'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.?

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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Steven Salaita
Steven SalaitaCredit: John McCormick
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK – “I repeat: If you’re defending #Israel right now, then ‘hopelessly brainwashed’ is your best prognosis.”

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.”

University of Illinois students protesting in support of Dr. Steven Salaita.Credit: AP

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.”

The counterattack

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.”

‘Colonial context’

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 peoples’ rights.”

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 started it.”

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 yourself from.”

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 criticize Israel.

“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 there.”

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 to Israelis.

“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 critic.”

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 nation-building.

“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 ideals?”

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 available evidence.”

Looking back, do you have any regrets? Is there anything you would have done differently?

“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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