A perennial flashpoint topic on college campuses is the Middle East, but with the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, it’s an even hotter issue these days.
And while academics by-and-large have seemed to tout pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli points of view without consequence, one professor who maintained that position reportedly lost an appointment at a major university after his anti-Israel statements — which could heighten the debate over what does and doesn’t constitute academic freedom.
Steven G. Salaita was to join the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August. He even resigned from Virginia Tech where he was an associate professor of English in anticipation of the move, Inside Higher Ed reported.
But Chancellor Phyllis Wise reportedly told Salaita that his appointment no longer would be heading to the board of trustees for approval, according to Inside Higher Ed sources. And while the university wouldn’t acknowledge to Inside Higher Ed that there was a blocked confirmation, it also wouldn’t comment on whether Salaita would be teaching at the school. A university spokeswoman told TheBlaze in a Wednesday email that the school doesn’t comment on personnel matters.
The sticking point apparently was a concern over the tone of Salaita’s Twitter posts regarding Israel’s actions in Gaza, which apparently crossed the line of acceptability, according to Inside Higher Ed’s sources.
And we’re not talking about a handful of posts here and there. Since the Israel-Hamas conflict heated up, Salaita has tweeted in a seemingly unrelenting manner, ripping Israel and “Zionists” over and over again, day after day.
One of them, according to Inside Higher Ed, references what he sees as the jewelry Israel’s prime minister might favor: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.”
Another: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic s**t in response to Israeli terror.”
Salaita has tweeted frequently about children killed in Gaza:
The first thing anyone sees in #Gaza are children: bounteous, beautiful, boisterous, all eyes and curly hair. To harm them is unforgivable.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) August 1, 2014
And he doesn’t buy into concerns about Hamas, relegating discussion about the terrorist organization as a kind of distraction:
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) August 2, 2014
Once word got out about Salaita’s tweets, a spokeswoman from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign defended the prof’s right to express his ideas, telling The News-Gazette in Champaign that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”
More from Inside Higher Ed:
While Salaita has been until very recently very active on Twitter, he stopped posting several days ago, which is unusual for him. He is an active writer beyond Twitter, with op-eds (which of late have identified him as an Illinois professor) and with campaigns on behalf of the movement to organize an academic boycott of Israel. He has also published scholarly books, including Israel’s Dead Soul (Temple University Press) and Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics (Palgrave Macmillan).
An interesting nuance expressed by some who’ve questioned Salaita’s appointment at Illinois is that his views on Israel aren’t the problem — it’s that they cross into incivility, even bigotry, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Cary Nelson, a longtime English professor at the school who’s defended professors who’ve expressed unpopular views, told Inside Higher Ed it’s legitimate to nix a hire when issues of civility and collegiality are at stake.
“I think the chancellor made the right decision,” Nelson told Inside Higher Ed via email. “I know of no other senior faculty member tweeting such venomous statements — and certainly not in such an obsessively driven way. There are scores of over-the-top Salaita tweets. I also do not know of another search committee that had to confront a case where the subject matter of academic publications overlaps with a loathsome and foul-mouthed presence in social media. I doubt if the search committee felt equipped to deal with the implications for the campus and its students. I’m glad the chancellor did what had to be done.”
Nelson added to the site that if Salaita had limited himself to expressing hostility to Israel in academic publications subjected to peer review, he believes the appointment would have gone through. Indeed, Nelson said, there’s “nothing ‘unpopular’ on this campus about hostility to Israel,” but at the same time, “Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone.”
Regarding Salaita’s political writing on social media and elsewhere, Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian studies program at Illinois, had this to say to Inside Higher Ed: “I think that any public statement that someone makes is fair game for consideration. However, I don’t think that everything somebody says is part of their scholarly record. I have plenty of colleagues with whom I disagree politically.”
Salaita did not respond to numerous calls and emails from Inside Higher Ed.