Defending Salaita: Anti-Israel Profs Unite!

While Steven G. Salaita’s inflammatory, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Twitter posts and atrocious academic record may have cost him a tenured professorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), they did nothing to lessen his support from the field of Middle East studies.  The former Virginia Tech University English professor – whose published work focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict – was offered a position in UIUC’s American Indian Studies Program that was later rescinded by Chancellor Phyllis Wise.  Salaita’s academic apologists immediately sprang into action, with antagonism to Israel’s recent military action against Hamas only adding to the frenzy.

A number of petitions, open letters, and statements calling to reinstate or show solidarity with Salaita made the rounds, all displaying similar characteristics.

Among them was a statement issued by the executive committee for the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES) at UIUC.  After declaring that “there is nothing anti-Semitic in Dr. Salaita’s comments on Twitter” because his targets were merely (emphasis added) “the illegal and unethical assault on Gaza, and those who support it,” the statement goes on to assert, without evidence, that “ardent supporters of Israel have engaged in malicious and unethical actions in order to suppress criticism of Israel.”  The scholars urge the university to “resist political pressures to silence voices of legitimate outrage” or, in other words, to oppose the dastardly “Israel lobby” fighting for a scholarly, unbiased education.

Then there was a “Letter from scholars to Chancellor Wise” signed by a number of notoriously anti-Israel Middle East studies academics.*  Tellingly, the letter describes the “content of Salaita’s Tweets” as being “consistent with the sentiments of leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict” before dismissing public opinion by adding condescendingly:

It seems that popular knowledge about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the US public space has overwhelmed what is well known by academic experts. This cannot be allowed to happen in a serious university.

It concludes by dredging up the oft-repeated fantasy of post-9/11 academic persecution: “Illinois [sic] decision is taking us back to the post-9/11 hysteria, which victimized so many people, and sacrificed academic freedom.”  The legions of Israel-bashing tenured academics across the country prove the opposite.  

The U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), hardly an impartial source, issued a statement vociferously defending Salaita, who, not coincidentally and along with a number of Middle East studies academics, is a member of its “organizing committee.”  The statement claims that this, along with Salaita’s Arab-American heritage, help explain the “politically-motivated firing,” ignoring the fact that rescinding a job offer and firing an employee are two different things.

In addition, USACBI produced a petition “organized by scholars of conscience and USACBI’s Organizing Collective” by which “signatories ... refused to speak or lecture at UIUC until Dr. Steven Salaita is reinstated in his position.”**  No word on how long these professors of agitprop will forgo UIUC speaking engagements now that Salaita’s fate is sealed.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) sent a letter to Chancellor Wise on behalf of its “Committee on Academic Freedom” and signed by MESA president Nathan Brown that employed measured language to advance an unsupported claim:

The revocation of an academic appointment because of the appointee’s political views or because of the venue in which those views are expressed constitutes not only an assault on constitutionally protected free speech rights but an infringement of the principles of academic freedom as well.

MESA failed to grasp that Salaita did not lose his free speech rights, that there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to a tenure track position, and, most importantly, that free speech is not immune from consequences.  Only in the insulated, rarified world of academia would one believe that a public figure whose salary is financed in part by taxpayers has no obligation to uphold a professional and at least somewhat collegial image.

Individuals chimed in, including Hatem Bazian – a senior lecturer in the department of Near Eastern studies and director of the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley – who asserted that the “margin of what you can say and you can’t say is very narrow, and it is the easiest way to torpedo somebody’s career.”  This from one who called for an “intifada in this country” and later equated Israeli policy with slavery – both at rallies in San Francisco – and who retains full-time employment at a public university.

Characteristically, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole invoked anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to explain Salaita’s woes:

I strongly suspect that Zionist organizations pressured the university to fire Professor Salaita. ... This behavior is undemocratic and cult-like, and it is unacceptable in a Liberal society. We also see Jewish nationalists on the bench, in public office, and in high administrative positions who misuse their public position to engage in a sectarian vendetta so as to protect Israel from criticism or to punish its critics.

Meanwhile, University of California, Irvine history professor Mark LeVine blamed Salaita’s “dehiring” on the “wrath of pro-Israel conservatives in the United States” and warned that it would have “a devastating effect on scholars working in highly politicized fields such as Middle Eastern studies and climate science, where critical and untampered public debate is most crucial.”  This claim is risible, since his own field of Middle East studies is among the least welcoming of “critical and untampered debate” thanks to the dominance of professors like LeVine and Salaita.

In a welcome departure, University of California, Los Angeles history department chair David N. Myers condemned Salaita’s offensive rhetoric and immature behavior, as well as the apologetics of his academic supporters:

It is stunning to behold the near-total silence of Salaita’s supporters about the content of his speech. ... What is objectionable here is not criticism of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. ... It is the sophomoric, intemperate and, dare I say, hateful quality of Salaita’s speech. Even if one shares Salaita’s passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause and believes fervently in his right to free speech, it is imperative to call out his irresponsible words.

Would that more Middle East studies scholars shared Myers’s principled approach to the Salaita affair.  Instead, we are left with academics who would seemingly defend anyone who demonizes Israel and its supporters.  Rather than acknowledge the grave responsibility of educating the next generation, they blame others and romanticize themselves as victims of persecution.  Mired in self-importance and moral relativism, and incapable of introspection, these are the ranks from which future Salaitas will emerge.  One can only hope they meet the same fate.   

*Middle East studies signatories to the “Letter from scholars to Chancellor Wise” include As’ad Abukhalil, California State University, Stanislaus; Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, Columbia University; and Samera Esmeir, University of California, Berkeley.

**Among the many Middle East studies signatories to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) petition are Rabab Abdulhadi, San Francisco State University; Paola Bacchetta, University of California, Berkeley; and Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University.

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.  She can be reached at