UCLA Jewish Studies Director Cancels Illinois Lecture, Citing Treatment of Salaita Case

Todd Presner says he condemns anti-Semitic speech and does not defend Steven Salaita's infamous tweets, but also recognizes academic's right to express views.

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Students taping their mouths shut in support for Steve Salaita during a rally at the University of Illinois campus, Sept. 9, 2014, in Champaign Ill.
Students taping their mouths shut in support for Steve Salaita during a rally at the University of Illinois campus, Sept. 9, 2014, in Champaign Ill.Credit: AP

The director of UCLA’s Jewish studies center canceled a lecture at the University of Illinois over its withdrawal of a job offer to Steven Salaita, a harsh critic of Israel.

Professor Todd Samuel Presner sent a letter in late March to Phyllis Wise, chancellor at the Urbana-Champaign school, informing her that he will not come to the campus for its Rosenthal Lecture because of how her office and the university board handled the Salaita case. The letter was made public by the university on Wednesday.

The cancellation of the lecture and the posting of the letter were first reported by Ali Abunimah on the Electronic Intifada website.

The university withdrew the offer of a tenured professorship in the American Indian Studies department after Salaita made inflammatory statements against Israel on social media, notably during its war last summer with Hamas. He also tweeted on the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers who attended a seminary in the West Bank: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the f***ing West Bank settlers would go missing.” The teenagers were later found to have been murdered.

Salaita later removed the tweets.

Steven SalaitaCredit: John McCormick

The Rosenthal Lecture, titled “A Message in a Bottle: Holocaust Testimony and the Jewish Future,” was scheduled for April 27.

“To deliver the Rosenthal lecture at UIUC while you are at the helm of this institution would be to condone your actions and the leadership of your office and Board,” Presner said in his letter.

Presner added that he does not defend Salaita’s tweets, nor is he assessing his scholarship.

“I want to be unequivocally clear about my own position: I condemn anti-Semitic speech and also recognize his right to express his views,” he wrote. “At the same time, I also believe that we need to thoughtfully and honestly confront the complex and violent reality that spawned these speech acts (and many others, on both sides). That’s a tall order when the silencing of dissent at all levels of public and private discourse is evermore prevalent and particularly when that silencing comes from the very places that are meant to protect it.”

Presner said that he will give a scheduled workshop and meet with university faculty and students off campus and will not take any payment or honoraria from the university.

In canceling a speech or lecture at Illinois over the Salaita affair, Presner joins other prominent people such as Cornel West and Anita Hill.

In January, Salaita sued the university for failing to hire him. Salaita had given up a tenured position at Virginia Tech in anticipation of the hire.

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