University of Illinois Urbana-Champaigne rescinded Professors Steven Salaita’s job over pro-Palestinian tweets sent out during Israel’s war on Gaza this summer Salaita says he is waiting for a ruling on his case for reinstatement
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
During the height of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this summer, Palestinian-American Steven Salaita prepared to begin a new job, a tenured job as professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Salaita’s academic work focuses on the connection between Native American and Palestinian colonial struggles, and over the summer, Salaita regularly Tweeted pro-Palestinian statements from his Twitter account. A few weeks before classes started, UIUC chancellor Phyllis Wise rescinded Salaita’s job offer, prompting students and faculty to protest on campus to reinstate Salaita.
Steven Salaita is in our studios in Baltimore today.
Thank you for joining us, Steven.
STEVEN SALAITA, SCHOLAR, INDIGENOUS STUDIES: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: Steven, let’s start by going back a little bit in terms of your own personal history and how you got here.
SALAITA: Sure. Sure. I was born and raised in southern Appalachia on the Virginia-West Virginia border. My parents are immigrants, my dad from Jordan, my mom from Nicaragua, her parents from Palestine. So it’s a little bit of a complicated cultural background.
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And I took a class when I was an undergraduate in the Native American novel, and it opened up my eyes to some of the histories of the settlement of North America and the formation of the United States through colonial violence. And so I became interested in sort of, I guess, mapping my presence in the United States as part of a settler society, but also as part of an immigrant community. And I started to notice the connections of colonial discourses in North America and in Palestine. And so I decided to make that my research focus in graduate school, and it’s something I’ve been working on ever since.
PERIES: Which was where? Where did you go to graduate school?
SALAITA: At the University of Oklahoma.
PERIES: And tell me what your studies entailed.
SALAITA: Mainly a comparison of the discourses of colonization during the early period of the settlement of North America, and then the colonial discourses among Zionist leaders and settlers in Palestine, and in particular the ways that those discourses focus on godly duties and responsibilities the way that they focus on notions of chosenness, the way that the native populations in both cases, the indigenous peoples of North America and then the Palestinians in the so-called holy land, are unchosen, that they’re sort of extraneous to the narratives of salvation and forgiveness, and extraneous, really, to the very concept of nation building.
PERIES: And would you say your studies and your journey in the United States was with mixed communities in terms of Israeli Americans and Palestinian Americans?
SALAITA: Very much so, very much so. There’ve been long relationships with people not only of different cultural backgrounds relating to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but of political viewpoints as well.
PERIES: And you would say you are politically active.
SALAITA: Yes. Yes.
PERIES: Okay. Now, bring us to Urbana. How did you end up there, and how did you get the job there?
SALAITA: Well, there was a posting in the American Indian Studies Program, and it wanted somebody who was focusing on global indigenous studies. And so they were asking potential candidates to look at parts of the world outside of North America, but whose work also connected to communities inside of North America. So it was kind of a global indigenist position. And a colleague suggested that I apply. I did. I went through a really rigorous, long interview process. I was recruited for quite a while. Once the committee decided that they wanted to hire me, I had to go through all of the relevant tenure and promotion committees at the University of Illinois. Then they offered me the job. I accepted it immediately. This was in early October of last fall. And everything was set to go, until August 2 of this summer, when I received the termination letter from chancellor Phyllis Wise.
PERIES: And you were already in a tenured position when you were being recruited by University of Illinois.
SALAITA: I was, at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, which I had resigned in anticipation of the move to Illinois.
PERIES: Right. And what was the reasons given to you by the Chancellor?
SALAITA: No reason was actually given at the time. It was–the letter that I received notifying me that I shouldn’t turn up on campus to start teaching was exceptionally vague. It did not list any reason beyond chancellor Wise’s speculation that the board of trustees would end up not approving the hire, but it didn’t say why. The university has since said that it had to do with my use of Twitter and my uncivil tone in that particular medium.
PERIES: And was that in writing?
SALAITA: It’s ever been in writing, no. No.
PERIES: Okay. So this controversial Tweeting that you are alleged with and also led to your dismissal, what was the nature of the Tweets? What are they talking about?
SALAITA: Largely condemnation of what Israel called Operation Protective Edge, the 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip, in which hundreds of civilians were killed, including hundreds of children.
PERIES: I think you, like many of us, watched what was happening in Gaza this summer with a great deal of agony, particularly because of the number of civilians that were displaced, that were killed. I think the UN puts it at 2,100, where they cite almost 500 of them were children. I think the world was watching with agony. We were all with you in this. And what was so extraordinary about the Tweets that you were Tweeting that called their attention?
SALAITA: I don’t think that there’s anything particularly extraordinary about the Tweets, which is what makes the situation of my having been terminated so extraordinary. You know, they were typical expressions of outrage that one would have found all over Twitter simultaneous to my own participation in the media about very detailed documented human rights violations that included the bombing of UN shelters, hospitals, schools, the wholesale massacre of children, and the wholesale bombing of residential areas. I really said nothing out of the ordinary in the context of the hundreds of thousands of others who were expressing a comparable outrage at Israel’s actions at the time.
PERIES: Tell me what some of the Tweets were and what the nature of them were.
