Steven Salaita has every reason to be down in the dumps.
The Arab-American scholar, who primarily works on indigenous studies, had his job offer revoked by the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign in the fall. His published work has been attacked. Pro-Israel politicians pressured Brooklyn College to cancel his November 22 talk at the school. He’s without a job and health insurance, an especially scary situation given his two-year-old son. He has no time to work on his scholarship amidst the rush of interviews, conversations with lawyers and speaking engagements.
But Salaita is a cheery guy.
“It’s been really exciting getting to give talks and meet so many new, fantastic people. Besides not having a job, everything’s great,” he jokingly told me last week during the last stretch of a three-week speaking tour.
I caught up with Salaita over breakfast on the Upper West Side of Manhattan last week. Wearing glasses, a blue sweater and jeans, Salaita spoke in a measured tone, with scholarly ruminations on Palestine and Native Americans thrown into the mix of the interview. He is far from the portrayal his critics have painted: a raging, violent, incompetent anti-Semite who has no place in a college classroom. Detractors of the professor have seized on a series of tweets harshly criticizing Israel during last summer’s Gaza war, and it is these messages that appear to have caused his firing.
Salaita says his contract, signed by both sides last year, was terminated by the university in August after University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided against forwarding the appointment to the school board of trustees. The trustee vote is usually a formality, and over the summer, a university spokesperson appeared to refer to Salaita as an employee of the university. He was set to join the university’s American Indian Studies program before he was fired.
The case has turned Salaita into a cause celebre for academic freedom advocates and Palestine solidarity activists, and has sparked a campaign of boycotts of the university among scholars defending Salaita. His case, while unique, is broadly similar to professors Kristofer Petersen-Overton, Norman Finkelstein and Joseph Massad, who have been the targets of organized campaigns by pro-Israel groups.
The scholar says his firing is about many factors: the “corporatization” of universities, pro-Israel donor pressure and academic freedom. He also says his identity–his mother is Palestinian, his father Jordanian–has made him an easy target.
“It’s one thing to raise ideas that Israel’s supporters consider troublesome or threatening, and it’s even worse when those ideas are raised by somebody who is identified as and self-identifies as an Arab and/or Palestinian,” he said. “Pro-Israel groups feel very threatened by any sort of Palestine symbology that they aren’t able to appropriate and pass off as their own.”
Driving the controversy is a series of Twitter messages that Salaita posted as Israel’s assault on Gaza carried on. They included posts like: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza” and “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” (The latter was posted a week after three Israeli teens were abducted in the occupied West Bank. They were later found murdered.)
Speaking at Brooklyn College on November 22 alongside professors Corey Robin and Katherine Franke, Salaita defended the messages. “There was a pretty profound sense of anguish and horror that I had in common with a lot of people,” Salaita said by way of explaining the context of his tweets. Referring to the West Bank settler tweet, which detractors said celebrated kidnapping or murder, he said: “Am I a shrinking violet on Twitter? I’m not passive-aggressive. If I wanted them murdered or kidnapped, I would have said murdered or kidnapped, right? When I say ‘go missing,’ you gotta understand there’s a long, long tradition of people who have been colonized wishing that their colonizers would go away.”
Those Twitter messages were highlighted by a right-wing website in July, and the controversy snowballed from there.
In August, Wise wrote a letter explaining why she decided not to hire Salaita. “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them,” she wrote. Wise also repeatedly invoked the notion of “civility,” implying Salaita would not be “civil” in the classroom. While she did eventually forward Salaita’s appointment to the board of trustees, the board decided not to hire Salaita over the protests of some students.
My conversation with him came just days after Salaita and his lawyers announced a lawsuit against the University of Illinois for not releasing emails that would shed light on how the decision to fire him was made. The e-mails that have been released show that pro-Israel students, parents and alumni wrote in to complain about Salaita–and that donors threatened to stop giving the university money if he was hired. The university has said it could not find other documents, like one known to have been created that the Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah requested: a two-page dossier on Salaita’s views prepared by an unnamed person. The dossier was given to Chancellor Wise.
“I’m just dying to know the whole story. I want to know exactly how this decision was made,” Salaita told me. “It’s like watching a pot boil or TV program, but, like, I’m the protagonist, and I’m dying for those missing links to be provided. There’s a real sense of intrigue about what was going on behind the scenes.”
The Freedom of Information Act lawsuit could pave the way towards a larger lawsuit focused on First Amendment violations.
Salaita is set to return to his parents’ house in Virginia–where he has been living since being fired–and said he will continue to speak in public as long as there’s interest in his case. His preference is to return to the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign as a professor.
He’s also looking for other jobs, but says that “the university and its supporters have been so persistent in smearing me as an inciter of violence or as an anti-Semite or as an incompetent classroom teacher that I feel like it’s going to be extremely difficult for me to get these jobs.”
Salaita is hoping that as time passes, and the dust settles on his case, those perceptions will go away.