Professor ‘un-hiring’ fuels battle for academic freedom

    The "un-hiring" of Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois after his critique of the war on Gaza has sparked a campaign against academic repression.
    Protesters call to reinstate Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois on September 11. (Flickr/ Jeffrey Putney)
    Protesters call to reinstate Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois on September 11. (Flickr/ Jeffrey Putney)

    While wrapping up its annual conference last month, the American Studies Association, or ASA, announced a new effort to track what it calls “assaults on academic freedom” that include “faculty profiling,” and “hostile environments on many campuses for faculty and student labor organizing and protest.” During the convention it launched a website named Scholars Under Attack aimed at mapping out threats to academic freedom.

    On November 7, at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita smiled as he took his place at the table for a panel at the convention, likewise titled “Scholars Under Attack.” Salaita is the American Indian Studies professor who supporters say was “un-hired” by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because some donors deemed some of his tweets anti-Semitic. This summer, in reaction to Israel’s attack on Gaza that led to the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinian civilians, he tweeted messages such as, “It’s simple: Either condemn ‪#Israel‘s actions or embrace your identity as someone who’s okay with the wholesale slaughter of children. ‪#Gaza

    Some of the letters protesting his hire cited a July 18 tweet that said, “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say anti-Semitic shit in response to Israeli terror.”

    Salaita has been touring the country headlining events on political repression. “I’ve never felt more Palestinian than I did today,” Salaita tweeted on September 11, days after the University of Illinois board of trustees voted to cancel his hiring. But at the conference he was among friends.

    “Civility is the language of genocide,” Salaita said, pointedly addressing his detractors who called the tone of his tweets “uncivil.” “It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not as racist,” he continued, arguing that the people who get to decide what’s “civil” or “uncivil” tend to be those with the most power and influence. Fellow panelist Rabab Abdulhadi, from San Francisco State, added that the term “pro-Palestine” is misleading. “You’re either for massacres or not,” she said, referring to the recent Gaza strikes.

    "Fuck Civility" buttons and stickers created by Stone Robot Enterprises in response to the University of Illinois administration's charge that Salaita's tweets about Gaza were "impolite." (WNV/Benjamin Stone)
    “Fuck Civility” buttons and stickers created by Stone Robot Enterprises in response to the University of Illinois administration’s charge that Salaita’s tweets about Gaza were “impolite.” (WNV/Benjamin Stone)

    ASA President Lisa Duggan spent a large part of her presidential address Saturday night detailing the hate mail she and other officials had received, but said the ASA was “not surviving, but thriving” after last year’s conference, when 1,252 ASA members voted on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as an act of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation. With 66 percent of the vote in favor, the ASA became the largest academic organization in North America to do so. In the wake of the vote, the group gained over 1,000 members. Other organizations, including the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, have also established boycotts.

    The boycotts follow the tradition of those promoted by activists during South African apartheid. Long before the bloody Gaza raids that started last summer, South Africa’s post-apartheid ruling party called the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli rule “worse than” the racism experienced by black people under South African apartheid.

    Back in 1983, South Africa-born professor Fred Dubé asked his class at New York’s Stony Brook University to consider whether Zionism was a form of racism. According to the New York Times, an Israeli visiting professor wrote a letter to the university calling Dubé’s class anti-Semitic. Dubé drew criticism from Jewish organizations and even Gov. Mario Cuomo. Eventually, Dubé was denied tenure.

    More recent examples of branding professors as anti-Semitic in an apparent move to punish them for criticizing Israel include the ousting of Thomas Abowd and Norman Finkelstein from Wayne State and DePaul universities. Supporters alleged, and the universities denied, that donor influence played a part in their “forced” resignation from the colleges.

    Student activists have also been targets for their criticism of Israel. In 2010, Muslim students from the University of California Irvine protested an on-campus speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. Facing up to a year in jail on misdemeanor charges related to the disruption of the event, the so-called Irvine 11 were sentenced to fines, three years of probation and 56 hours of community service. The ambassador’s right to speak without interruption, the court found, trumped the free speech of the protesters.

    In 2014, a pro-Zionist nonprofit called AMCHA released a “blacklist” on its website of academics who had publicly voiced support of Palestinian human rights. It asked supporters to share the list containing names of educators whom they accused of spouting “anti-Semitic rhetoric” with “your family, friends, and associates via email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, or word-of-mouth.”

    Cash in the classroom

    Sunaina Maira, a professor from University of California Davis who recently co-edited a book on academic repression called “The Imperial University,” cites the increasing corporatization of universities as the main cause for the suppression of these professors and students. “There’s a shift toward contingent labor,” she said, with adjunct instructors with little job security teaching the majority of classes, “as well as toward unaffordable tuition.” Issues like lack of tenure and piles of student debt make it all the more precarious to speak out on controversial issues, she argued.

