Steven Salaita: I Will Always Condemn Injustice, No Matter the State of My Employment

Steven Salaita: I Will Always Condemn Injustice, No Matter the State of My Employment

Steven Salaita: I Will Always Condemn Injustice, No Matter the State of My Employment

The embattled professor reflects on the trials of free speech, Zionism, and what it means to reach a settlement.


On November 12, Professor Steven Salaita settled his case against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). In a victory for free speech, and for the activists both on and off campus who fought for it, the university agreed to pay $875,000, implicitly acknowledging its violation of Salaita’s academic freedom and the employment contract it signed with him. Salaita sued UIUC, along with the university’s Board of Trustees and top administrators, after the university fired him from his tenured position for tweeting comments critical of the Israeli government during its 2014 assault on Gaza. His case quickly became a symbol of both the intensifying crackdown on academic freedom and the suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy—as well as the all-too-frequent overlap between the two. Salaita was represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Loevy and Loevy.

* * *

I have settled my lawsuit with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). This declaration of fact supposedly ends a story with the tidiness to which storytelling in a linear society aspires. The most interesting stories are never tidy, though. And nothing untidy ever ends.

All public controversies involve vocabularies rich with violent but unacknowledged connotation. My case began with the repetition of termination and now concludes with the terminal noun settlement. Both words are legalistic, but have special resonance in the field of American Indian Studies, the location of my hiring and firing. The United States federal government carried out a policy of termination in the mid-20th century intended to dissolve Native nations into the mass of Americana. And termination, of course, speaks coldly but clearly to the horrors of genocide.

Settlement initiated those horrors and describes the conditions of indigenous life in today’s North America, where Canada and the United States continue to occupy native land. It’s also the main caption of the so-called Israel-Palestine conflict. Israeli settlers, of both the past and present, initiate the violence that produced the anguish that begat my angry tweets. We cannot speak of a settlement in my case until the geographies of my termination have been decolonized.

* * *

UIUC eagerly pursues its removal from the ignominy of AAUP censure. Lawyers collect their fees. Courts address different controversies. Neoconservatives invent other bogeymen. Zionists track their next target. The Salaita affair becomes a cautionary tale, the tellers’ politics dictating the nature of their appeals to caution.

It’s settled, then. Only it’s not.

My attitude from the onset has been singular: personal remedy, however it might be defined (and its definition has never been stable), is largely meaningless if the conditions that produced my firing remain intact, at UIUC and elsewhere. We cannot say that academe is now less corporatized or repressive. The imbroglios at Yale and the University of Missouri illustrate that racism and tone-deaf leaders are still a problem on campus.

I can ruminate so easily—almost unconsciously, really—about the business-as-usual pursuit of new academic scandals because repression is a normal feature of higher education, often originating off campus but validated by brand-conscious apparatchiks occupying presidential suites. The months following my termination saw the attempted undoing of numerous professors by the culture warriors of Fox News vintage. Saida Grundy. Zandria Robinson. Deepa Kumar. Divya Nair. All women. All ethnic minorities.

I don’t lightly emphasize what today’s denizens of post-racial bliss consider to be superfluous (and unspeakable) categories. I name these professors as women and ethnic minorities because those claiming either identity are most likely to inspire wrath by speaking inappropriately—that is, by unspeaking US exceptionalism. Each woman produced a forthright critique of structural racism, a double violation of dominant academic etiquette. Forthrightness is only welcome when it reinforces racist structures.

Israel occupies imaginative in addition to physical geographies. Zionism therefore reproduces with great efficiency the cultures of recrimination in North America. It is necessary to connect this Zionist presence with the suppression of all radical ideas.

Palestinian human-rights activism, which often challenges Zionism, is firmly located in spaces of the political left, particularly among minority communities. Support for Israel, in contrast, exists in sites of authority, often an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables.

