti-Semitism is not only a stupid thing to do but
it alters, at least passively, the meaning of anti-Semitism and it ends
up devaluing the actual instances of hate crimes against Jews that still
happen around the world. In fact, many of my tweets over the summer were
making the distinction between anti-Semitism and the ability to
“It is my sense that Muslims and American-Arabs tend to be extremely
careful about making distinctions between Jews and the State of Israel,
because they spend so much time being implicated as an entire group for
the acts of violence that other people do: Boko Haram does something,
and all of the sudden all of the Muslims in the United States are
implicated. It is never a good idea to implicate an entire cultural
group with a political action or a form of violence.”
Referring to the tweet in which he expressed the hope that all the
settlers “would go missing,” Salaita observed during the college event,
“You cannot justify firing me based on an inference about what somebody
means in a tweet. The first thing that I teach students is that
authorial intent is not the best way to interpret a novel, or a tweet in
this case. When people say, ‘You meant that you want them all to be
killed or murdered,’ I can’t expect that. I meant that I wanted them to
go missing. There’s a long tradition of people who have been colonized
wishing that their colonizers will [disappear]. You might not like to
hear it, but it’s true – they don’t like you, and they don’t want you
Almost every reply by Salaita drew loud applause, and afterward many in
the audience went up to him to express their support and ask for a
selfie with the lecturer-turned-celeb.
Palestinians and Indians
In the interview with Haaretz, which took place last week, Salaita
sought to present a slightly different point of view and appeal directly
“It mostly comes from my cultural background,” he explained about his
approach. “I’ve been interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as
long as I can remember. It is something that I used to talk about with
my parents, not just Palestine but broader politics of the Arab world,
when I was a teenager. My parents moved to the U.S. as international
students and decided to make a home here. My cultural heritage is rich
and complex. I’m an Arab-American, or a Palestinian-American.”
In June 2014, before Protective Edge started, you twitted, “Hate is such
a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred verb when discussing racism,
colonization, neoliberalism, sexism, and Israel.” Your critics claim
that you confuse free speech with hate speech.
“Let me relate to this specific tweet. Part of it is being ironic, part
of it is being provocative, and part of it is making a political
statement about my relationship with nation-states in general and with
Israel in particular. In the U.S. there is a taboo around proclaiming
any sort of hatred for a nation-state, but I actually think that it
could be a productive mode of entry into a critical engagement with it.
I would never say that I hate Israelis, or that I hate this or that
group, but the state itself should be a fair target for this sort of
Would you say this is productive criticism?
“I agree with you that this is not the kind of statement that’s
conducive to a productive conversation ... But I do believe that Israel,
as well as the U.S., Canada and so many other states that come about in
any debate on the history of colonialism, do require profound structural
changes. So I guess it would have been more productive to say that I
hate Israel as it is currently exists in relation to the Palestinians,
and not just ‘I hate Israel.’”
A perusal of the six books Salaita has published shows that it is indeed
unfair to focus on a few tweets. An expert in comparative literature and
post-colonialism, he wrote one book called “Modern Arab American
Fiction: A Reader’s Guide” (2011), and another entitled “Anti-Arab
Racism in the USA: Where it Comes From and What it Means for Politics”
(2006). Two other books by him may be of more interest to Israeli
readers: “The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for
Canaan” (2006), a reworking of his Ph.D. thesis at the University of
Oklahoma, and his most recent book, “Israel’s Dead Soul” (2011).
In his doctoral thesis, Salaita described Zionism as “a separatist
colonial movement that far from being an innocent foray into an empty
land promised by God, in reality led to a brutal and well-planned
displacement replete with atrocities Israel continues to deny.” The bulk
of “The Holy Land in Transit” is devoted to a historical comparison
between the “Zionist occupation” and the wrongs done to the Indians by
Europeans after the “discovery of America.” By this logic, Israel and
the United States are the conquerors and occupiers, while the
Palestinians and the Indians are the victims.
In response to my question about this comparison, Salaita explains,
“There have been many waves of communities who have come both to North
America and the so-called Holy Land based on different forms of
oppression and political realities that have pushed people to migrate,
such as the genocide of Jews in Europe. I think that where the
comparison becomes most fruitful is at the level of discourse.
