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Why the Salaita case matters, outside the United States

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When the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revealed it was firing Professor Steven Salaita, within days more than 17,000 scholars signed a protest document, citing the infringement of Salaita’s free speech rights and right to academic freedom—two of the mainstays of American higher education.  It had been discovered that Salaita’s dismissal occurred after several wealthy donors and other powerful individuals had intervened in the academic appointment process, upset by several tweets Salaita had made critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza over the summer.  Salaita is pursuing a legal case, but in the meanwhile his speaking schedule is full, as he has been issued numerous invitations to speak on his case and on academic freedom in general. 

While Salaita drew massive support from colleagues, students, community groups, and others in the US, what has received less attention is the support he received from outside the US.  This is extremely important, for as protests against Israel continue and in fact grow across the globe, one should understand that such acts of silencing resonate with those beyond US borders.  The concept of academic freedom has a particular history in the US, emanating from the first decade of the twentieth century in reaction to the firing of professors for speaking out publicly in favor of views and policies decidedly not popular with university presidents and boards of trustees; most notably chastised and persecuted were those professors who espoused socialist and pro-union views.  Today it is clear that criticism of Israel is the issue, and that the significance of Salaita’s case is not limited to the US.

In France and the UK, the Association des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine (AURDIP) and the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine issued a joint letter to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise:

We are particularly disturbed that Professor Salaita’s constitutionally protected expression of his views, not disseminated in the name of the university or at its expense, may have served as the stimulus for his dismissal… Perhaps most alarming are reports that your dismissal of Professor Salaita comes in response to pressure from individuals or organizations opposed to his political views. Increasingly, individuals or organizations are intervening in campus matters across the United States (and Europe), claiming to defend the ethnic or religious sensitivities of students from views they find objectionable. We regard these interventions, which have the effect of chilling freedom of expression, as profound infringements of the freedom of intellectual inquiry and deliberation which is fundamental to university life. 

Professor Ivar Ekeland, President of AURDIP, notes:

“When you are losing an argument, try to stifle your opponent. The Israeli government is losing the battle for public opinion, and I am appalled by the lengths to which its supporters will go to prevent our expressing the moral outrage we feel at its actions, or even describing the reality of the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Every day they go one step further. This summer in France, the government outlawed public protests against the mass killing and destruction operated by Israel in the Gaza strip. Today, university administrators try to prevent professors to express their opinions on social networks. This of course fits into a wider framework of surveillance and control: under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, our governments are trying to take away the essential freedoms the people have won since the American and French revolution. It is a war on democracy, and it has to be fought every inch of the way” 

In Israel, Professor Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University and author of Israel’s Occupation, writes:

“I will only say one or two things that stand out to me as a foreigner. First, the University’s relation to the students is noteworthy; they are treated in this saga by the Chancellor as young children—not even adolescents—rather than as adults, and as consumers rather than citizens who have come to acquire an education. The whole case made by the university against Professor Steven Salaita hinges on these two assumptions, assumptions that in my view undermine the very mission of a university—the search for truth and the education of citizens. In Israel, one should note, students are not treated as children but more and more as consumers. One other issue that has been mentioned again and again but should perhaps be further emphasized involves social media. This is an age—for better or for worse—that the lives and opinions of both professors and students are exposed in ways they have never been before. The university is basically demanding that faculty change their lives outside the university setting, outside the workplace, so that it fit the mores within the workplace. This again is misguided and probably also unconstitutional. Finally, regarding the content of the tweets, while I find some of them reprehensible, they are surely not a cause for dismissal. This is liberalism 101, John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty. What is interesting in this case is the level of monitoring on any critical utterance related to I/P. I doubt that the same level of surveillance takes place in relation to other issues.” 

And in Tunisia, coverage of the case pointed out that the high ideals of academic freedom and free speech were simply not valid when it comes to criticism of Israel.  Thus, the Salaita case has proven to be an international scandal for anyone who wishes to put forward the United States as a bastion of free speech and academic freedom.

Chancellor Wise and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees have tried to nullify this criticism by saying that it’s an issue of “civility,” not rights, but the major professional organization of the American academy, the American Association of University Professors, is not buying that.  It issued this powerful rebuttal: “the AAUP has long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom. It stands to reason that this objection should extend as well to decisions about hiring, especially about hiring to a tenured position.” 

With the alibi of “civility” thus removed, and with the principles of free speech and academic freedom still intact, what remains in view is the blatant capitulation of the University of Illinois administration and trustees to political, ideological, and financial pressure, hardly a lesson they would want to teach their students. And as we have seen, it’s hardly a lesson that would sit well beyond the United States, either.

