The most valuable lesson from Steven Salaita’s visit to Guilford College

Palestinians must not be normalized into silence. (Romain Guy/Flickr)

As the faculty member who invited Steven Salaita to speak at Guilford College this past Tuesday, organized every aspect of his visit and acquiesced to the college president’s request to move the venue for his lecture, I was left very confused by what transpired in the days just before and during his visit.

But I think I finally learned the lesson I really needed to learn from this experience — and it’s not the one you think.

When I got the request to move Salaita’s lecture, I saw it primarily as a logistical problem. We were cutting it close; the talk was in a mere four days. But truth be told, I was not too resistant to moving the talk to the more central and aesthetically pleasing Carnegie Room in the college’s library, a space that could accommodate a larger number of people.

But when Ali Abunimah’s piece, headlined “North Carolina college bows to donor pressure over Steven Salaita talk” came out in The Electronic Intifada, I felt like someone had pulled the rug from under me.

At first, I was angry and hurt — angry that Ali was focusing on (what I perceived to be) a rather insignificant change from one place on campus to another a hop and a skip away; angry that he seemingly couldn’t see that as a small liberal arts college with struggling finances, and an infinitesimal fraction of the endowment of, say, the University of Illinois, our firm stance on hosting Salaita on our campus was actually pretty heroic. I was especially angry that the world (because by now Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education had picked up the story) would now see Guilford in a way that was so antithetical to its very being, its history and its core values.

As a Quaker institution with strong ties to the Friends School in Ramallah, several Palestinian students on scholarship every year, a thriving and active Students for Justice in Palestine organization and annual student trips to Palestine to see what the Israeli occupation was like on the ground, we were probably one of the Palestinian solidarity movement’s strongest campus allies that Salaita would encounter on his tour.

And then I stopped being angry at Ali and became angry at myself. As a Palestinian, I was mortified that I had anything to do with what he decried in his piece — that by changing the venue at the request of the family that had donated funds for the building where the talk was originally scheduled, we had inadvertently silenced a fellow Palestinian and a man we deeply respect, contributed to the damaging discourses about him and showed tacit acceptance of the smears to his reputation. That was the opposite of what we wanted to do.

Unexpected shock

But these were all egotistical, self-centered responses. They were all about me or Guilford. They didn’t teach me much that I didn’t know or that was useful for more general audiences in a productive way.

So I started thinking differently.

Why hadn’t we actually anticipated the reaction Ali Abunimah expressed at The Electronic Intifada?

To many of us on campus, The Electronic Intifada story was completely shocking and completely unexpected. On the drive to Durham with Steven, after his talk at Guilford, I told him this and he admitted that he hadn’t anticipated it either. So there you have it — two smart Palestinian academic activists who didn’t fully anticipate the backlash from someone in the Palestinian solidarity movement. So what does this tell us?

Something very important: that despite the charges against Salaita and others who dare dissent, the Palestinians, especially those in academia (whether it’s faculty, students or administrators) are entirely too civil.

We didn’t anticipate the backlash because we couldn’t imagine it, and that’s because it rarely happens.

The vocal backlash of the powerful, we can always anticipate. But the fact that we didn’t anticipate this particular response is very telling of its habitual absence, an absence we have simply normalized and unconsciously accepted.

Normalized into silence

In his lecture at Guilford, Steven Salaita spoke powerfully and movingly about how the discourse of “student comfort” seems always to take into account only the normative student’s comfort (the white student, the straight student, the Jewish student). Why aren’t we talking about the potential discomfort, let’s say, of a Palestinian student in a Zionist professor’s class? That conversation is unimaginable, mostly because those students don’t seem to matter, and partly because, as Salaita said, “Palestinian students suck it up.”

Well, we ought not to suck it up anymore.

We have to stop sucking it up, so that the response at The Electronic Intifada is not something unusual, but normal. Not something we could never anticipate, but something we always keep in mind, attend to, consider in our decisions and planning and fear.

Ultimately, this should teach us something about resistance, especially discursive resistance. We’d been so normalized into silence that we’ve come to accept it. Let’s stop doing that.

