University of Illinois fires professor Steven Salaita after Gaza massacre tweets

A mock-up of Israel’s apartheid wall erected by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Benjamin Stone/Flickr)

Steven Salaita was fired from his position as associate professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) apparently over views critical of Israel, especially its current massacre in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who has publicly supported the university’s decision to remove Salaita, gave frank comments to The Electronic Intifada revealing the extent of his own pro-Israel views.

Nelson acknowledged that he had been monitoring Salaita’s social media use for months.

This indicates Salaita may be the victim of a retaliation campaign. Salaita is the author of Israel’s Dead Soul and The Uncultured Wars, Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, as well as a contributor to a number of publications including Salon and The Electronic Intifada.

He was a prominent campaigner for the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions last December.

In May, Salaita wrote a post for The Electronic Intifada called “How to practice BDS in academe.”

Fired not “revoked”

This morning, Inside Higher Ed reported that Salaita had merely had a job offer “revoked.”

Salaita was “recently informed by Chancellor Phyllis Wise that the appointment would not go to the university’s board, and that he did not have a job to come to in Illinois, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation,” Inside Higher Ed said.

“The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of [Salaita’s] comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza,” it added.

Neither the university nor Salaita have commented on the matter. Salaita did not respond to requests for comment.

But a source with close knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, disputed Inside Higher Ed’s version. The source told The Electronic Intifada that Salaita had actually been “fired.”

The source said they had seen documentation indicating that Salaita’s appointment had been through all the ordinary procedures for hiring faculty, up to and including the scheduling of new faculty orientation.

Salaita had already resigned from his position as associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, according to Inside Higher Ed. It would not make sense for Salaita to resign from a secure position without already having been fully and properly hired to a new one.

Even though Inside Higher Ed’s sources say the opposite, the publication’s own analysis supports The Electronic Intifada’s reporting that Salaita has actually been fired.

“As recently as two weeks ago, the university confirmed to reporters that he [Salaita] was coming,” Inside Higher Ed reported. “The university also declined to answer questions about how rare it is for such appointments to fall through at this stage.”


Salaita’s exact status at the university is likely to be important to the outcome of his case.

If a job offer was merely “revoked,” as Inside Higher Ed’s sources claim, then Salaita would likely have far fewer protections than if he had already been hired, and then fired.

Opponents of Palestinian rights are already seizing on this distinction to spin and legitimize the decision to remove Salaita for his opinions expressed in public forums.

According to Inside Higher Ed, AAUP past president Cary Nelson, who is also an English professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that “it was legitimate – at the point of hiring – to consider issues of civility and collegiality. In this case, [Nelson] said, that would lead him to oppose Salaita’s appointment.”

Nelson’s views are important because his former role at AAUP means he is often cited as an authority on academic freedom issues, though his own anti-Palestinian biases are rarely examined.

In a telephone interview with The Electronic Intifada from his Urbana-Champaign home, Nelson went even further, claiming that Salaita’s supposed social media transgressions “are more serious than collegiality and civility.”

Nelson accused Salaita of “incitement to violence” for retweeting a tweet by another Twitter user, stating: “Jeffrey goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.”

Goldberg, a former Israeli prison guard who participated in and helped cover up the torture and abuse of Palestinian prisoners, and now a writer for The Atlantic, is one of the most prominent defenders of Israel’s bombardment that has killed more than one in every one thousand Palestinians in Gaza over the last month.

While Salaita is known for an acerbic sense of humor – a likely reason he would have retweeted the tweet – it is an oft-stated norm of Twitter that “a retweet does not equal an endorsement.”

When pressed, Nelson could provide no example of any tweet written by Salaita that “incited violence.”

Nelson acknowledged, however, that he has been closely monitoring Salaita’s Twitter account for months. “There are scores of tweets. I have screen captures,” he said. “The total effect seems to me to cross a line.”

Salaita has “always tweeted in a very volatile and aggressive way,” Nelson asserted, but “recently he’s begun to be much more aggressive.”

Another example Nelson gave was an 8 July tweet by Salaita, at the beginning of Israel’s current massacre in Gaza, stating, “If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”

Nelson claimed that this might mean that students in one of Salaita’s classes who “defended Israel” could face a hostile environment.

But Nelson acknowledged that he knew of no complaints about Salaita’s teaching and that Salaita was not even scheduled to teach classes on Palestine and the Israelis.

Asked if he therefore supported a “pre-emptive firing” based on a Tweet, Nelson again insisted that Salaita had not been “fired,” but merely not hired. Nelson claimed that if Salaita had already been hired, he would defend him.

