What happened to Steven Salaita?

Early in 2014, Salaita began tweeting highly aggressive statements about Israel, often scores of them a month.

By CARY NELSON
December 25, 2014 22:23
Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita. (photo credit: TWITTER)

When Steven Salaita received a conditional job offer from a college dean at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the letter included a standard disclaimer, warning him that the offer would not be final until and unless the board of trustees approved it.

The board usually does approve appointments, but not always. It has occasionally objected to appointments in the past and inevitably will do so again. Wise faculty members do not resign their current job until the contract is signed by the Board. For whatever reason, Salaita did not follow that standard advice. He quit his job in Virginia. When the Illinois board voted eight to one not to hire him, he found himself unemployed.

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Why did this happen? Early in 2014, Salaita began tweeting highly aggressive statements about Israel, often scores of them a month. He had long been an active opponent of the Jewish state, most recently with the publication of his book Israel’s Dead Soul in 2011. But in fact Israel is at the center of all his work, beginning with his 2003 PhD dissertation, published as The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan in 2006. In that book he asserts that Palestinians are an indigenous people comparable to Native Americans in the US, adding that most Jewish Israelis are products of European colonialism, despite the fact that many Israelis are descendants of Jews who fled Arab countries in 1948. He treats both these convictions as established facts, though many scholars would hardly agree. But he takes one remarkable further step, arguing that, in their efforts to settle Palestine, Jews learned from and imitated the European treatment of American Indians.

But for three obscure references to the founding of the US in Israeli documents, there is no evidence for this claim. Salaita did not subject the book’s thesis to appropriate scholarly standards.

Although Israel and the Arab/Israeli conflict are the main recurrent topics in Salaita’s six books, none of the faculty members on the UI search committee had expertise in Middle East history. Instead, they shared Salaita’s political convictions and thus apparently assumed he was accurate in all his assertions. Indeed the American Indian Studies Program at Illinois spearheaded the successful 2013 effort to get the national Native American Studies Association to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities. Both the chairman of the Illinois program, Robert Warrior, and Salaita were partners in boycott, divestment and sanctions activism. As a member of Salaita’s PhD dissertation committee, Warrior recused himself from the search, but Warrior is the scholar Salaita praises most frequently in his writing.

Search committee members were well aware that they were hiring a political ally and a long-term friend of the head of the program. Salaita’s hire was more a political than a scholarly appointment, though the American Indian Studies Program and its affiliated faculty were so thoroughly enamored of these views that I very much doubt they understood how corrupt and compromised the appointment was. The offer should never have been made in the first place. The college and the campus should have done a more rigorous review of the appointment.

Hired as a specialist in “comparative indigeneity,” Salaita really only engaged that subject in his first book. His main scholarly subject is Arab American fiction. His two books on Arab American fiction were thus the main basis of his tenure offer, even though they have nothing to do with Native American studies. He might have taught Arab American fiction in Illinois’s English Department, but the English Department refused to accept a portion of his faculty line. Even the two books on Arab American fiction, notably, include chapters attacking Israel.

At least three of his books – Anti-Arab Racism in the USA, The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, and Israel’s Dead Soul – make no claims to being scholarly publications. They are books of undocumented popular political opinion, gatherings of Salaita’s polemical essays and op-eds. Faculty are certainly entitled to publish such books, but they do not constitute a basis for tenure at a major research university.

Salaita contributed many months of hostile tweets about Israel to the social media world before the Illinois board became aware of them. Only during the July war in Gaza did the blogosphere take full notice of Steven Salaita’s presence. But the overwhelming majority of his tweets and short, nasty book reviews on Goodreads long predate Gaza. Immediately after Illinois withdrew the offer, Salaita took down his tweets and book reviews. It then became possible for him to claim the tweets were angry responses to the deaths of children in Gaza, but that is a fiction. Gaza was not the focus of his tweeting in February and March 2014. The board did not become aware of his social media role until July, but the body of evidence at stake long predated the summer.

Had Salaita already been a faculty member at Illinois, I and others would have deplored his remarks but defended his right to make them. As a job candidate in the final stages of the hiring process, academic freedom protected his right to tweet “Zionism: Making Anti-Semitism Respectable Since 1948,” but not a resulting judgment that he was not an appealing prospective hire. But the tweets and book reviews were still only relevant because they were in exactly the same area as his publications. The tweets amount to concise summaries of the views in his books. They are part of his professional profile.

A colleague at Illinois who has spent time with Salaita suggested he is not in fact anti-Semitic, but fully realized the tweets and book reviews would be read that way, indeed that Salaita enjoyed taunting people with remarks they would perceive as anti-Semitic. I do find that warms me to him.

Unfortunately, Illinois administrators and the board only became aware of Salaita’s online presence late in the process. A more detailed review, including administrative solicitation of less biased outside letters, would have been immensely preferable. It appears that at least three of Salaita’s outside referees were, like Salaita himself, public supporters of BDS. Neutral evaluations should have been obtained.

That said, a conditional offer is not the same as an unconditional one. I do not believe Salaita has a legal right to a job at Illinois. Nor do I believe his academic freedom was violated. But the lateness of Illinois’s administrative action does leave the university with a moral obligation to offer a financial settlement.

The author teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is the author or editor of 30 books, most recently (with Gabriel Noah Brahm) of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. He served as president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012, and is now co-chairman of the Alliance for Academic Freedom.


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