“The early American settlers, and the English particularly, often
conceptualized themselves in terms of Israel in the wilderness and other
biblical phrases. They described the natives they encountered as
Canaanites and Amalek. They thought of their mission as an errand
inspired by the Book of Joshua – to conquer a land of milk and honey.
This is not the narrative that the vast majority of early Zionists used.
It was much more secular and even hostile to the idea of a religious
state. However, the comparison that comes into play is in the notion of
redeeming a landscape, the notion of destiny for the project of
“So it is not so much the political conditions that inspired migration
as it is a particular strand of discourse about settlements that in many
cases sound the same in both North America and Palestine.”
Victors and spoils
In “The Holy Land in Transit,” you describe Zionism as “a brutal and
well-planned displacement” of an indigenous population,” but ignore the
circumstances that led to Israel’s War of Independence.
“I think there is an historical record that clearly indicates that it
was planned. Some of the early Zionist intellectuals, like Ze’ev
Jabotinsky, knew that the local population would try to resist any
attempt of displacement. Even if Israel wants to contextualize its
founding as a moment of independence, it cannot ignore the displacement
of the Palestinian population. The Arab countries saw this, quite
rightly, as a Western colonial project, and they rejected its formation
on that basis. In general terms, almost all founding narratives of any
nation-states are inflected with a sense of mythology.”
Still, there was a war and Israel emerged victorious.
“That’s a condition of a particular sort of politics: to the victor goes
the spoils. But we are not obliged to simply accept that logic of
warfare. It follows from an abstract principle that the party who is
able to master more force is justified in whatever outcome he’s able to
generate, but obviously other considerations need to come into place.
There are Palestinian refugees from 1948 who are still awaiting a
solution. From a moral standpoint, why should they accept their own
displacement and disposition to accommodate for another group’s national
Interestingly, Salaita’s supporters insist that the real reason for his
dismissal is not the content of his books or his public statements –
which are basically no different from many other American academics who
back the BDS movement – but his provocative style. Indeed, Salaita says
that when he asked the university why he had been de-hired, he was told
that his “impolite” style was liable to sour the atmosphere in his
classes, and therefore he could not fit into an academic institution. Of
all the criticism that’s been leveled at him, this is the one that seems
to incense Salaita most.
“They claimed I am uncivil, a word that only Americans use,” he says
angrily. “That is a word that actually redefines political correctness
as a discourse space in which we all have to be polite and nice all the
time, even when reality itself is violent. There is no measure of
politeness or civility in Israel’s aggression against the residents of
Gaza. That’s why I recently tweeted that civility is the language of the
aggressor, it’s a violent word whose roots are racist.”
At the same time, Salaita and those who agree with him argue that the
decision to fire him attests to confusion and to a failure to
distinguish between remarks in the social media and in an academic context.
“My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a
few 140-character posts,” Salaita wrote in a September 29 article in the
Chicago Tribune, headlined “U. of I. destroyed my career.”
At the moment, this does indeed appear to be the case. Still, this is an
issue that American academia will go on debating in the months ahead,
when the court hears Salaita’s request to have all the documents
relating to his dismissal made public. In response to a question of what
will happen next, Salaita smiles and admits he has no idea.
“I hope that University of Illinois will reinstate me. I’m optimistic
that it will happen,” he says. “I have little hope that I can get a job
elsewhere because the university has so effectively smeared me as
anti-Semitic and violent and as a terrible teacher, contrary to all the
Looking back, do you have any regrets? Is there anything you would have
“I wish all of us would have had an opportunity to be in actual
conversation with each other before we hunkered down on different sides
of a divide. It’s not surprising that my case more or less runs along
the fault lines of the Israel-Palestine conflict more broadly. Contrary
to popular belief, I love chatting with political opponents. But in the
end we all have to heed the realities of those who are colonized – on
this basic point I insist, whether on Twitter or in person.”
In response to Salaita’s accusations, University of Illinois spokesman
Thomas Hardy said that “... donor opinion was not a factor in the
decision not to hire Prof. Salaita. The university chose not to hire
Prof. Salaita, so he was not fired and he continues to exercise his
right to free speech. Since he has chosen to file a lawsuit against the
university, the university will not comment further.” The university
declined to answer a question about whether there was any chance Salaita
would be able to teach there in the future.
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