When asked if he would oppose the hiring of a person who said that “someone who defends Hamas firing rockets towards Tel Aviv is an awful person,” Nelson answered: “No.”

There could be no clearer admission that Nelson’s opposition to Salaita is based on the content of his views, specifically criticism of Israel.

Resistance to Israel is “criminal”

This became clearer when Nelson expanded on his views on Palestine and the Israelis.

Nelson defended Israel’s attack on Gaza as part of its “right to self-defense,” although he stressed that many aspects of the attack were “unethical” and “immoral” and that pictures of children killed by Israel were “horrific.”

When asked whether he would condemn Israel’s bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza, Nelson used cautious language: “It’s very difficult for someone from a distance to judge particular artillery strikes. My personal view is that Israel should have been more careful. From what I know, there are military actions as part of the Gaza incursion that seem regrettable to me and should not have taken place.”

While asserting Israel’s right to bomb Gaza, Nelson denied that Palestinians have any right to armed resistance to the onslaught.

“I don’t know where that right would come from,” he said. “I don’t view Gaza under as under occupation so I don’t see a right to resistance.”

When asked if the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international bodies were incorrect in their view that Israel’s siege of Gaza constitutes “collective punishment” and is therefore a war crime, Nelson insisted he was unable to make legal judgments.

Nelson added that he did not see that the situation in the occupied West Bank “warrants resistance,” either. “I don’t think there’s a right to violent resistance on the West Bank.”

Asked if he thought “all Palestinian military resistance is criminal,” Nelson answered: “Yes. I think that is my view.”

When asked if any of Israel’s actions could be labeled “criminal,” Nelson repeated that many were “immoral” and “unethical,” but that he was not qualified to give legal opinions about Israel’s actions.

Nelson, an outspoken campaigner against the nonviolent, Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), said that Palestinians should resort to “civil disobedience” in the West Bank such as “blocking roads.”

Israel has shot dead 17 Palestinians just in the last month in the occupied West Bank.

BDS is “political violence”

Nelson reaffirmed his strong opposition to the BDS movement because some of its prominent advocates – he named Omar Barghouti and philosopher Judith Butler – dispute Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state.”

“I consider that to be a form of political violence,” Nelson said.

Asked if he called himself a “Zionist,” Nelson answered: “Yes.”

If there were doubts about Nelson’s clear bias against Palestinians and their pursuit of their rights by any means (except of course the most invisible and ineffective), his frank comments to The Electronic Intifada put them to rest.

On 21 July, Salaita was attacked for his Twitter use in the right-wing, anti-Palestinian website The Daily Caller.

It seems clear that with Nelson now publicly leading the charge, Salaita is the latest victim of a nationwide campaign to intimidate into silence anyone on campus who criticizes Israel or supports effective campaigns to secure Palestinian rights.

Call for action

Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin has also pointed out that in the past, Nelson himself has criticized how “claims about collegiality are being used to stifle campus debate, to punish faculty, and to silence the free exchange of opinion by the imposition of corporate-style conformity.”

Nelson has also previously supported academic boycotts, though never for Palestinian rights.

But now, Robin says, Nelson’s about-face is “a symptom of the effects of Zionism on academic freedom, how pro-Israel forces have consistently attempted to shut down debate on this issue.”

Robin urges people to write to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise asking her to reverse her decision.

“As always, be polite, but be firm,” Robin writes. “Don’t assume this is a done deal; in my experience, it often is not.”

Supporters have also launched an online petition, which as of this writing, had already gathered more than 1,500 signatures.




I would greatly appreciate it if, whenever someone (as Cary nelson does above) claims that Israel has a right to self-defense and/or Palestine does not have the right of resistance, it would be refuted. As I understand it, no military occupier has the right of self defense but every occupied people has the right of resistance. This comes up over and over. Tricking people into believing the opposite appears to be one of Israel's successes.


Your comment relating to self-defense as it pertains to the occupier and the occupied is quite timely in that this subject is addressed on today's (Wednesday) "Democracy Now" program with Amy Goodman. John Dugard former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, emphatically states "........if Israel uses force against the occupied territories it's not acting in self-defense. It's acting as an occupying power." I think you, and the readership in general, will find Amy's full interview with Professor Dugard of interest. It can be found in the transcript of today's program at the Democracy Now website.

E. Fitzpatrick


There goes our freedom of speech
More to come
shame on you University of Illinois!!