It’s not merely ideological Zionism that leads upper administration to support Israel—or, to be more precise, to entertain and normalize Zionist activism. Palestine solidarity represents democratization, grassroots organizing, anti-racism, and decolonization; it’s deeply involved in ethnic studies and other subversive fields. An upper administrator needn’t be amenable to West Bank settlement to understand the value of Zionism in his line of work.

Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power. It lends itself to top-down decision-making, to suppression of anti-neoliberal activism, to restrictions on speech, to colonial governance, to corporatization and counterrevolution—in other words, Zionism behaves in universities precisely as it does in various geopolitical systems.

* * *

Settlement of my lawsuit has the potential to act as a diversion from the core issues underlying my firing and the subsequent responses. In this moment especially, with justice activism affecting campuses across the country, it would be a shame to overlook the interconnectivity of these burgeoning movements.

We can claim meaningful victory against UIUC. The most decisive of those victories is the knowledge that upper administrators will think twice—and ideally not at all—about wrecking academic freedom and faculty governance by kowtowing to Zionist hysteria. Let us not enjoy this crucial victory, though, but accelerate the enjoyment by recreating it elsewhere. UIUC’s behavior is symbolic of administrative culture in nearly all universities in the United States.

Of special interest is the profound contempt of university managers toward employees and certain students (i.e., those who can’t, or won’t, function as passive emissaries of administrative interests). The administrative and donor classes are incapable of real empathy; they instead treat money as an anthropomorphic symbol and view humankind as a volatile commodity. Once we are cognizant of this reality, their seemingly inane and inhumane decisions make perfect sense.

We are not, in other words, dealing with irrationality, but with people who rationally pursue coldhearted pragmatism. Dehumanization is a corollary of that pursuit. Changing the behavior of individual managers isn’t a useful goal. If the job relies at least to some degree on preserving structural power, then even decent individuals performing the work have no real latitude. We are thus responsible for ending the systematic problems of academe. We do that by upending the systems that require racism and repression in order to function.

* * *

Much has been said about me and UIUC, the majority of it useless. Almost without fail, though, commentators ignore the war crimes that inspired my infamous tweets.

Israel’s destruction of Gaza remains imprinted on my memory, contextualized by the cruelty that came before and continues today: women carrying possessions in bedsheets no longer fitted for home; fathers holding doll babies in front of little corpses, begging children to wake up and play with their favorite toys; skin flaked off like filo dough from chemical weapons, leaving only a thin layer of sticky red flesh to protect muscle and bone; mangled steel wires emerging from concrete rubble, no longer hiding within the structures they hold; abandoned stone foundations across the Israeli countryside, decorating the foliage planted to cultivate their disappearance; unarmed teenagers confronting an army cosseted by industrial power; long queues creeping toward checkpoints, what Epcot Center might resemble if it offered an exhibit on military occupation.

Palestine solidarity isn’t a slogan. Black Lives Matter isn’t a hashtag. Unionization isn’t a catchphrase. Idle No More isn’t a trend. These phenomena, disparate and inconsistent and mercurial, respond to very real traumas. Upper administrators and the well-heeled commentariat rarely engage those traumas, preferring to conceptualize activism as a hermetic failure of civility, instead. Yet if we examine the brutality inspiring the movements that threaten campus stability, we don’t have to like those movements to understand their necessity.

The brutality of state violence, after all, isn’t distinct from academic recrimination. We see their correlation in the way advocates of Palestinian human rights have been treated for decades in academe. Punishment for condemning Israel is meant to be lifelong.

For the past fourteen months, a small army of Zionist operatives pored over everything I’ve ever written, questioned the integrity of the search that led to my hire, challenged the validity of American Indian Studies, distorted conventional understanding of academic freedom, and even dug into my family history, all in the service of further damaging my reputation. Many Zionists detest the mere idea of a critic of Israel earning a living.

This diligence is concordant to the colonization they embrace. Of course they deliver lifetime punishments. Their worldview is dominated by the permanence of the histories from which they benefit. Colonization is irreversible. The United States, then, can never rightly be considered Indian Country because the American state-building project is both manifest and linear. The same logic prevails with Israel. No room exists for the possibility of repossession or redress. It is in this context that the punishment for acts of decolonization must be permanent. The colonizer cannot abide a world in which his authority is less than categorical.