Let’s keep breaking the silence.

Diya Abdo is associate professor of English at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.




I am so proud to call Diya Abdo my colleague at Guilford College. This piece displays not only the articulation that has made her one of the most highly regarded professors on campus - but it also shows how a deep passion and commitment can find words that make that commitment accessible to others. Our students are well-served, and through them she will continue to serve others well into the future!


you are right -
and while Guilford accommodated the "sensitivity" of the Frank family's zionist friends (who really were just interested in causing trouble for Palestinian activists, not their own "sensitivities"), who accommodates the sensitivities of millions of taxpayers in the US?
We pay for the destruction of Palestine, the slaughter in Gaza, and the vast investments of our public universities which need to divest!
I believe there is no comparison between a building named "Frank" and the blood on our hands, and unraveling the normalization of the sick feeling we all get watching the suffering committed in our names with our tax dollars is the very point of BDS.
kudos to you for the Salaita event, and all you do!


i’m happy to read this piece. we do have a tendency to “try to understand,” just as Diya unquestioningly did for Guilford’s administration. But when so much is at stake, accommodating or helping to ease the discomfort of others - at our own expense - is not something we can afford to do in our struggle. Kudos to Ali for his ethical outrage, and to Diya for her insight.


This is a brave and principled statement. It's not easy to publicly reconsider sincere actions taken in the service of a just cause. Recognition of one's own complicity, however unwitting, in the strictures surrounding Prof Salaita's speaking engagement, can only have come after serious consideration. The lesson pointed to in this incident is one affecting academic life throughout the US. Private donors use their influence to suppress the very work for which colleges and universities were created- the free exchange of ideas in a democratic environment. Indeed, Guildford College managed to reproduce, albeit on a smaller scale, the phenomenon of donor interference which has landed the University of Illinois before the courts.

Highest marks to Diya Abdo for her recognition of these facts and her willingness to speak out in this way.


Very well stated, karen. My sentiments exactly.
What Professor Abdo stated is true: "We have to stop sucking it up... Let’s keep breaking the silence." We can't effect change if we give our power away through acquiescence and silence. Zionists understand this and have controlled the language and silenced speech for decades.....but that day has ended.


You are so right. We are afraid to voice our opinion about Palestine. We immediately are called anti-Semites. Yet, if you listen to some of the talk radio shows on NPR, on Saturday, there is a reference to Israel and being Jewish on almost of all them. They are so blantanly open about their viewpoints. I never hear of anyone on these shows talk about being an Arab. We have to hide that fact .It's time for all of us to speak up.


A salutary lesson for all of us committed to the liberation of the Palestinian people.
Thank you Diya for your grace, courage and eloquence.


Indeed an inspiring piece of writing. It reminded me of all the Islamaphobic cartoons and media that makes it out for mainstream consumption with nary a sign of protest or criticism, in stark contrast to the response to cartoons and tweets critical of Israel. We have to normalize uncivil rejection of uncivil bigotry; make a noise when we are silenced.


Great article, and thanks. I am a white, anti-Zionist Jew, who supports your Right To Return, and much to the dismay of some other Jews that stand with you, feel that there is a one state solution - Palestine. It's been your home for hundreds of years, and we did not have the right to kill you off, in order to take it away from you. We were both manipulated and controlled by the Zionists. I was told as a child that you were "dirty" and hated us, because everyone "hates the Jews". After visiting your home land in 1985, I saw how the they treated you and started to ask questions, and then formed my opinion. Here in the states, whites have always kept anyone of color "in place", and in our institutions, snide and racist remarks get a pass, but if a black student holds a sign, criticizing the Zionist influence on a campus, they are immediately ordered by the local cops and security, to take it down. I jumped in the face of one of these "Jewish" students who told the biggest security guard to make that student take down his sign, and he (the Jewish student) backed off. Ali is very brave and I thank him for the guts that it took, to bring this publication into the world.
Jane Zacher Turtle Island (U.S.A.)


A beautifully reflective article, Diya. I I wish more people in academia had the ability to take a step back and examine themselves as you do here.