The university chose censorship over debate

September 29, 2014

On September 11, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Board of Trustees voted by an 8-1 margin to uphold the firing of Steven Salaita. The termination of the distinguished Arab American scholar weeks before he was to start teaching in his new position in UIUC's American Indian Studies program--because of comments he made on Twitter that were critical of Israel's war on Gaza--prompted an unprecedented campaign by defenders of free speech, academic freedom and Palestine solidarity.

The pressure hasn't forced the trustees to relent yet, but the struggle continues. In the meantime, the movement for Salaita has helped expose how pro-Israel donors and a broader network of pro-Zionist organizations police criticism of Israel on college campuses--and how they hound university administrators to punish people who defy them.

As the next stage of the struggle was shaping up, Salaita spoke to Eric Ruder about the drive to silence critics of Israel--and the ongoing struggle to compel UIUC to reinstate him.

WHAT HAVE you found most surprising since UIUC fired you?

THE MOST shocking thing is still the letter I received terminating my appointment. That was on August 2, and it still resonates more than anything.

But beyond that, I am struck and amazed and happy that so many people have put so much sustained energy into this particular campaign, which continues to grow. And people have connected it to so many other important matters that it intersects with: academic freedom, the Israeli occupation and the assault on Gaza, most obviously.

So far, 16 academic departments at UIUC have voted no confidence in Chancellor Phyllis Wise. There are almost 19,000 signatures on the change.org petition, and nearly 6,000 individual academics have pledged to boycott UIUC--that is, not visit UIUC to deliver lectures or attend conferences--unless and until it reinstates me. Already, several academics have canceled lectures, and one conference that had already been scheduled has been canceled.

I think it's hard to get so many academics and activists on the same page, but around this issue, if there is not a consensus, there are at least a lot of people guided by a shared set of strong feelings.

Steven Salaita speaks at a press conference held in Urbana
Steven Salaita speaks at a press conference held in Urbana (Eric Ruder | SW)

IT'S NOW clear from your case and others that an extensive network of pro-Israel organizations is hard at work trying to silence critics of Israel, especially on college campuses. Drawing on your experience, how do they work and what can be done to challenge them?

THEY CHIEFLY are working to pressure university administrators and politicians, and they have the ear of powerful administrators--some people say more than the ear. It's clear that they have the ability in certain cases to set the tone for what administrators are going to consider acceptable or unacceptable vis à vis what students, faculty, and organizers say and think with respect to Palestine.

We can see that their power is concentrated in the spaces of upper administration. They've come to represent the power of the state and the power of authority, whereas a lot of the folks organizing around Palestine--in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, with anti-occupation work, direct action--are very much rooted in grassroots methodologies, so to speak.

So we are not just taking on groups of people and organizations which are trying to shut down criticism of Israel. We are also engaged with a particular form of power that attaches itself to state authority, that is punitive, and that doesn't like debate. That's the final thing that it tells me--these groups don't have a compelling argument, so they resort to shutting down voices and points of view that they find discomfiting.

CAN YOU talk about their strategy of accusing critics of Israeli government policy of "anti-Semitism"?

IT'S A dishonest tactic, and it's a tactic meant to silence and intimidate by way of its inherent force.

Firstly, it's unfair and slanderous, and it affects people in serious ways because it's a charge of racism that nobody wants hanging around their neck. Unless the person is racist and somehow proud of it, but nobody in the circles I run in meets that criterion. It's usually applied to people who are deeply engaged in the work of anti-racism, so I think it can be particularly unnerving for those who come under such attack.

The problems with it on a philosophical-moral level are legion. What strikes me first of all is that it creates tidy categories--binaries--between Arabs and Jews, homogenizing both of the communities. It completely overlooks the long tradition, extending to well before Israel's founding, of Jewish opposition to Zionism and Jewish dissent against Israeli state policies.

In the contemporary context, it creates a litmus test of political posturing as a mode of ethnic credibility, and that's problematic. If you want to be a "real Jew," then you have to believe, say, that Israel must maintain a Jewish majority, or you can't engage in critiques of the Nakba [Arabic for "catastrophe," referring to the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 founding of Israel] or of the problems inherent to Zionism itself.

I don't think we should ever outfit ethnic identity with political litmus tests, because who gets to adjust these standards of credibility? Who gets to enforce them? It is always the powerful party that has access to these things.

Finally, it's problematic for those who want to contribute to the cause of battling actual instances of anti-Semitism, ethnic hatred and the violence that is still visited upon Jewish people, even here in the 21st century.