SALAITA: I think what caught people’s attention was my critique of the discourse of anti-Semitism as a rhetorical device or accusations of anti-Semitism as a rhetorical device to shut down criticism of Israel, particularly the Israeli government. And I had some things to say about that, really some condemnation of the idea that it’s appropriate to deem criticism of the violent behavior of a nation-state as a form of racism or a form of anti-Semitism.
PERIES: Here you’re referring to this particular Tweet that you had sent out, “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”
PERIES: Explain what you intended to do in the 140 characters you’re allowed. And I think this is what you were getting at. So how was this misconstrued?
SALAITA: First of all, it was misconstrued by being taken out of a series of Tweets that I had sent in the previous and subsequent few moments, right? It was part of an entire series of Tweets. And in that series of Tweets, I express a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism. I express abhorrence at anti-Semitism. And I also better draw out my displeasure with the idea that calling a critique of Israel anti-Semitic is in any way a useful form of combating the very real scourge of anti-Semitic behavior and thought that continues to exist in the world. You know, I considered it a very silly and heavy-handed technique, one that doesn’t actually withstand serious or systematic scrutiny.
PERIES: Steven, you wrote in a Tweet, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”
SALAITA: Right. Right.
PERIES: Right. I’m uncomfortable with that too. What did you mean by that?
SALAITA: I meant that in the context of why there’s a conflict in the first place, right, we have to look at the foundation, right? This is not a conflict that began with Israel bombing the Gaza Strip and Hamas launching rockets into southern Israel. This a conflict that began with colonization, with settler colonization specifically. And what the settlers do in the West Bank is they create a situation of functional and philosophical apartheid. There are Jewish-only roads in the West Bank, the Palestinians have to sit at checkpoints for hours, they’re abused, they exist under military occupation, they’re cut off from their farmland, their olive trees get burned and razed to the ground, all of these things.
But we need to take the next step and ask on whose behalf are these things being done. And it’s being be done on behalf of the settlers, right? And so when I said “go missing”, it had nothing to do with them being kidnapped. It had nothing to do with them being murdered. It was a simple philosophical expression that the conflict would end. And the conflict will end when the settlers are there no longer.
PERIES: So you meant the settlements would disappear.
SALAITA: The settlements, along with its inhabitants, in the sense that I don’t–I am pinning the origin of the conflict, right, the current conflict, on this act of foreign settlement and the military occupation that comes along with it.
PERIES: Right. So, Steven, this ultimately led to them rescinding your job at Urbana. And how did that come about?
SALAITA: It came out of nowhere. It came out of nowhere. I received the letter on August 2 from the chancellor without any warning. From my point of view, it just sort of happened.
PERIES: Steve, in the Chicago Tribune op-ed you wrote, the publicly disclosed documents revealed that within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of the Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired.
SALAITA: Yeah. Yeah.
PERIES: And how did you find that out?
SALAITA: We found that out when some media outlets ran FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. And there seemed to be strong evidence, from the documents that subsequently were released, that donor pressure played a significant role in the university’s decision.
PERIES: And the FOIA actually revealed that more than one donor had written to the university taking a position on you specifically.
SALAITA: Yes. That’s right.
PERIES: And was there a defense by the university in terms of their–you know, was there a connection between your firing, rescinding your job offer, and these letters?
SALAITA: The University has maintained that donor pressure had nothing to do with it and that my viewpoints specifically about the Israel-Palestine [conflict] had nothing to do with it, that it was a matter of tone and civility.
PERIES: Now, that brings me to the point of civility. One of the reasons–and I quote–for the dismissal, later justified by the university and the chancellor, was that this might have led to uncivility in the classroom.
PERIES: And what did they mean by it? And what was your defense?
SALAITA: They’ve asserted that they have some anxiety about my ability to properly run a classroom and to accommodate students with different points of view. So that’s the claim that they’ve most often repeated. But I would say that that threatens to undermine the purpose and the values of a university quite more than anything I have done in reality or in terms of what I’ve been accused of. A university is a place where evidence should predominate, and they’re making assertions and coming to conclusions with zero evidence in tow.
I submitted, as part of my application process, part of the hiring process, a very thick dossier of my teaching record, and my student evaluations were outstanding. I’ve never fielded a complaint from a student in my 17 years of teaching. No formal complaints have been fired. Nobody has ever–no student has ever actually accused me of doing what the university says it is worried that I would do.
PERIES: And plus it’s not like they made some observations of you in the classroom and came to this conclusion.
PERIES: This was just–they were alleging this, that it might be one of the outcomes.
SALAITA: That’s right, and ignoring the hundreds and hundreds of students who’ve come out to say that we want him to be our teacher.
Steven, describe to me the support that the academic community and the student community has provided you in making your case.
SALAITA: A number of scholarly organizations have written statements or ratified statements condemning the university’s action. These include the MLA, the Modern Language Association, which is the largest in the country, possibly even in the world; the American Historical Association; the AAUP, the Association of American University Professors. So a number of scholarly groups and labor unions and academic associations have condemned the university.
PERIES: And where is your case at now?
SALAITA: It’s still in an early stage. It’s kind of in limbo. I’m not even sure what’s going to happen. But our team is still hoping that I’ll be reinstated.
PERIES: And any word from the university about what their current thinking is?
SALAITA: Nothing yet, but I’m hoping to hear something soon.
PERIES: Steven, freedom of expression and freedom of academic expression are very important pillars in our society, and I wish you all the best in your case.
SALAITA: Thank you very much.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us today.
SALAITA: Thank you for having me.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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