Criticism of how Israel treats Palestinians has become a firing offense in some circles, including academia where professors must muzzle themselves or face accusations of anti-Semitism. In the case of Steven Salaita, Twitter posts about Gaza cost him his job, as Dennis J. Bernstein explores in an interview.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
As bombs rained down on the people of Gaza this past summer, Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita shared his outrage and horror about the Israeli assault via Twitter. Then, as he prepared to move his family and start his new job as a tenured professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Salaita was abruptly un-hired.
Wealthy donors had objected to his tweets and pressured the university to keep him out, part of a broader campaign to silence people advocating for Palestinian rights, as Salaita described in a recent interview on Pacifica’s “Flashpoints” program.
DB: Before we get into the ugly details. Tell us a little bit about your own background. You were going to be teaching Native American Studies. Tell us about your history as a teacher.
SS: I was set to teach in the American Indian Studies program. I specialize in Native Literatures, Native politics, and Native decolonization and so I got my PhD in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, in 2003.
I’ve been working at the intersections of Palestine and North America, and the similarities of the colonial discourses between the two spaces for quite some time. And so that was, I think, what lead the American Indian Studies Program to their interest in me.
DB: Our senior producer for this show Miguel Gavilan Molina is indigenous Chicano and he always makes the connection, and in fact, now we’ve got the Israelis securing the borders not only here at the Mexican border, but all the way down between Mexico and Guatemala. I mean, you see the Mexican military, it looks like the Israeli army. … So, you were hired as a tenured professor? Why tenured?
SS: Because I had already been tenured at Virginia Tech.
DB: That must have meant that there was a great deal of respect in bringing you on, giving you the tenure, and letting you carry that across. So they must have really wanted you.
SS: Absolutely, correct. And it came along with an extra intensive round of vetting. A tenured hire always passes through a lot more committees and external referees than an untenured hire.
DB: And then came the latest slaughter in the Gaza Strip and you were not happy about that. You were speaking out.
SS: Of course.
DB: What was on your mind?
SS: The images of destruction, the many war crimes that reporters and human rights organizations were reporting. … What ended up being the murder of around 519 children. The bombing of the shelters to which so many people had been displaced; just the overall horror of the situation.
DB: It was a rather abject slaughter. It wasn’t a war, it was a slaughter. There was … not even a close sense of equal power on both sides.
SS: Exactly. It was a colonial power … rainning death and destruction on the colonized population.
DB: So, you were outraged. I guess you have friends there, maybe family?
SS: No family, lots of friends.
DB: Lots of friends and you were hearing it first hand, what the slaughter looked like.
DB: So talk about … what did you tweet?
SS: I tweeted all kinds of things. I’ve been tweeting about the Israel/Palestine conflict for a very long time, ever since I got onto the platform. … About 5 or 6 tweets … were isolated by right-wing groups, who ended up decontextualizing them from a broader narrative. And they were … misread. They were consciously misread.
I was accused of antisemitism. … To conceptualize criticism of Israeli government policy as antisemitism transforms the meaning of the word into something honorable and, therefore, it’s kind of a dangerous move to make. Or at the very least, a troublesome move to make.
Otherwise, I think the tweet that rankled people was … when I noted that if you support what Israel is doing in Gaza right now, you are an awful human being.
DB: Do we know exactly who responded and who the university responded to in terms of these complaints?
SS: We know right now. … It started publicly with a hit piece on me from Tucker Carlson’s website, the Daily Caller. And then the local paper, in Champaign-Urbana, the News Gazette, picked up on it. And then it sort of spiraled out of control.
We do know the Simon Weisenthal Center had some contact with the university administration. And we know from the FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act request that at least a handful of wealthy donors was involved and that the University of Illinois Foundation (that is the fundraising branch of the university) was involved in the conversations as well. But all of the names, at this point, have been redacted.
DB: Tell us … in this thorough vetting of your history, they must have known, in terms of your theories, about the relationship between indigenous communities in this country and the nature of Palestinians, who don’t have a country to live in at this point.