Conflating an act of racism with a critique of the actions and behaviors of a nation state is ridiculous. If they're telling us that it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel's bombing of children, its illegal settlements, its home demolitions--if all of these sorts of things become anti-Semitic--then they are tacitly changing the definition of anti-Semitism in profoundly troublesome ways.

AS THE war on Gaza this summer put Israel's brutality in a global spotlight, defenders of Israel stepped up their attempts to silence critics. They might point to your case and say their strategy is working. What do you think?

IT DEPENDS on how you define "working."

Narrowly defined, I guess it worked in the sense that UIUC fired me--and we have yet to win my reinstatement. But if the goal was to shut down conversation, then I would say it backfired spectacularly.

People are talking about these issues of academic, free speech and Israeli war crimes more than ever. So if their goal was to be punitive and to cause me harm, then I guess you could say that it worked, although surely I'm going to recover. But if their goal was to silence and intimidate people and keep them quiet, I would say it failed.

In the end--and I think they must know this in their heart of hearts, though then again, maybe not, because a lot of them are used to relying on the trappings of state power to get what they want--you can't win an argument by silencing the other side. You just can't--not long-term. I think this is a problem with that particular strategy of theirs.

The other side doesn't have an argument. I don't mean that they are unable to articulate points of view. I mean to simply say that they don't have a coherent argument. It doesn't exist. In my case, it amounts to saying, "Well, he's an anti-Semite." But they don't have a good moral argument to make. They certainly don't have any facts of history on their side. There's really nothing about Israel's actions in Gaza that are defensible.

So instead of engaging in public debate, instead of having these arguments in public spaces, they prefer to just shut the entire thing down. If that's ever a winning strategy, it's only in an extremely short-term sense, and then it can't ever be a winning strategy in the long term. It can't be. It's not sustainable, and people are going to push back against what they see as bullying and intimidation.

ONE OF the ugliest aspects of UIUC's firing of you is that it has lent credence to the pro-Israel critics who assert that "Steven Salaita is anti-Semitic." This is particularly troubling because you've been an ardent opponent of racism, including anti-Semitism.

MY DETRACTORS can try to distort my record, but any honest assessment of it refutes such distortions. I have a long history of public writing, of scholarship, of tweeting, and they can take a look at it.

I don't think anybody who hasn't already made up their mind and who engages that material can possibly say there is an endorsement of anti-Semitism in any way; in fact, there are numerous condemnations of it. Numerous. Throughout my work are appeals to be aware of anti-Semitism, appeals to counter it and really to stomp it out of existence.

I would also point to the fact that my work draws on Zionist and Jewish intellectual traditions. This is readily apparent to anybody who knows anything about the history of debate regarding Zionism. It goes all the way back to Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha'am, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber--all of these are writers who have articulated the same points. I haven't said anything particularly original.

I put forward the idea that it's problematic to say it's anti-Semitic to criticize the behavior of a nation state--that we should never conflate our perception of culture with the behavior of states and militaries--because it inevitably is going to make the culture look bad. That's true of Palestinians, that's true of Iraqis, that's true of Venezuelans, that's true all over the world. That's just a general rule to which I adhere.

It's a simple principle. It's not complicated. It doesn't take much intellectual heft to understand it. This is introductory Moral Discourse 101.

I'm not asking people necessarily to agree with me. People have different perceptions about how to make sense of recent events in Gaza, for example, but there is nothing in that discourse that should lead anybody who has an ounce of intellectual honesty to believe the manipulative attempt to portray my opinions as "anti-Semitic." It's nonsense. There's nothing there.

BUT THE critics point to your tweet about how you wish all the "West Bank settlers would go missing," and they say, "Look, he is calling for all the settlers to be murdered like the three Israeli hitchhikers, and he hasn't recanted that obvious piece of anti-Semitism."

I CAN'T recant something that I never said, and I never said that. The point again is simple. It really shouldn't be controversial to anybody who has any familiarity with the history of Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

That tweet wishing the settlers would "go missing" was an appeal to peace, and not to violence. It was my way of saying that the settlements in the West Bank are actually the source of the conflict, and if there were no illegal settlers in the West Bank, there would be no conflict in the first place.

WHAT IS the aim of the campaign now, and what can people do to help?

THERE'S A Support Salaita Facebook page that has tons of information, and there's SupportStevenSalaita.com, which also has a lot of useful resources. If people are interested, they can connect themselves into those networks.

There are a lot of people working on my behalf, but I think we all share the same goal: We want the University of Illinois to honor its contract with me and to reinstate me so I can begin teaching and take up my duties there.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives