This week, Inside Higher Ed reported that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater, revoked the job offer of prominent Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita over his vocal defense of Palestinians and criticism of Israel, including its ongoing massacre in Gaza. Salaita, who left Virginia Tech to join UIUC’s American Indian Studies department, had been offered a tenured position.
In that article, Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s decision to nix Salaita’s offer at the last minute was affirmed by UIUC English professor Cary Nelson, who claimed Salaita’s “loathsome and foul-mouthed presence in social media” and “extremist and uncivil views” disqualify him from holding a faculty position.
I’ve been a regular reader of Salaita’s Twitter feed and have found the content of his tweets to be nothing more and nothing less than principled, unapologetic opposition to apartheid and ethnic cleansing, both in Israeli policy and Zionist ideology.
What irks liberal Zionists like Nelson the most (and sets him apart from many other academics who show solidarity with Palestinians) is his passionate and informal tone, which includes a willingness to antagonize those whose views he refuses to validate.
Tone is the last refuge of scoundrels. Defenders of apartheid and ethnic cleansing don’t like Salaita’s tone because he isn’t respectful in his disagreement with people who defend those things.
Wise faces a firestorm of criticism, including a strongly-worded letter from prominent academics like Joseph Massad and Judith Butler and a petition that’s gotten over 11,000 signatures since Wednesday (the 6th).
Now, Columbia University professor Bruce Robbins, a Jewish American academic and filmmaker, has canceled an upcoming screening at UIUC of his film Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists, which features interviews with Jewish Americans, young people as well as prominent intellectuals and artists, on their changing relationships to Zionism and the development of their views on Israel-Palestine.
In a letter to the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, which he posted to his Facebook wall, Robbins explicitly accuses Wise of McCarthyism, stating that “the decision that Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the University of Illinois administration reached to fire Professor Steven Salaita for his political views makes it impossible for me to have anything more to do with that campus, at least until that decision is reversed and Professor Salaita is reinstated.”
Robbins’s decisiveness is admirable. This is BDS in action! With his permission, I’m reposting his letter here:
Why This Jewish-American Can’t Visit Urbana-Champaign
Professors Lauren Goodlad, Michael Rothberg, and Matti Bunzl
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Dear Lauren, Michael, and Matti,
Grateful as I am for your invitation to screen my film, “Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists,” on the Urbana-Champaign campus in October, I am afraid I will have to decline. I am enormously appreciative of you all, for your scholarship and your solidarity with the projects of others. Thanks to you, Lauren and Michael, I spent a very exciting and rewarding two weeks in Urbana-Champaign as Mellon Professor, and I have benefited from your hospitality on more occasions than I can count. Nevertheless, the decision that Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the University of Illinois administration reached to fire Professor Steven Salaita for his political views makes it impossible for me to have anything more to do with that campus, at least until that decision is reversed and Professor Salaita is reinstated. I hope that will happen before October.
I will not rehearse for you the reasons why this firing is an outrage to anyone who cares about academic freedom or simple human decency. I’m sure you will already see them very clearly for yourselves. Professor Salaita spoke up privately, in his capacity as a citizen, against what history will surely agree (everyone outside the United States already does) was a massacre of the innocents in Gaza. In punishing him for speaking up by taking away his job, Chancellor Wise has inscribed her name in a shameful list that includes Joseph McCarthy, among others. I’m confident that history will deal with Chancellor Wise much as it has dealt with McCarthy. But she will not have to wait to be judged by history. Thanks to her, the Urbana-Champaign campus is going to become a no-man’s-land, famous for embarrassing itself in public. i’m sure I am not the only academic who will no longer want to be associated with it in any way.
With regret and, again, much gratitude to you as individuals,
Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities
NY, NY 10027