    “[Salaita’s] case magnifies that issue,” of donor-directed decision-making, Maira said over the phone a few days before heading to the ASA convention. “He was basically ‘un-hired’ because of the pressure [of] wealthy off-campus groups [that] have constantly worked behind the scenes to police Palestine activism.”

    Penn State American Studies professor Simon Bronner, an Israel-born Zionist who quit the ASA after the association’s 2013’s boycott resolution, said Salaita was part of a growing group of professors practicing “strident anti-Israel indoctrination.” In an e-mail interview, Bronner called claims of donor influence by Salaita and others an “anti-Semitic insinuation that Jews wield power because of money.”

    Steven Salaita speaks with students at Northwestern after an event on October 6. (Flickr/ Jeffrey Putney)
    Steven Salaita speaks with students at Northwestern after an event on October 6. (Flickr/ Jeffrey Putney)

    But it’s difficult to ignore e-mails that came out in the wake of Salaita’s rejection. “Having been a multiple six figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses,” read one message obtained by Inside Higher Ed. Another alumni wrote, “I have consistently believed that our flagship state university is a treasure that deserves our continued support and contributions. No more. We will now cease our annual contributions to the university and will let our fellow alumni know why we are doing so.”

    In a late July statement University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise said that Salaita wasn’t blocked for his political views, but because of his “personal and disrespectful words or actions” that demeaned other viewpoints and people expressing them.

    “The decision regarding Prof. Salaita was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel,” wrote University of Illinois public affairs official Robin Kaler in response to a request for comment. “Our university is home to a wide diversity of opinions on issues of politics and foreign policy. Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.”

    A witch hunt?

    San Francisco State ethnic studies professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who was also accused of anti-Semitism and joined Salaita on the ASA panel, was luckier than him; she kept her job.

    After an October 28 teach-in on academic freedom at San Francisco State the Palestinian professor received death threats after the commemoration of a mural of Palestinian philosopher Edward Said on campus. “It was an entire smear campaign to make me lose credibility,” she recounted. AMCHA supporters contacted the university, saying that Abdulhadi was “promoting terrorism,” and called for her to be fired.

    Abdulhadi compared the situation to the witch hunt for communists spurred by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. She said that for a split second she seriously considered a family member’s plea to leave the United States for safety reasons. “Just resign!” he told her. “There’s work for professors as well, here in Dubai!”

    But some faculty and student groups — such as the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan and the Native American Student Kouncil of InterTribal Nations — supported Abdulhadi.

    After seven months, the school’s administration joined them in officially finding “no merit” in accusations that Abdulhadi had improperly used school funds in her travels to Palestine. “San Francisco State University will continue to respect academic freedom, and we will not censor our scholars nor condone censorship by others,” its press office wrote. But Abdulhadi said the damage was done: a second planned trip to Palestine was revoked by the school’s provost, Sue Rosser, who told her that security concerns were the reason for the travel denial. In addition, Abdulhadi said that two promised tenure-track professor hires in her department have yet to materialize. Ellen Griffin, associate vice president of university communications said the college remains “deeply committed” to defending academic freedom on campus.

    A coffin for academic freedom at the University of Illinois. (Flickr/Jeffrey Putney)
    A coffin for academic freedom at the University of Illinois. (Flickr/Jeffrey Putney)

    But the Zionists include some who would, unlike McCarthy, otherwise be considered progressive. Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois professor who kept tabs on Salaita’s Twitter account and, according to the progressive Jewish blog Mondoweiss, brought his Palestine-related tweets to the attention of the university administration, has been one of Salaita’s most zealous critics.

    Nelson had recently championed the cause of James Kilgore, a former Symbionese Liberation Army member and adjunct professor whose contract lapsed after media attention to his controversial past. The English professor would be considered liberal on just about any other issue. People like Nelson have led to the emergence of the term PEP among Palestine activists, short for “Progressive Except on Palestine.”

    But over the phone, Maira argued that it’s a contradiction in terms to be a progressive Zionist, especially after the recent lopsidedly violent strikes on Gaza. “It’s impossible to think of a Zionist who can be ‘good’ on gay rights, or women’s rights but yet support the colonialist policies of Israel,” she said.

    Salaita agreed with Maira, proposing a new acronym: RBI, or “Regressive Because of Israel.” “You don’t get to say, ‘I support X,Y and Z in North America,” he said, “but I also support apartheid and segregation, and biological determination in Palestine.'”

    Silencing tactic

    Many in the movement for Palestinian human rights see this string of recent events — Salaita’s firing, the censuring of the Irvine 11, claims that Abdulhadi “promotes terrorism” — as repression resulting from Islamophobia.