SS: Oh yeah, of course. And the tweets aren’t part of the dossier. If they’re going to be part of the hiring dossier then they need to also count as part our labor. They don’t count as part of our labor. So if they’re going to count our tweets as part of our academic profile then my cv is going to get a lot longer than it already is. And … I have listed on my cv, front and center, my most recent book published by a university press called Israel’s Dead Soul.
I’ve never made any secret as to what my politics are. In fact, I’ve been on the job market a number of times since I’ve gotten out of graduate school. And I’ve always liked hiring committees to know exactly where I stand, so there are no surprises. They … know what my politics are, they know how my scholarship engages in a particular set of material politics, of de-colonial politics. They knew all of this. If you look at the sum total of people at UIUC [University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] who had looked over my dossier, the number is probably more than one hundred.
DB: More than one hundred. … Did you ever hear from the people who hired you again, after you were fired? Were they sorry? What was the reaction? Because in a hiring structure like this, you must have had a chance to really meet a couple of people. … Tell us about what they said, after the fact.
SS: They were upset, and they continue to be upset. This has been a tremendous blow to the American Indian Studies Program. They uniformly wanted me to be there and continue to want me to be there. The administration really stomped on their hiring autonomy as a department. They trampled on university by-laws in making this unilateral decision.
Even the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences wasn’t informed that this decision was being made. So there’s a huge group of faculty across the campus who are dismayed by the university’s decision and want me to come join them as a colleague.
DB: And, just to be clear, is this a done deal? You’ve been unhired?
SS: It seems to be a done deal but I’m hoping … a lot of us are hoping that reinstatement will still be possible.
DB: Did you get a letter?
SS: I got a letter, yeah.
DB: What did the letter say?
SS: It really didn’t say anything. It was an exceptionally vague letter. I actually had to read it about three or four times to make sure that I had actually been fired, or unhired, or whatever you want to call it.
But it basically said “We…” … it was signed by Phyllis Wise, the Chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and it simply noted that they don’t expect Board of Trustee approval for my hire and that therefore there is no reason for me to turn up. They didn’t give any reason, nothing specific, nothing.
DB: And did you hear from those folks you got to know in the department, about what the behind the scenes dialogue was about?
SS: See, they didn’t know either.
DB: They didn’t even know that you were unhired…?
SS: They didn’t know until I knew. The Dean of the College didn’t know. The Chair of my Department didn’t know. The members of the hiring committee didn’t know. We all sort of found out at the same time.
DB: So who fired you?
SS: We don’t know for sure. It is the responsibility of Chancellor Wise, the Board of Trustees, and I think the system President Robert Easter. I don’t exactly know who made the decision but it appears that it was donors who made the decision. And that the board and the chancellor and the president are just carrying water for them.
DB: In terms of the content … I mentioned the senior producer here considers indigenous folks in this country, the Palestinians of North America. These parallels are made all the time. There’s extraordinary unity between these communities across global lines, and at the United Nations, when they work together. Tell us what you think we’re all losing by this kind of action.
SS: I think so many people are invested in the outcome of this process because a lot of people inside and outside of academe understand that first of all we’re losing a legal definition and a notion of practice of academic freedom. We’re losing the ability to criticize a foreign nation state without recrimination. We’re losing ability to question the imperatives of the American government without recrimination. We’re losing the First Amendment, as problematic as its practice has been throughout American history. It still has remained an important protection against government incrimination, for political speech.
We’re losing faculty governance and democratic educational practices in the universities. And it’s really in some way … symbolic of what’s become of the country in general. And so in universities we have boards of trustees, made up of business people, sort of making decisions about the university in which campuses are becoming, U.C. Berkeley, among them, completely corporatized and models of neo-liberal engagement, just like American society in total.
DB: We’re just down the block from the University of California, Berkeley, and there they have honored a professor named John Yoo with a special chair. And he wrote, essentially, the torture justifications for the Bush administration. And he’s promoted. He’s got his own life chair now. At first they had to hide where his classes were because there were so many protests. There really does seem to be a dual standard in this country … and on the university campus.
