Support floods in for Steven Salaita

August 19, 2014

Bill Mullen, a professor of English and American Studies at Purdue University and one of the organizers of the effort to get the American Studies Association to vote to honor the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions, reports on the tide of support for a pro-Palestinian professor fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A MASSIVE public campaign in support of fired pro-Palestinian and Arab-American scholar Steven Salaita has now generated more than 15,000 signatures calling for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to reinstate him. More than 2,000 faculty from around the world have signed pledges to boycott UIUC until Salaita is given his job back.

But Salaita has not been offered his job back, and his status remains uncertain.

On August 1, Salaita received an e-mail from UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise saying that his job offer to become an associate professor of American Indian Studies was not likely to be approved by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

Salaita had already signed an offer letter--the equivalent in academia to an employment contract--to take the position as of October 2013. He sold his home in Virginia, where he was associate professor at Virginia Polytechnic University, and was in the process of moving with his family, including his two year-old son, when he received Wise's notice.

Steven Salaita poses with his child
Steven Salaita poses with his child

Salaita was fired after the Daily Caller and the News-Gazette newspapers in Champaign-Urbana published articles that included criticisms of Salaita's twitter posts opposed to Israel's Operation Protective Edge massacre in Gaza.

Subsequent to Salaita's firing, the Jewish Voice reported that executives of the Simon Weisenthal Center had written a letter to University of Illinois President Robert Easter calling Salaita's posts "blatantly anti-Semitic."

After Israel began its bombing campaign on Gaza in July, Salaita, who has written several books on Arab American literature and one critical of Israel state policy, tweeted his outrage at the loss of Palestinian life.

In an article published first at Mondoweiss, Phan Nguyen carefully examined Salaita's tweets, showing that Salaita was not only consistent in his criticism of Israeli state policy, but he had a long record of criticizing anti-Semitism. Nguyen documents his contention with numerous examples, including this tweet, for instance: "I refuse to conceptualize ‪#Israel/‪#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs."

Nguyen's article also pointed out that Salaita critics like Cary Nelson had both misused and misinterpreted Salaita's twitter posts to accuse him of anti-Semitism. Nelson is a longstanding backer of Israel and critic of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise has also criticized BDS.

It is no coincidence then that Salaita has been fired for supporting the Palestinians and criticizing Israel.

THE OUTPOURING of support for Salaita has been an inspiring boost for both academic freedom and the Palestine solidarity movement in the U.S.

Since his firing, public petitions supporting Salaita and calling for his reinstatement have come from scholars in specific academic disciplines, including History, Philosophy, English, Arab American Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, Women's Studies, Communication, Latina/o Studies and Constitutional Law. A general statement from scholars calling for Salaita's reinstatement has gathered more than 1,200 signatures.

Leading academics from across the world have condemned UIUC's actions, including Robin D.G. Kelley, Judith Butler, Vijay Prashad, Gayatri Spivak, Angela Davis, Richard Falk and Etienne Balibar. Statements from professional associations condemning UIUC have come from the Center for Constitutional Rights, American Association of University Professors, United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, the Arab American Studies Association and the American Studies Association.

Yet as this article was being written, neither Chancellor Wise nor the Board of Trustees have responded to the numerous petitions and letters.

Wise reportedly did meet on Monday morning with a group of University of Illinois faculty, but said nothing new about the case. Also on Monday, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois called for a meeting "in closed session...[to] consider University employment or appointment-related matters, and pending, probable or imminent litigation against, affecting, or on behalf of the University." No report has been issued as yet about that meeting.

The case of Steven Salaita remains a critical litmus test in the Palestinian freedom struggle. The university's attempts to censor and fire a critic of Israel represents a threat to teachers everywhere who dare to criticize Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

His case also reflects the corporate management style of a university attacking not only individual professors, but its part-time and non-tenure track faculty. As the UIUC Campus Faculty Association local noted, the university's attempts to deny pay increases to recently organized non-tenure track faculty are continuous with its heinous breach of Salaita's right to employment.

Steven Salaita's fight for his job is a struggle we all need to be a part of. The ability of workers to fight racism, sexism, homophobia and U.S. imperialism wherever they can and whenever they can is at stake.

Further Reading

From the archives