    Layanne Hazim, a student at George Mason University and a member of the campus group Students Against Israeli Apartheid, organizes actions such as a recent coordinated walkout during an Israeli soldier’s speech on campus that was sponsored by the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy of Reporting of the Middle East in America.

    “The conflation of being anti-Israel and being anti-Semitic is something we fight every day,” Hazim wrote in an e-mail interview a few days before the ASA conference. “It’s a systematic silencing tactic [that] affects people in very real ways.” Hazim, a Muslim, also explained that surveillance is always a concern. “Be careful what you say, be careful who you say it to, and don’t trust anyone who asks too many questions,” she said. “Everyone knows a friend of a friend’s uncle who’s in prison now for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. I personally try to maintain a relatively small on-line presence because of how aware I am of the fact that literally anything could be taken out of context and used against me.”

    Raising the issue

    Days before Salaita took the stage at the “Scholars Under Attack” panel, the American Center for Law and Justice, a right-wing Christian group founded by TV evangelist Pat Robertson, sent a letter to the Westin Hotels group about its hosting of the ASA convention in its downtown Los Angeles branch. The center wrote that it was “deeply concerned that unlawful discriminatory exclusionary policies will be implemented by the ASA as to who is permitted to attend the Annual Meeting at the Westin.”

    Press outlets such as the Washington Post picked up the story, repeating the discrimination claim, which led the ASA to release its own statement. Maira admits that this kind of lobbying has had a “chilling effect” on action around Palestine in U.S. academia. But she also said she believes that the targeting of academics who speak out about Palestine has backfired. “After the blacklist, faculty really banded together,” she noted.

    Professors are starting to form branches of Faculty for Justice in Palestine groups to support Palestine student groups. A big strategy of the campaign to boycott Israeli educational institutions is just to raise the issue of Palestine, Maira explained. If that’s the case, it’s already working: discussion of the U.S. academy and Palestine have flooded academic blogs and mainstream publications like The New York Times.

    The story is even bigger in the Middle East: During Abdulhadi’s most recent trip to Palestine, she spoke with just-released Palestinian prisoners who had gotten word of the ASA’s boycott resolution while behind bars.

    A continuing struggle

    The struggle for academic freedom in the United States is not new. In 1969, a young professor at UCLA gave a lecture at the university’s Royce Hall. Soon after, she was fired when then-governor Ronald Reagan, who was supported by President Nixon, took issue with her communist politics. That professor was Angela Davis, the philosophy scholar and black power icon. In 2014, four decades later, Davis returned to the classroom that she famously lectured in 40 years earlier to give another lecture, this time as a University of California professor emeritus. It was also the year she signed a letter supporting Steven Salaita’s right to academic freedom.

    Represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and a Chicago law firm, Loevy & Loevy, Salaita is preparing to sue the University of Illinois in federal court to get his job back. A petition put out by friends and supporters asking the university to reverse its decision quickly gained 20,000 signatures, including hundreds of faculty, students, alumni and parents. Fourteen university departments voted “no confidence” in Chancellor Wise’s ability to lead. Prominent academic groups like the Modern Language Association have voiced support for Salaita, and the American Association of University Professors Foundation awarded Salaita its Academic Freedom Fund.

    On November 4, a coalition of legal organizations including the Asian Law Caucus and the National Lawyers Guild sent a letter to more than 140 universities cautioning that the stifling of free speech around Palestine could bring lawsuits.

    Poster from the Support Salaita campaign, listing events cancelled in solidarity with Steven Salaita. (WNV/Support Salaita campaign)
    Poster listing events cancelled in solidarity with Steven Salaita. (WNV/Support Salaita campaign)

    Several thousand professors from across the country have committed to boycotting the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign until it reverses its decision. Organizations have cancelled conferences and individual professors have cancelled lectures, releasing public statements in defense of academic freedom.

    Indigenous studies professor Joanne Barker, who pointed out similarities in the histories of white settlers colonizing North America and Palestine during the teach-in at San Francisco State, was recently invited to apply for a position at the University of Illinois, but said she declined, writing that given the decision “to fire Palestinian scholar Steven Salaita this past August on the grounds of his personal tweets regarding Israel’s attacks on Gaza this past summer, I have grave concerns about the University of Illinois’s commitments to faculty governance, academic freedom, and First Amendment rights to free speech.”

    For now, Salaita is living in his parents’ Virginia home with his wife, son and dog. But he still supports academics “coming out” as a supporter of human rights in Palestine. “It’s a deeply personal decision,” he said after the panel at the ASA conference. “If people are ready to take that step, I say unload. Exercise your voice.”

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