Prof defends role in Gaza Twitter scandal
Steven Salaita claims he lost job by angering ‘pro-Israel’ groups
A scholar whose anti-Israel tweets this summer spurred University of Illinois administrators to revoke the offer of a faculty position denied that his tweets were anti-Semitic.
“Anti-Semitism is something I’ve spoken against vocally, on my Twitter feeds, in my scholarship, and during public events; it is a phenomenon I detest,” Steven Salaita told NJJN before an appearance Nov. 17 at Princeton University. “That set of tweets was not a critique of Jewishness but of a particular set of Zionist discourses — conflating criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism.”
Salaita became a cause celebre over the summer when Illinois trustees voted to reject the faculty recommendation that Salaita be appointed to a tenured position with the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
The move reportedly was made following a series of tweets in which Salaita harshly criticized Israel and its supporters during Operation Protective Edge. Salaita’s tweets included, “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Another tweet said, “Ever wonder what would happen if the KKK had F-16s and access to a surplus population of minorities? See #Israel and #Gaza.”
The trustees’ decision sparked a backlash in academia, with a number of students and professors saying that, however odious his comments, the revoking of the job offer violated free speech and academic freedoms.
That was the topic Salaita was invited to address in his Princeton appearance, titled “Political Dissent, Digital Media, and Futures of Academic Freedom: An Evening with Steven Salaita.”
The event was cosponsored by the History and Near Eastern Studies department, the Program in American Studies, and the University Center for Human Values. About 70 people attended the event.
Max Weiss, a professor of history and Near Eastern studies, opened the evening by reviewing the issues that led up to the withdrawal of Salaita’s job offer.
Weiss disagreed with University of Illinois administrators who said Salaita’s tweets amounted to “intimidating, harassing, and hate speech.” As a public institution, he said, the university should have respected Salaita’s First Amendment right to free speech.
Salaita, meanwhile, suggested that the university was moved less by the “sentiment and politics” of his tweets than by outside pressure, saying that he “pissed off pro-Israel organizations.”
“It looks like it was the influence of outside donors to the university that got me fired,” he said. Salaita referred to a document about him prepared by Chicago’s Jewish federation and shared with administrators. The gist of that document, Salaita claimed, was: “We know this guy; we’re doing something about it.”
(In a letter in October to the Chicago Tribune, Michael Kotzin — a former executive vice president and now senior counselor to the president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago — said that Salaita’s claims of outside pressure were “misleading,” and that the real issue was his language, which was “replete with echoes of traditional anti-Semitic motifs, images, and language.” Added Kotzin: “[L]et there be no misunderstanding about the content of many of his tweets. At a time when anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise globally and anti-Semitic rhetoric is becoming more widespread in mainstream circles, this ancient yet tenacious evil needs to be recognized and acknowledged wherever it might be found.”)
Salaita also defended the substance of the tweets, including one that read, “I wish all the f—ing West Bank settlers would go missing.” That tweet was written on June 19, seven days after three Israeli teenagers went missing and were presumed kidnapped while hitchhiking home from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. The teens were later found to have been murdered.
“If I wanted the settlers kidnapped or murdered, I would have said ‘kidnapped’ or ‘murdered,’” Salaita protested. “I said ‘go missing.’ I meant: Were there no settlers who cause profound suffering, who are ideological to the point of continuous violence, the lives of Palestinians would be much easier and there wouldn’t be a conflict for us to talk about.”
He also denied that his tweet referring to a “necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian” was meant to invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes.
“I think it is ludicrous that it got attached to Russian and German imagery of blood libel,” he said. “I wasn’t criticizing Netanyahu as a Jew, but as a head of state, who at that point had been implicated in the deaths of 400 children.”
Salaita, whose grandmother was a Palestinian and whose father is Jordanian, referred to himself during the talk as a Jordanian, with Jordanian citizenship.
However, he said, “If you are going to decide that it is anti-Semitic for a Palestinian to criticize the actions of the Israeli government, you are attaching specific meaning to that term that…undermines the seriousness of the term and the behavior it represents,” he said.
He reiterated this point in remarks to NJJN.
“In my mind it’s important, even crucial, to separate the behavior of a nation state from the identity of a cultural, ethnic, or religious group,” he told NJJN. “Most of the speech that is the subject of the critique is the act of the government that controls that state. I don’t think any institution or government is so sacred that it can’t be criticized, and that includes Muslim states and Christian leaders.”