Video: Steven Salaita and Ali Abunimah at University of Chicago

During his recent Chicago-area tour, Professor Steven Salaita spoke at the University of Chicago on 7 October.

I joined him on his panel, along with former prisoner of conscience and grassroots resistance leader Bassem Tamimi from the occupied West Bank village of Nabi Saleh.

The topic of the event was Salaita’s recent firing by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) from a tenured position in the American Indian Studies program after pressure from pro-Israel donors and others enraged by Salaita’s tweets condemning Israel’s attack on Gaza.

University officials insist that they fired Salaita for a lack of “civility,” a vague standard that barely masks an act of outright censorship.

While the event itself lasted two hours, videographer Larry Duncan of Labor Beat has edited it down to 28 minutes for broadcast on local cable television. It therefore includes comments from Salaita and myself, and part the introduction by Brian Leiter, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago.

“Brazen attack”

Leiter calls Salaita’s firing over his tweets “the single most brazen attack on freedom of speech in American universities in my lifetime.”

He says that the First Amendment “does not come with a caveat to the effect that only civil or respectful expression is actually protected … Yet the chancellor and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois have acted as though they have a right to punish speakers who say ‘fuck the draft’ or ‘fuck America’ or ‘fuck Israel.’ But they have no such right.”

“Openly dictatorial”

Salaita and I focused on what Salaita’s firing means in the critical battle on US campuses over academic freedom, free speech and US policy toward Israel.

The crackdown on free speech is also part of the broader neoliberal agenda and corporatization of universities.

“There are countless mechanisms in place to ensure conformity to the imperatives of the powerful and the wealthy. These mechanisms regulate tone, content, actions and access. They will become unnecessary only when campuses become openly dictatorial,” Salaita says. “UIUC took an open and unapologetic step in that direction.”

He adds that Israel wants Palestinians to think of themselves “that our barbarity is atavistic and immanent. It precedes our subjectivity, restricts our earthly presence and marks us as inferior. We can achieve the lofty status of pitiable only when we grovel.”

In my comments, I talk about pressure from wealthy pro-Israel donors and university officials’ lack of transparency in the Salaita affair.

Referring to my book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, I note that “Key pro-Israel lobby groups, like the David Project, have said in their own internal strategy documents that the future of the US-Israel relationship will be decided on campuses … and they actually identify as positive trends for Israel the corporatization of higher education, the growth of private, for-profit education … and business schools that are growing at the expense of the humanities as a trend that is positive for Israel.”

I also talk about how the attack on Salaita fits in with the kind of strategies recommended by the David Project to silence criticism of Israel by accusing educators of “academic malpractice.”

With thanks to Larry Duncan of Labor Beat.

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I appreciate Ali's determination to keep this issue in the news where it belongs. I'm sure the university's most fervent hope was that the issue of Salaita's unjust firing would fade and the university would go about its business as though nothing happened. Thank you, both of you, for keeping this injustice in the forefront of the news.

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It's too bad there wasn't balance on the panel; everyone participating is arguing the same side. Would be interesting to see alternative position and best version of opposing view, even if it's not popular.

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Thank you Ali for your response to the questioner at the end. How obscene are defenders of Israel who always complain that we must have civility to listen to the likes of war criminals like Sharon, Olmert, etc. and trying to compare it to your forum. Only sociopaths would defend war criminals.

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As a retired faculty member, I can describe the pressures brought by Eugene Zionists to prevent our Pacifica Forum from meeting at the University of Oregon. Some programs dealt with Israeli brutality toward Palestine. = George Beres in Eugene, Oregon: 541-344-0282.

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.