David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

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26 Responses

  1. pabelmont on October 29, 2014, 2:59 pm

    Good stuff. Let the world know (and shout) that the USA’s claims of freedom are becoming fraudulent. UIUC is a public university, and the Constitution applies to it. So does contract law. and so do, I presume, AAUP any procedures to which it may claim to adhere.

  2. DoubleStandard on October 29, 2014, 5:13 pm

    Sigh. You guys just don’t get how the world works, do you?

    He’s going to sue of course, and going to lose — best shot is a financial settlement to avoid litigation. His contract wasn’t final because the BoT hadn’t rubber stamped it, and he gave them a reason not to. Even if he was engaging in constitutionally protected speech, an employer — state or private — can choose not to hire you for it — and he wasn’t legally hired until that pro forma vote.

    Just get over it — it’s not the biggest deal. The American university system is still a rat’s nest of anti-Semites and terrorist-lovers. Salaita will unfortunately not be able to join their ranks, though.

    Aside from the fact that he is a mediocre scholar, a common American — liberal or conservative — is going to defer to the BoT’s decision that it didn’t wish to hire someone who writes “F*** you, #Israel” or “Every Jewish child can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime.”

    The BoT had no legal obligation to confirm his appointment — for if it did, then what power would it really have? Salaita’s own contract referred to the “recommendation” of the faculty. The BoT elected to ignore the recommendation.

    Let’s just put this to bed. He’ll get his 15 minutes of fame — then the sound and fury will die and he’ll be discarded to the ashtray of history where he belongs.

    • just on October 29, 2014, 11:34 pm

      Repugnant, uninformed, and thoroughly predictable comment coming from you, DS.

      *sigh*

      • DoubleStandard on October 30, 2014, 1:48 am

        Nah I’m good. I think if you had anything to the contrary to say I’d have heard it. But you’re wrong.

    • Steve Macklevore on October 30, 2014, 6:35 am

      “The American university system is still a rat’s nest of anti-Semites and terrorist-lovers.”

      What’s the matter DoubleStandard? You seem a little scared…

      • just on October 30, 2014, 2:13 pm

        “The American university system is still a rat’s nest of anti-Semites and terrorist-lovers.”

        who? what? where?

        where are your citations, DS

      • Mooser on October 31, 2014, 7:33 pm

        “The American university system is still a rat’s nest of anti-Semites and terrorist-lovers.”

        And for that, Jews go to college? A honda! That’s what it is, a honda!

    • talknic on October 30, 2014, 9:33 am

      @ DoubleStandard “Sigh. You guys just don’t get how the world works, do you? “

      Let’s see …

      “He’s going to sue of course, and going to lose”

      Uh huh

      ” — best shot is a financial settlement to avoid litigation”

      Oh. Who needs to avoid litigation and why?

      SAY already you ain’t makin’ much sense!!! A financial settlement would be a win… but what if he doesn’t want a financial settlement?

      Let’s just put this to bed”

      Why? Afraid of litigation?

      • DoubleStandard on October 30, 2014, 11:43 am

        You twit. I’m not afraid of litigation. From his perspective I’m saying he should take a financial settlement so he gets something. I still feel bad he lost his health insurance and income, even if he is a world class anti semitic pseudo intellectual.

        I cogently explained why he won’t win in litigation. Someone has yet to argue on that point.

      • lysias on October 30, 2014, 12:21 pm

        DoubleStandard, your intemperate language suggests that you are not quite so confident of the cogency of your argument as you pretend to be.

      • talknic on October 30, 2014, 6:41 pm

        @ DoubleStandard

        “You twit. I’m not afraid of litigation. From his perspective I’m saying he should take a financial settlement so he gets something”

        Uh huh. An out of court settlement in his favour. Out of court settlements are usually made because the plaintiff is likely to win.

        ” I still feel bad he lost his health insurance and income, even if he is a world class anti semitic pseudo intellectual”

        Evidence of your ” anti semitic pseudo intellectual” accusation …. Thx .. I’ll wait ……

        “I cogently explained why he won’t win in litigation.”

        Self delusion can be fun eh …. you can say anything no matter how non-sensical

      • Mooser on November 1, 2014, 5:22 pm

        “You twit. I’m not afraid of litigation.”

        What you should be worried about, you hoodlum, is getting arrested.

    • Shingo on November 1, 2014, 3:46 pm

      Just get over it — it’s not the biggest deal.

      Translation: He isn’t Jewish so no big deal.

      The American university system is still a rat’s nest of anti-Semites and terrorist-lovers.

      Translation: Not everyone in the university system is on the lobby payroll or willing to turn a blind eye to Israeli war crimes and human rights abuses. Salita was removed to send out a message to those who step out of line that questioning the status quo will cost you.

      The lobby want to turn the university community into a microcosm of a fascist, censored police state.

