In August of 2014, Palestinian-American scholar Steven Salaita was fired from a tenured position at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after pro-Israel groups contacted the university administration to complain about Salaita’s twitter posts. The posts sharply criticized Israel’s bombing campaign against Gaza, which resulted in more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths, including more than 500 children.
At the time, we wrote of two consequences of the Salaita firing for higher education: the first described the possible “Gazafication” of dissent against Israel’s occupation as documented by numerous students and faculty facing harassment or intimidation for their criticism of Israel. The second asked more pointedly whether the Salaita firing created the conditions for a new blacklist of scholars who dared to criticize the state, racism, and U.S. imperialism.
Three years later, it is clear that the answer to the second question is yes: the Salaita firing was a watershed that has created both a set of tactics, and as importantly a confidence, among reactionary forces in the U.S., that U.S. university faculty, including tenured faculty, can be harassed, trolled, smeared and bullied—even out of a job— for daring to act as public advocates for social justice.
We may call this trend the “Salaitification” of higher education. It takes the special form of a new, emboldened ‘alt-right’ who have taken to emulating tactics first deployed by Zionists and defenders of Israel to stalk and attempt to destroy the careers of American academic dissidents. To wit:
- Immediately after Trump’s victory a new hard right student group calling itself Turning Point USA appeared. Turning Point created an internet blacklist called Professor Watchlist, singling out comments made in classrooms or on social media by progressive faculty, with the intent to encourage people to complain to University administrators about their political expression. The watch list tactic was a direct emulation not only of McCarthy era blacklist tactics but of the more recent group Canary Mission, a secretive underground organization which publishes profiles of faculty and students critical of Israel. Like Professor Watchlist, Canary Mission specializes in extracting quotations or internet posts and encouraging viewers to contact universities to complain. Canary Mission has even encouraged viewers of its pages to contact employers of those listed to try and get them fired.
- In early 2017 Drexel University Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher was the target of a right-wing attack and letter-writing campaign to his administration after he tweeted out that he wanted “white genocide” for the holiday and “wanted to vomit” after seeing someone give up a first-class airline seat to a uniformed soldier. As with the Salaita case, Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets were taken at the face value given them by the right wing: the University administration immediately conducted an investigation in response to hard right pressure groups. Ciccariello-Maher was eventually cleared, but not before being subject to fears that he would be fired.
- In the summer of 2017 Trinity College Associate Professor of Sociology Johnny Eric Williams was placed on leave by his university after right-wing complaints that Williams had shared a story called “Let Them Fucking Die” on his social media page, and had used the hashtag “#letthemfuckingdie.” Conservatives argued that the story, which criticized racism and white supremacy, was advocating violence against white people. As in the case of Cicciarello-Maher, the Trinity administration bowed to pressure, conducted an investigation, and eventually defended Williams’s right to free speech and academic freedom, not before criticizing the content of his post. While Williams was not fired, he was forced to go on leave for a semester.
- Princeton University Assistant Professor of African American Studies Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor was called a “cunt,” “nigger,” “bitch,” and other repellent names laced with death threats after she gave a commencement address at Hampshire College—widely watched on youtube–criticizing Donald Trump as a racist and misogynist. Yamahtta-Taylor was forced to cancel two west coast lectures fearing for the safety of herself and her family. Princeton University faculty publicly defended Yamahtta-Taylor but the Princeton administration sat on its hands.
As with the Salaita case, these episodes reveal a clear pattern: University administrations falling silent, or actively participating in, persecution of faculty in a concession to the hard right, often openly racist, sexist political attacks.
Zionists and Israel supporters who attacked Salaita called him a racist, bigot and anti-Semite, while themselves falling silent about the deaths of Palestinian children.
We also see universities invoking “free speech” and “academic freedom” primarily to restrict them when they involve critiques of racism, sexism and U.S. imperialism. In an insidious, but typically neoliberal move, the language of social justice is used to attack the principles of social justice.
Here, we see the corporate, neoliberal university at its nefarious worst: aligning itself with the de facto politics of reactionary states (in the Salaita case Israel and the U.S., in the latter specifically the Trump administration).
The “Salaitification” of American higher education means the willing participation by university administrations in suppression of oppressed racial, gendered, and sexed faculty voices in the name of what the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called in its firing of Salaita “civility,” and what dissidents knew at the time to be code words for censorship and the tacit defense of reactionary ideas.
It is the task of activists, radicals, students, teachers, faculty, workers and citizens everywhere to resist the Salaita effect. Egregious political horrors like Israel’s 2014 bombing of Gaza, and Trump’s bigoted targeting of Muslims, Latinos, LGBTQ people, immigrants may otherwise be carried out still by alt-right forces in the name of “civility”. Only when University faculty and students everywhere demonstrate solidarity with their dissident peers everywhere can we have a true challenge to Salaitification and the alt.right, and an end to formal and informal blacklisting and termination of lives and careers. Indeed, Steven Salaita recently announced that he is leaving academe forever, having been unable to find a permanent job since his firing by UIUC.
Students and faculty seeking to show their own solidarity in fighting back against the alt right should join up now with campus groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, join the American Association of University Professors, or take up with the new national campus anti-fascism network.
To vary slightly the words of Martin Niemöller, we can’t wait for them to come for us.