It's remarkable that, whenever it's a question of condemning Israeli violence, Nelson declares himself "no expert" in international law, but when it's a matter of condemning Palestinian resistance, he suddenly becomes an expert. Nelson, whom I know, has betrayed his own principles and should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. here's a letter I just wrote to the Chancellor:

University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise

Dear Chancellor Wise:

I am writing to urge you to restore Professor Steven Salaita’s appointment as a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois as a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His scholarship absolutely warrants the appointment, and his openly-expressed statements about Israel’s ongoing occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people should be no bar to an academic appointment. This is a matter of academic freedom and unfreedom, not “civility” and “incivility.” I would make precisely the same argument for honoring a provisional job offer to a Zionist antagonist of and profane Tweeter against Hamas and the PLO.

There is a creeping disease in US academia, by which academic freedom is hollowed out from within under the heading of “civility,” which is frequently defended in quite uncivil terms. For instance, Professor Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, refers to Professor Salaita’s “loathsome and foul-mouthed presence.” As uncivil as this is, and as much as I object to this formulation, I would object strenuously to any effort to deny Professor Nelson continued appointment to his chair.

Jim Holstun
Professor of English
University at Buffalo


The University administration may say the offer was "revoked" but that would be inaccurate in practice.

New faculty members who are hired late enough to miss the agenda for the July Board of Trustees meeting are instead put on the agenda for the September meeting. As offers are often happening over the summer, this is true for many new faculty. They get an offer, sign it, leave their current position, move to Urbana, start teaching in August, and then get the "rubber stamp" at the September Board meeting. To suggest that this was not a finalized offer is to ignore how things work at UIUC.


Are you so unsure of America's real values that you must submit yourself to this nonsense? Shame on you. Prof. Salaita has the right to his opinion. I have the right to disagree with it if I choose. For shame, for shame, for shame on you.


Who has the dog in this race? Why is this academic fired? I hope he sues and the university is charged millions in damages.


Call it what you will, you 'fired' a professor for his political views and how he chose to express them. By doing so you have elected to accelerate the devolution of academic speech into a slime pit of ineffectual, corporate conformist pablum. You have accepted the Fascist modus of allowing companies and other money focused institutions to own the speech of their employees. To use the professor's words, you "are an awful person".


How can the administration of the University of Illinois do this and maintain their self-respect as an institution that fosters critical thinking and academic freedom?


I was in this position when I accepted an academic appointment in 1980. I kept my views pretty much to myself until I received tenure. I haven't read the above discussion carefully, but it is very muddy and unclear exactly what his position was. If he was offered and received a teaching contract, signed by both parties, the U can be sued for breach of contract. Otherwise it isn't clear what his case is.


Seems rather pointless that you should comment on something which, at your own admission, you haven't read carefully.


When intellectuals get off the critical stance, what's left with freedom of speech? When our fear of the controversial debate leads us to avoiding the critical debate based on freedom of speech, what's left with our claims to belong to the world of academia? Nobody can confine an intellectual into some reserved and safe "boxes" outside which embracing the tough questions for justice and equity won't be priorities. It's just impossible. It's ridiculous to consider that the exercise of intellectual freedom has to abide by some political pressures and ideological constraints. It's amazing to witness how the world of academia is being crashed between two frustrations from (1) the sources of the funding for research and (2) the political and power constraints one of which we are talking about now here. The next academic revolution will be necessary. and it's gonna be inevitably about individual speech and freedom of support in times of controversies.


Every high school student these days is admonished to watch what he or she posts on FB. The comments Dr. Salaita posted were rather inflammatory. However, UIll should have read them before offering a contract.

Being PC on campus like it or not is a requirement -- aka known as self-control. Even engaging in debate about what happened in the 12th century can put one in treacherous territory!! (vis a vis a job or tenure or passing the diss defense!)

A professor at a university is to some degree entrusted with the care and custody of 16/17/18 to 22/23/24 years old -- in other words, not mentally mature (the magic age is 26). In loco parentis is just that. Modelling appropriate behavior and not intimidating students (who in any case are often already fearful) is essential.


The man's job was taken away from him because HE HAD AN OPINION?

Land of the free? Get a grip...the pressure is clearly in compatible with your outlook and responsibilities - or, the medication isn't working.


"While asserting Israel’s right to bomb Gaza, Nelson denied that Palestinians have any right to armed resistance to the onslaught. 'I don’t know where that right would come from,' he said. 'I don’t view Gaza under as under occupation so I don’t see a right to resistance.'”

Notice the subtle shif Nelson's response makes to the question he was responding to. From a "right to armed resistance to the [Israeli] onslaught" to "a right to resistance" to Israeli occupation.