      Aside from the fact that he is a mediocre scholar, a common American

      Aside from the fact you are lying. Salita’s credentials were exemplary.

      DS wants to put this to bed because the more it is examined, the more he is forced to deal with the fact that Zionism is a sick and twisted ideology and that the only way Zionism is able to maintain support in the US is through extortion, blackmail and bribery.

  3. on October 29, 2014, 5:52 pm

    American freedom and rights are out the window when it comes to Israel and often to any Jewish matters .

  4. JLewisDickerson on October 29, 2014, 7:23 pm

    RE: ” Salaita is pursuing a legal case, but in the meanwhile his speaking schedule is full, as he has been issued numerous invitations to speak on his case and on academic freedom in general.”

    Support Steven Salaita via Fundly

    PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A DONATION
    Please donate as generously as you can to enable Steve and his family to take on a legal struggle that can drag on for years. Don’t let the wealthy win by default!
    Not Ready To Donate? Become a Supporter
    220 SUPPORTERS
    $20,219 RAISED (USD)
    Days Left: 1538
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    Internationally respected scholar and teacher Steven Salaita needs your help in the aftermath of his firing by UIUC.
    LINK – https://fundly.com/support-steven-salaita

  5. just on October 29, 2014, 11:40 pm

    Thanks for this, Professor. I really wasn’t aware of the reaction outside of the US. I am grateful that you have shared this here.

    “America’s beacon” continues to become less bright.

  6. lysias on October 30, 2014, 12:19 pm

    Whatever the legal merits of Salaita’s case, where he can win is by challenging the university’s accreditation status. Someone who has standing to bring a complaint to whatever body accredits this particular university should make a complaint to it about Salaita’s treatment.

    • DoubleStandard on October 30, 2014, 1:14 pm

      lol. The University of Illinois is one of the most well-known universities in the US. It’s accreditation is totally assured.

      That’s what’s kind of funny about visiting MW — it’s users come on here, nest together, hatch commiserate with each other and assure each other of the moral infallibility of their views.

      Suddenly reality comes back…showtime

      • lysias on October 30, 2014, 3:27 pm

        What’s even funnier is observing somebody with an arrogance as overweening as yours.

      • DoubleStandard on October 30, 2014, 4:05 pm

        I am glad you enjoy it. Not such arrogance though given that I am on the prevailing side :P

      • talknic on October 31, 2014, 12:14 pm

        @ DoubleStandard

        “Suddenly reality comes back…showtime”

        The reality that will eventually come back to bite you and your kind on the rrrrrrs is the fact that with the advent of the internet folk’re beginning to wise up and realize the Hasbara narrative is one big stinking heap of red heifer sh*te!

        The State of Israel has had it’s military forces in territories “outside the State of Israel” … “in Palestine” for 66 years, busy building illegal facts on the ground in territory never legally acquired by Israel.

        The reality is, from day one the State of Israel has never been able to afford to adhere to the law without being sent bankrupt paying reparations for the territory it illegally acquired outside of the territory it proclaimed in its plea for recognition and to the people it illegally dispossessed.

        Today the cost of attempting to relocate hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens back within Israel’s actual boundaries, while paying billions upon billions of dollars rightful reparations for the territory it has illegally acquired, for the people it has displaced, the farms, villages homes it has destroyed, is astronomical.

        Slowly but surely folk’re waking up to the fact that the Jewish State is in breach of Laws and UN Charter adopted in large part because of the treatment of our Jewish fellows under the &*&(ing Nazis and that the Zionist regime is one big, ugly, deceitful, illegal, insane, scam

        ” Not such arrogance though given that I am on the prevailing side”

        When you can’t even see the arrogance in bragging about being on the prevailingly illegal side, you really should go see a shrink.

      • lysias on October 31, 2014, 2:22 pm

        If he really does think we’re all such jerks, I wonder why he bothers to waste his time posting here.

      • Mooser on November 1, 2014, 5:25 pm

        “Not such arrogance though given that I am on the prevailing side”

        Ah, the moral courage of Zionists is always impressive. And they are never loathe to display it.

      • Shingo on November 1, 2014, 5:49 pm

        Ah, the moral courage of Zionists is always impressive. And they are never loathe to display it.

        Yes, given that the moral is sustained by the certainty that comes with a big fat cheque as insurance.

      • Shingo on November 1, 2014, 5:46 pm

        Not such arrogance though given that I am on the prevailing side

        You mean the side that brought, bribed and blackmailed it’s way to getting it’s way.

    • lysias on October 30, 2014, 4:28 pm

      Instructions for filing a complaint with the North Central Association (the accreditor for UIUC) are to be found at https://www.ncahlc.org/HLC-Institutions/complaints.html .

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