Jewish group that sent email promising action denies role in Steven Salaita firing

Steven Salaita

The Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation has told The Electronic Intifada it had no role in the University of Illinois’ decision to terminate professor Steven Salaita.

This is despite the fact that its director had sent an email on 22 July reassuring constituents concerned by Salaita’s social media use that “leaders in the [Champaign-Urbana] Jewish community take this issue quite seriously and are addressing this matter to the best of our abilities.”

It was revealed yesterday that the university terminated Salaita’s appointment as associate professor in the American Indian Studies Program just weeks before he was to begin teaching at its Champaign-Urbana campus.

This came after anti-Palestinian activists and media raised concern over Salaita’s tweets condemning Israel’s massacre in Gaza.

Salaita has been an outspoken campaigner for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Jewish Federation role

“We really don’t really know anything other than what’s being reported right now,” Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation executive director Jessica Kopolow told The Electronic Intifada by telephone.

“We certainly support respectful discussion on our campus and in our community and we certainly support everyone’s rights in this country to free speech,” Kopolow added.

Asked if her organization had any comment regarding the decision to terminate Salaita, Kopolow responded, “I can’t really comment on that. It’s a university matter.”

The university has refused media requests for comment.

The Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation is affiliated with a national network called the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).

In 2010, JFNA and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched the “Israel Action Network,” described as “a multimillion-dollar joint initiative to combat anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns” and to fight “the delegitimizing of the State of Israel.”

22 July email

On 22 July, The News-Gazette, a central Illinois newspaper, ran an article about the “ire” Salaita’s social postings were raising on the far-right anti-Palestinian website The Daily Caller.

The same day, Kopolow sent this email to the Jewish Federation’s contact list:


By now, many of you have read the article in today’s News-Gazette about the University of Illinois’ recent hiring of Steven Salaita, whose inflammatory comments on social media are drawing attention from both the media and the Jewish community.

I would like to take this opportunity to let you all know that leaders in the CU Jewish community take this issue quite seriously and are addressing this matter to the best of our abilities.

Several of you have called to express your concern–please know that we are doing what we can, and we will keep you informed every step of the way.

We are here for you, CU!

L’shalom, Jessica

No “specific” action

Asked about what action this email referred to, Kopolow stated: “There wasn’t necessarily a specific action other than to let our community know that we were hearing their concerns.”

Asked if she or any officers or board members of her organization had communicated with the university about Salaita, Kapolow said, “I did not and I really don’t know if any others did.”

Kopolow acknowledged that the story on Salaita did raise “a lot of concern” in her organization’s constituency. “I had lengthy phone conversations with maybe five community members and then I received maybe 10-15 emails,” she said.

Outside intervention

Another Israel lobby group, the fervently anti-Palestinian Simon Wiesenthal Center, has been more direct, accusing Salaita of being an “anti-Semite” and urging in a letter to university president Robert Easter that the university “reconsider” Salaita’s appointment.

The Jewish Voice reported on the letter from the Wiesenthal Center’s director Rabbi Meyer May and campus outreach coordinator Aron Hier yesterday, but does not say what date it was sent.

Cary Nelson, a self-described “Zionist” and past president of the American Association of University Professors, has been leading the public campaign justifying Salaita’s termination.

Nelson, who teaches English at the University of Illinois, told The Electronic Intifada yesterday that he had been monitoring Salaita’s Twitter account for months.

No due process

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s apparent cave-in to outside pressure is generating mounting concern about free speech at the institution.

The Illinois Conference Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors issued a strong statement condemning the university’s action.

“Reports that the university has voided a job offer, if accurate, due to tweets on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a clear violation of Professor Salaita’s academic freedom and an affront to free speech that we enjoy in this country,” the statement says.

It adds:

We are unaware that the university has afforded Professor Salaita any due process. In the absence of due process, particularly if a contract was signed, any institutional action to reverse an offer of appointment would be a grave violation of academic due process. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching. What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment.

The US Palestinian Community Network also strongly condemned Salaita’s dismissal.

“Salaita’s academic and teaching record are unassailed – this matter is entirely about his public activism and refusal to back down or legitimize racism and Zionism,” it said in an action alert.

An online petition calling for Salaita’s reinstatement had already gathered almost 7,500 signatures just a day after it was launched.




Cary Nelson accuses Steven Salaita of showing poor judgment, of using hate speech, and of inciting violence. Salaita’s students would, Nelson asserts, feel academically at risk if they ever expressed views opposing his. Nevertheless, these same accusations were also raised against Ward Churchill, who lost his job at the University of Colorado for comparing the work of the financiers at the World Trade Center to that of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Yet in an article, Nelson conveniently brings up Churchill’s case to lament the fact that many professors, as a result, fear the consequences of exercising their academic freedom.

Nelson’s accusations against Salaita are personal, not principled. In the absence of such principles, Nelson’s students should indeed feel academically at risk for fear of ever daring to cross him.


Apparently the USA no longer believes in the principles it is pretending to spread abroad. Al Qaida is undoubtedly laughing its head off, watching American academia undo the nation. All they have to do is sit back and wait.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.