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A Victory for Academic Freedom

Steven Salaita

A little over a year ago, Palestinian-American Professor Steven Salaita was fired for posting tweets attacking Israel and its U.S. supporters in harsh language during Israel’s operation in Gaza last summer.

Salaita, who had been vetted by the appropriate faculty committees and approved by the provost, was essentially “unhired” from a tenured position in American Indian studies at the University of Illinois when donors pressured the university after they found the tweets on his personal Twitter account.

Salaita became the center of an international protest against academic censorship. He embarked on a national speaking tour and has received support from high-profile organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association.

Salaita explained his tweets in these words:

“In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel’s actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza’s children.

“A partisan political blog cherry-picked a few of those tweets from hundreds to create the false impression that I am anti-Semitic. Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired. My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.”

Salaita has filed a lawsuit against the university, the board of trustees, and several administrators claiming that they violated his constitutional rights, including to free speech and due process. He also is suing for breach of contract and intentional emotional distress. Salaita is seeking compensation and the job as a tenured professor in the American Indian studies department.

He just recently was assured of his day in court against the university. In a 56-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber denied the university’s motion to dismiss and ruled that the case could proceed to the discovery stage, and perhaps to trial.

Leinenweber cleared Salaita to pursue his claims that the university breached its contract to hire the scholar. He found implicitly that university officials lied about the terms of his employment deal in their desperation to keep him off campus. Those officials now stand accused of sophistry and dishonesty.

In the meantime, Salaita, the author of six books and numerous articles, was recently hired as the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. He is currently in Beirut getting ready for the fall semester, but took time to talk with Madison365 about the federal judge’s ruling, about Israel and Palestine, and about Madison – where Salaita and his wife Diana lived when he was an assistant professor of English at UW-Whitewater from 2003-2006.

Madison365: In recent news, a federal judge has allowed your lawsuit against the University of Illinois to proceed. How did that make you feel?
Steven Salaita: I was really emotional when I heard the news. I’m pretty skeptical of the state as a repository of justice, but I have to confess that it felt remarkably good to read the judge’s opinion that I was in fact hired and that my speech and due process rights had been violated. It was a moment of great validation, though I never really doubted that what had taken place was an old-fashioned firing. Still, I understand that it’s in the courts where precedent is set, and one of my goals is to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t become common practice.

Madison365: The last year has been a tough one for you and I know that you have been harassed in real life and disparaged on social media …. But what are the positives that you have drawn from this extraordinary experience?
Steven Salaita: It’s been terrific to see so many folks fighting to preserve academic freedom; to create new cultures in which criticism of Israel is no longer verboten; to ensure that our universities aren’t given over to private interests or destroyed by retrograde politicians — something, sadly, that has become an acute problem in Wisconsin. So many people — faculty, students, activists, journalists, parents — have been energized by these attacks on higher education. That energy needs to maintain itself. The forces seeking to transform campuses into consumer playgrounds are strong and determined.

Madison365: How do you feel like the American public has been misled on what really transpires in Israel and Palestine?
Steven Salaita: There are lots of reasons, but an important factor is a docile mainstream media, what I prefer to call corporate media. We don’t hear enough about the so-called conflict as a form of colonization. Instead, commentators talk of ancient tribal rivalries and religious acrimony. It’s quite simpler than that: one group of people is colonizing another group of people. Obviously, much more is happening, but if we’re going to reduce things to a soundbite, this is the soundbite that’s most appropriate. Also, there are elements of Israeli history that are deeply familiar to Americans: the settlement of a land of milk and honey, overcoming hostile conditions to create a glorious democracy, and so forth.

Madison365: How can we get people to think more complexly about what it means to be pro-Palestine or pro-Israel?
Steven Salaita: We can ask them to think about the conflict in context of the histories from which it emerged and the geopolitical forces that sustain it. In other words, Jews and Palestinians didn’t just start hating each other one day. There’s a particular set of conditions we have to consider. And those conditions both inform and arise from the traditions of European colonization. I think it’s better to think in terms of pro-equality. That allows one to transfer her political interests all over the globe.

Madison365: What type of parallels do you draw between the Palestinian movement and other civil rights struggles, particularly, Black Lives Matter [BLM] movement and the fight for immigrant rights in the United States?
Steven Salaita: They’re deeply interconnected. There’s been terrific interaction between BLM and Palestine solidarity communities. These interactions aren’t always perfect, but activists across the spectrum have done a great job connecting their concerns to power structures that affect numerous communities. It hasn’t passed the attention of many BLM organizers, for example, that dozens of police chiefs in the United States have received training in Israel. And the same xenophobic communities that disparage immigrants are deeply hostile to Palestinians.

Madison365: If you could teach a course on things you’ve learned and experienced during this whole ordeal you’ve been through, what would that look like?
Steven Salaita: There are lots of good books and articles about academic freedom and the changing cultures of campus life. I’d probably also use readings that focus on activism and media representation. There would probably be room for analysis of social media, in all their glory and awfulness. Hell, you’ve inspired me to cook up something!

Madison365: What do you like and remember most about your time in Madison?
Steven Salaita: Meeting great people (you, for instance!). A wonderful little house on the near west side — I left before they finished redesigning Hilldale [Shopping Center], but I loved it in its old incarnation. The beautiful scenery. The arboretum. Great bike trails. Pitchers of beer overlooking Lake Mendota. Michaelangelo’s coffee. The Farmer’s Market, of course! I’m sure a lot has changed in the near-decade since I left, but I reckon certain things are timeless.