Safe From Salaita at Illinois

In recent weeks many colleges have faced issues of what can or can't be said, and how. The college campus, many argue, must be a safe space for students. Students themselves, in fact, often seem to think they should be protected from shocking ideas and uncivil modes of expression.

Here's some advice for students who value intellectual safety over intellectual freedom: Check out the University of Illinois, which over the past 15 months has spent over two million dollars to keep the innocent young minds of its students safe from the "anti-Semitic" ideas and "uncivil" expression of Steven Salaita.

Who is Steven Salaita? How did he attain such notoriety that a university will pay big bucks to protect its students from him?

Salaita grew up in southern Appalachia. His father is Jordanian; his mother was raised in Nicaragua by her Palestinian immigrant parents. After earning an undergraduate degree in political science and a masters in English, he completed his doctorate in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma in 2003. His thesis and dissertation concerned the interrelated discourses of colonization in North America and Palestine.

In 2009 Salaita earned tenure in the English Department at Virginia Tech. In addition to a strong publication record, he had shown himself to be an excellent teacher whose students especially appreciate his respect for their intellectual autonomy.

In 2011 he published Israel's Dead Soul. Liberal Zionism, he observed, has long agonized over the effects of the ongoing colonization of Palestine on the heart and soul of the colonizers, with little regard for Palestinians, who remain faceless, nameless Arabs, much like the African natives in Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness. Salaita himself rejects the very idea that nation-states have souls and advocates Israel's "reconstruction as a sovereign democracy for all of its citizens."

When Salaita learned that the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana−Champaign was seeking someone who did comparative work in global indigenous studies he applied for the position. After receiving and accepting a letter of offer in 2013 he resigned his position at Virginia Tech and arranged to move to Illinois with his wife and young son in early August 2014, prior to the beginning of the fall semester later that month.

In the summer of 2014 Israel conducted an assault on Gaza that over a period of weeks killed more than 2000 Palestinians, including hundreds of children. Salaita repeatedly tweeted his opposition to what he considered a human rights atrocity. As usual, he was careful to distinguish Israel, the nation-state, from Jews, as people.

On July 17 he tweeted, "I absolutely have empathy for Israeli civilians who are harmed. Because I'm capable of empathy, I deeply oppose colonization and ethnocracy."

On July 18 he tweeted, "It's a beautiful thing to see our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world deploring #Israel's brutality in #Gaza."

On July 19, in two separate tweets, he wrote "If it's 'anti-Semitic' to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have? # Gaza" and "My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of antisemitism."

In these tweets and in his new book Uncivil Rites, Salaita makes a distinction between anti-Semitism and "anti-Semitism" (with scare quotes). Anti-Semitism in its traditional sense is directed at Jews; Salaita repudiates it unequivocally as a form of racism. What many now call "anti-Semitism," however, refers to critiques of Israeli violence that Salaita deems justified and honorable.

Beginning July 21, right-wing monitors of American academe began publishing and distributing a small sampling of Salaita's tweets that, out of context, could be used to discredit him. On August 1 the University of Illinois told Salaita not to bother coming. His tweets, it subsequently claimed, failed to meet its standard of civility.

Salaita sued the University for violating his contractual and First Amendment rights. Preliminary rulings indicated he would likely prevail. On November 12 the University agreed to a settlement in which it will pay Salaita $600,000 plus attorney fees of $275,000, and will remain fully responsible for its own legal expenses of about $1.3 million.

Illinois students will be safe from hearing what Steven Salaita has to say, however, because he agreed to relinquish his job. Two million dollars after Salaita's termination, the official rationale remains the same: He is not civil enough to teach at Illinois. For those who value safe space, this campus is once again secure.

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