SS: Oh, absolutely. And this certainly didn’t start with me. … Just even in the case of Palestine and Israel. There have been so many people who have been fired or who haven’t been tenured or who faced public scrutiny. Or in many cases, who have never been hired in the first place.
But even before that, the suppression of African-Americans, of indigenous peoples, of queers — of any sort of deviant body or deviant idea — has a longstanding history. And what I think the distinction comes down to, more than anything, is whether your speech is critical of the exercise of state power or whether it reinforces or supplements the practices of state power. And if you fall into the latter category, like John Yoo, then you get rewarded.
DB: You know somebody who teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana Law School is Francis Boyle.
DB: Who was, among other things, a representative for the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] at various peace talks. And has represented them in various potential cases of crimes against humanity, human rights. Any of the other professors there, at the university, speaking out? Or maybe they haven’t even heard about it.
SS: Tons of professors at that university are speaking out. There’s been a huge group of faculty and graduate students and community members who have spoken out as Jews, specifically as Jews, saying that the university is totalizing this as Proto-Zionists and invoking a particular ethnic heritage for nefarious purposes that [they] don’t want to be implicated in or involved with.
A lot of faculty, especially those in ethnic studies units have spoken out. But really across the humanities and social sciences there’s been uniform condemnation. It seems to be at the center of campus life this semester.
DB: It’s not exactly a precedent as you say, this happens all the time. I can tell you that … every time we get a new manager [here at KPFA] the Israeli Consulate shows up at the station and they start talking about “If you can just get rid of that Bernstein guy…” In fact, I always have to regularly check my Wikipedia. And it just so happens on the Flashpoints Wikipedia this weekend one of our key contributors, an editor with the Electronic Intifada, Nora Barrows-Friedman is … all of a sudden there’s a write up there that “Flashpoints is a radical program with a radical anti-semite.” And this is on and on. My Wikipedia looks like a slash and burn because of the level and intensity of the attacks.
And sometimes you have to threaten to sue these folks to bring down what is an obvious conjecture and obvious lie. It’s hard to imagine how they can make a case after such a vetting and a hire with tenure a professor. It would seem to me that there would need to be some kind of civil rights action. Any grounds for that, any exploration on that front?
SS: Yeah. I’m being represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which is a terrific organization with really smart attorneys. And they are definitely exploring all of these options. And what you say has happened to you and continues to happen to you is, I think, common for a lot of folks who speak … in even hushed support of the Palestinians … or even mild criticism of the Israeli government.
I think that with my case, people are seeing this as an opportunity to say “Enough! Enough of going to such extraordinary lengths to shut down democratic institutions, and democratic participation, in the service of shielding a colonial nation state from criticism that it so richly deserves.”
DB: But the attackers are fully defended, they’re allowed to say just about anything you can … the e-mails that I get sound something like “Bernstein, if you’re lucky, maybe one day one of your Palestinian friends will slit your throat, Daniel Pearl style, and then you’ll learn something about why it’s important to not be a self-hating Jew.” They can almost say anything, anywhere and this includes major journalists.
SS: Exactly.That comes out of the dynamics of a particular American racism. Those who speak in support of Palestine constantly have to avow their humanity. So in order to even be heard, to even raise our voices, we have to proclaim that we’re not anti-semitic, we have to disavow violence, we have to condemn Hamas. There’s a whole list of things that we have to do, in order to be able to speak in the first place. But those who support Israel never, ever have to disavow themselves of anti-Arab racism. So they occupy the normative position.
DB: If you had a moment to address the writer who wrote that vague letter that unhired you, what would you want to tell them?
SS: I would say that universities are not actually corporate marketplaces and that we cannot conduct hiring and firing based on the desires of donors. If we are going to walk down that road then the university as we know it in the United States will cease to exist and by caving into the outside donor pressure you have set a horrible precedent and you have abdicated your responsibilities to look out for the best interest of the campus, the faculty and the students.
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.