He does not recognise Israel is occupying Gaza so he does not recognise the Gazans have a right to resist. But that was NOT the question he seems to have been asked, which was do the Gazans have a right of armed resistance to Israel's invasion and shelling.


is a sick biased and above all stupid racist: ( he does not know )

"While asserting Israel’s right to bomb Gaza, Nelson denied that Palestinians have any right to armed resistance to the onslaught.
“I don’t know where that right would come from,” he said. “I don’t view Gaza under as under occupation so I don’t see a right to resistance.”

UNSC November 29: Resolution 3246: Affirms the legitimacy of armed resistance by oppressed peoples in pursuit of the right to self-determination, and condemns governments which do not support that right


One outcome of this action is that faculty Illinois hires may choose not to come because they see that Illinois looks for loopholes to dump professors. Were I offered a job by Illinois next year, I'd be skeptical that the offer was in good faith. This, of course, is on top of not wanting to work at a highly conservative campus with a long history of corruption and the denial of free speech.


I've just written to the Chancellor, and I urge every reader to do the same. This decision must not stand.

She's Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

Let her hear from each of us. Her email addresses are given above.


Israel's egregious genocide of Palestinians in Gaza just now is intolerable. Shame on American and its puppet leadership for supporting inhuman this holocaust.


This seems to be following the modern trend within the US that exists today. Americans no longer enjoy the freedom to free speech that they thought they once had. How many times have the police been used to arrest those taking part in peaceful protests? This is much bigger than the firing of a professor, it is the withdrawal of free speech around the US.


Hey Ali, should you and i take a trip to visit Dr. Phyllis M. Wise
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Swanlund Administration Building
601 John Street
Champaign, IL 61820???


Of course the University's action is spineless in the extreme, but in the long run Salaita will find a better position where he can share his spirit without fear of petty reprisal. America is becoming a country of very petty men.


There needs to be an available, public list of organizations, businesses and universities that threaten, intimidate, "revoke" or fire staff for opposing apartheid, genocide and other war crimes, such as is happening in Palestine. The U of I could perhaps be the first to go on such list. We should then all boycot all such organizations.


This is a very good idea. The Collectif Urgence Palestine of which I am a member has compiled a list of companies to boycott. I can send it to you in a few days if you like.


Please notice that both the national and Illinois state branches of the American Association of University Professors have distanced themselves from Cary Nelson's position. And many faculty members at the University of Illinois (including myself) are already protesting Salaita's firing (and it is a "firing," make no mistake about that).


Is there not in the United States a court to which any US citizen can have recourse on questions such as, "Can Israel be a legitimate state at all under modern International Law?" "Does Israel have a right to resist except by seeking the help of the Security Council (UN Charter, Chapter VII)?" "Shouldn't the UN Security Council and General Assembly firstly get eighty per cent of the population of Gaza plus the remaining four million or so Nakba exiles/their descendants safely reestablished in their original neighbourhoods, with full citizen and political rights, safe from Jewish and Zionist fanatics and with the fullest possible compensation for the wrongs done to them?" These questions are so basic to the whole debate that one expects that, in the United States at least, every citizen would have the right to put such questions and to have them answered authoritatively. Then, no more arguing, let International Law rule. After all, it represents the greatest moral advance ever made by mankind in his actions between and within nations.


Dear Chancellor Wise,

I suspect by this time you wish you hadn't been persuaded to fire Professor Steven Salaita. As a professor emeritus, I understand the behind-the-scene discussions that eventually persuade administrators to make both good and bad decisions. I can't imagine that the university's legal council didn't recommend not taking the action you did. Now your university will pay Professor Salaita two, three, or more years of salary for violation of a contract and a lack of due process. If Professor Salaita decides to do so, he can reject (pre-emtively?) any attempt to settle and insist the case goes to court. A trial will keep the university under a shadow and keep the Israeli killing of Palestinians on the front page.

I have two suggestions.

First you extend an apology and re-hire Professor Salaita citing, if you need a reason, the strong advice of university council.

Secondly, I think it is critical at this delicate point in time for the University to demonstrate her commitment to free speech by putting together a public event that will allow your great university to move out from the shadow of being an agent of pre-emptive censorship.

With this in mind I am willing to throw myself to the lions, so to speak. I would like to give a forty minute talk on why Israel’s war against Hamas and the Palestinians fails to satisfy the widely acknowledged principles of “Just War.” Inviting me to give such a talk and then engage in a spirited debate with an advocate of Israel would give this event the needed punch.

I invite you to invite the Great Debater and Professor Emeritus of Harvard, Alan Morton Dershowitz, to be my respondent and debate combatant. IF he's not available, I invite you to have your own on-campus defender of Israel's attack on Gaza, Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), take that role.

Bart Gruzalski, Prof. Emeritus, Northeastern University, Boston

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.