Powerful pro-Israel supporters and university donors, many of whom identified themselves as Jewish, complained in July to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign officials about hiring Palestinian-American Dr. Steven Salaita as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies Program after he tweeted angry comments criticizing Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza.
But more recently, members of the Jewish community at UIUC, who support Palestinian rights, have written a letter to Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the board of trustees denouncing “in the strongest possible terms” their firing of Salaita just weeks before his classes were to begin.
“The firing of Professor Salaita is the Israeli attack on Palestine coming to our campus,” the group of around 40 students, faculty staff, alumni and parents said in their September 3 letter, which was read out loud at a Student Senate meeting that night as Wise listened.
Salaita is a scholar in Native American studies, who has done groundbreaking work in comparative analysis of the Native American and Palestinian peoples’ experiences. He accepted a job offer at UICU last fall, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech, and was scheduled to begin work August 16. But on August 2, Wise e-mailed that he would not have the job after all. She said that the board of trustees was unlikely to sign off on Salaita’s appointment so she would not forward it to them. She gave no reason for his termination.
Courtesy Unversity of Illinois
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
In a surprising turn of events, after weeks of denying that Salaita’s criticism of Israel led to his firing, Wise has acknowledged the connection between the two events.
Illinois Public Media (IPM) reported September 5 that Wise, a day earlier, said she sent Salaita’s appointment to the trustees last fall with her recommendation to approve it. But when Salaita’s Twitter comments came out, people starting looking closer at his record, Wise said in a tacit admission that his comments about Israel led to his firing.
It was Salaita’s excellent teaching record and his unique scholarship that led the faculty search committee to select him in an open field search, said Robert Warrior, an Osage Nation citizen, Director of American Indian Studies and professor of American Indian Studies, English and History at UIUC.
“What became compelling about his work is the comparative analysis of the experiences of American Indian people and Palestinian people, which is at the heart of his work,” Warrior said. “Steven was trained primarily as a scholar in Native American Indian studies, specifically in American Indian literature at the University of Oklahoma and it was from that standpoint that he did his comparative work in Palestinian and Palestinian American literature… and, really, any topic he takes on still comes out of that American Indian and indigenous perspective.”
But Salaita is a passionate and vocal supporter of Palestinian liberation from Israel’s illegal military occupation and expanding settlements on Palestinian land and last year he supported the American Studies Association’s endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel.
Wise said members of the board of trustees told her in July that they likely would not approve Salaita’s appointment and a week later, she sent him the letter firing him.
“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the board of trustees, it was not mine,” she said, according to the IPM report.
The letter from the UIUC’s Jewish community is only one of countless objections that have turned Salaita’s firing into an international controversy. The controversy has snowballed into a public relations nightmare for the world-class university that U.S. News & World Report ranks among the best in the country in its 2014 survey of America's Best Colleges.
A burgeoning boycott movement has led thousands of scholars and students from around the world to sign petitions urging the administration to reinstate Salaita. Several important academic associations have called his firing a violation of free speech, academic integrity and the principle of shared governance. And close to a dozen prominent scholars have declined or withdrawn from invitations to conferences and other UIUC events.
Courtesy Unversity of Illinois
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
“In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy, and without basic courtesy and respect for collegiality, Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian Studies nor the college before making her decision,” AIS faculty wrote. “While she has yet to furnish specific reasons, we believe that Chancellor Wise's decision was in fact made in response to external pressures that sought to block Prof. Salaita's hire, coupled with her objection over the content and tone of his personal and political tweets over the subject of Israeli bombing of Palestine.”
However, on September 5, the New-Gazette reported that more than 260 professors at the University of Illinois have signed a letter of support for Wise in response to the recent no-confidence votes over the Salaita controversy.
Although Wise and trustees have denied that Salaita’s criticism of Israel had anything to do with his firing until her statement on September 4, hundreds of documents and emails released to Inside Higher Education and the News-Gazette under the Freedom of Informatio Act have confirmed the deep political and financial ties between the university’s leadership and Israel. Additionally, they show that wealthy pro-Israel donors threatened to stop giving money to the university if Salaita was kept on the faculty. The senders’ names were redacted.
"Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years, I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses," wrote one UI business school graduate.
"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," wrote another graduate.
Others called Salaita anti-Semitic and a racist, and accused him of “hate speech, incitement, and support of terrorist activity.”
One writer equated the support of Palestinians’ human, civil and national rights with Nazism and accused Arab students “all over the United States” of persecuting Jewish students. “In my college days, I recall vividly the swastika that was painted with shaving cream on the door of my dorm room in 1979. This unearned, but learned, hatred continues today under the guise of ‘Palestinian causes.’ Present-day Jewish students on college campuses all over the United States are subjected to criticism, harassment, and taunting by Arab students,” the writer said. He or she told Wise “to prevent [Salaita] from being employed at the University” and urged her “to renounce” his statements.
Salaita's tweets were posted during what the United Nations Human Rights Council called “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014.”
After weeks of silence as to why Salaita was fired, Wise said in an August 22 blog posting that her decision “was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel.” Rather, he was fired to protect students from “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”
But the Jewish community members rejected that claim. “In no way do Professor Salaita’s words, tweets, or presence on campus make us feel unsafe, disrespected, or threatened, as your public letter indicated,” their letter said. Instead, they said, it is Wise’s “unjust” action that endangers them.
“Your decision to fire Professor Salaita is in fact what threatens us as Jews. By pointing to anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in an attempt to obscure politically and financially-motivated University actions, you minimize the Jewish voices of those who have resisted real and violent anti-Semitism,” they wrote. “By conflating pointed and justified critique of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism, your administration is effectively disregarding a large and growing number of Jewish perspectives that oppose Israeli military occupation, settler expansion, and the assault on Palestine.”
The group supports the right of Palestinians and others to oppose “the brutality” of Israel’s actions in Gaza and all of Palestine “with sharp interrogation and anger,” the letter said. “To brand this opposition as uncivil or unsafe enough to warrant the dismissal of a faculty member is not only a violation of academic freedom, it is a clear devaluation of Palestinian existence and personhood, with implications for others whose lives similarly have been and continue to be systematically attacked through state-sanctioned violence.”
Salaita’s firing mirrors the conflict in historic Palestine, the group said. “The firing of Professor Salaita is the Israeli attack on Palestine coming to our campus,” they said. “Just as we work tirelessly to oppose Israeli ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians taking place in our name, we will ensure that the silencing of Professor Salaita and others like him does not take place in our name either.” They insisted that Wise reinstate Salaita immediately.
The Electronic Intifada reported September 5 that UICU Board of Trustee member James D. Montgomery has criticized the decision to fire Salaita. “I think it would have been far better had it been dealt with differently and had it been done with more consultation with faculty,” Montgomery told The Electronic Intifada. He also acknowledged the “adverse” impact that a growing boycott was having on the university’s ability to function.
The trustees are scheduled to meet on September 11, but it’s not clear if they intend to act on the Salaita issue.