Until two weeks ago, Steven Salaita was heading to a job at the University of Illinois as a professor of American Indian Studies. He had already resigned from his position at Virginia Tech; everything seemed sewn up. Now the chancellor of the University of Illinois has overturned Salaita’s appointment and rescinded the offer. Because of Israel.
The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza….
For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”
In recent weeks, bloggers and others have started to draw attention to Salaita’s comments on Twitter. But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told The News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”
I’ve written about a number of these types of cases over the past few years, but few have touched me the way this one has. For three reasons.
First, Steven is a friend on Facebook, and we follow each other on Twitter. I don’t know him personally but I’ve valued his unapologetic defense of the rights of Palestinians. Often he posts articles and information from which I’ve learned quite a bit.
Second, I have no doubt that an easily rattled administrator would find some of my public writings on Israel and Palestine to have crossed a line. If you’re in favor of Salaita being punished, you should be in favor of me being punished. And not just me. On Twitter, many of us—not just on this issue but a variety of issues, and not just on the left, but also on the right—speak in a way that can jar or shock a tender sensibility. We swear, we accuse, we say no, in thunder. That’s the medium. Though I’ve never really thought twice about it, it’s fairly chilling to think that a university official might now be combing through my tweets to see if I had said anything that would warrant me being deemed ineligible for a job. Or worse, since I have tenure, that an administrator might be doing that to any and every potential job candidate.
Third, Cary Nelson, who was once the president of the American Association of University Professors, has weighed in in defense of this decision by the University of Illinois Chancellor.
“I think the chancellor made the right decision,” he said 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.”
Asked if he feared that the withdrawal of the job offer could represent a scholar being punished for his unpopular political views, Nelson said he did not think that was the case. “If Salaita had limited himself to expressing his hostility to Israel in academic publications subjected to peer review, I believe the appointment would have gone through without difficulty,” he said. Nelson added that harsh criticism of Israel is widespread among faculty members. “Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone. There is nothing ‘unpopular’ on this campus about hostility to Israel.”
Once upon a time I wrote an essay for an anthology Nelson edited on unions in academia. When I was the leader of the grad union drive at Yale, he came to campus and spoke out on our behalf. I thought of him as not only a champion of academic freedom but as an especially acerbic—some might even say uncivil—commentator willing to throw a few elbows at his fellow academics. One time, he even compared a fellow English professor to a vampire bat, and proceeded to make fun of his bodily movements and facial gestures. In an academic publication subject to peer review.
But in recent years Nelson has become an outspoken defender of the State of Israel and a critic of the BDS movement. A man who once called for the boycott of a university now thinks boycotts of universities are a grave threat to academic freedom. A man who serially violates the norms of academic civility—urging fellow academics to “give key administrators no peace. Place chanting pickets outside their homes. Disrupt every meeting they attend with sardonic or inspiring public theater”—now invokes those same norms against a critic of Israel. A man who once wrote that “claims about collegiality are being used to stifle campus debate, to punish faculty, and to silence the free exchange of opinion by the imposition of corporate-style conformity,” now complains about an anti-Zionist professor’s “foul-mouthed presence in social media.” A man who once called the movement against hostile environments and in favor of sensitive speech on campus “Orwellian,” now frets over a student of Salaita’s fearing she “would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class.”
I bring this up not to pick on Nelson, but to ask him, and all of you, a simple question: Should Nelson be deemed ineligible for another job at a university simply because of these statements he has written? Should l be deemed ineligible for another job at a university simply because of some “foul-mouthed,” perhaps even intemperate, tweets that I’m sure I have written?
But I bring up Nelson’s case for another reason. And that is that his hypocrisy is not merely his own. It is a symptom of the effects of Zionism on academic freedom, how pro-Israel forces have consistently attempted to shut down debate on this issue, how they “distort all that is right.” Nelson’s U-Turn demonstrates that we’re heading down a very dangerous road. I strongly urge all of you to put on the brakes.
In the meantime, do something for Steven Salaita. Write a note to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise (best to email her at both firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com), urging her to rescind her rescission. As always, be polite, but be firm. Don’t assume this is a done deal; in my experience, it often is not. We’ve managed through our efforts, on multiple occasions, to get nervous administrators to walk away from the ledge.