This obstinacy informs a specific iteration of power on campus, one in which hostility toward Palestine enacts neoliberal structures of repression. Shared governance and dissentient speech are anathema to the economies of today’s corporate university. On campus, as in Palestine, Zionism has proved itself incompatible with democracy.

* * *

Now it is said to be finished. I’m eager to inhabit new spaces. It was often tiresome being the object of debates that are invariably vicious. I hope the students and faculty at UIUC end up with administrators that share their vision of a world-class university. Either way, I will be forever indebted to them for the compassion they embody. The same is true of anybody who embraces the incalculable value of education.

Pursuing a lawsuit can be exceptionally difficult. It requires lots of time and energy. People in public litigation become emblematic of larger issues, but I’ve learned to search the story for human beings entombed beneath the symbolism. They have families to consider. They might deal with crippling guilt or feel trapped by shocking incapacity. Or they could be overjoyed. The point is that we don’t know, so it’s a bad idea to render people metonymical of issues we can engage without inventing avatars.

I hate to think of life as existing in chapters—it’s too regimented for my taste—but moments definitely arise where things feel different. This is one such moment. Having lived in Beirut for over two months, I already experience a sense of tranquility and stability that sharply contrasts the previous year.

I take my son to the playground almost daily, chatting with fellow parents to the beautiful ambiance of youthful mirth. I take long walks on the Corniche with my wife. I enjoy the ubiquitous sight and sound of the Mediterranean. I teach. I attend talks and meetings. I sit office hours. I do lunch. I grade papers. It’s all possible because I stay in the same damn place for more than two days rather than deriving income as a public speaker.

No significant interval passes that I don’t think of the people whose suffering galvanized the incivility that upended so many. I condemn injustice. I will always do that, no matter my state of employment.

So, yes, in a sense I and UIUC have reached a settlement. But I end devoted to the same goal I had when I started: not to settle anything, but to unsettle everything that determines the nature of this world.

Letter to the Editor

Steven Salaita resurrects some of the most vicious anti-Semitic tropes, protecting himself by assigning these slurs to Zionism and Zionists, clear stand-ins for Judaism and Jews.

As the executive director of an organization that mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and their communities to protect human rights, including in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, I believe that the Israeli government can and should be criticized for the policies that have maintained a 48-year-long occupation, that expand settlements, and that violate the human rights of Palestinians. These practices violate both Jewish law and the founding ideals of the State of Israel.

However, argument with the policies of the State of Israel does not justify broad assertions such as, “It is necessary to connect  this Zionist presence with the suppression of all radical ideas,” or “Zionism is part and parcel of unilateral administrative power,” or, bizarrely, the assertion that support for Israel is “an omnipresent but invisible accoutrement to swivel chairs, mineral water, and mahogany tables.” These statements, which do not even pretend to be about criticism of Israeli policy, summon the well-known bogeyman of a Jewish conspiracy that controls banks, governments, and other seats of authority.

Surely, The Nation, with its history of standing up for the human rights of all people, can find ways to criticize Israeli government policy without resorting to anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Executive Director, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
new york city

The Nation Replies

We take it very seriously whenever one of our readers raises the specter of anti-Semitism, racism, or any other form of a targeted prejudice in our pages. As a magazine founded by abolitionists and committed to principles of justice, inclusion, and equality, we abhor anti-Semitism and are acutely sensitive to the dangers it poses. We also recognize how charges of anti-Semitism, wrongly applied, have the power to defame, ruin careers, and silence criticism. While we respect Rabbi Jacobs, we reject her claims about this article. Zionism and Judaism are, indeed, different, just as Zionists and Jews are different. Zionism is a political and national movement—a discourse, as academics, might say; Judaism is a religion, heritage, tradition, and way of life for millions of people. It is our strong belief that critique of the movement, even harsh or challenging critique, is not an attack on the religion or the people.

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