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A Reply to Nathaniel Zelinsky: 'Anti-Israel' Professor Shouldn't Have Been Fired

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Nathaniel Zelinsky claims Professor Steven Salaita should not have been hired to teach at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. He feels that Salaita's vocal and acerbic tweets against the Israeli state are more than sufficient grounds to not hire him. Furthermore he perceives a contradiction between those who advocate for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions while at the same time complaining of UIUC's dismissal of Salaita. Zelinsky writes: "Let's relish in the irony for a moment: the same folks who advocate for the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) of Israeli academics now claim that anyone should be able to express academic viewpoints without repercussions. Try telling that to Hebrew University professors in Jerusalem that the BDS-crowd wants to ban from American schools."

Here and throughout, Zelinsky displays a willful ignorance or distortion of the actual facts -- appalling for anyone but most especially for a graduate student, who is supposed to do his homework. Let's take this "irony" to start with. The academic boycott of Israeli institutions is just that. It is aimed at institutions, not individuals. As I have explained previously in The Huffington Post, not only are individual Israeli scholars still welcomed to US institutions and even conferences sponsored by boycotting organizations, US and Israeli academics are free to collaborate, write articles together, et cetera. Here is the actual language of the American Studies Associations' resolution:

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

Thus, once one goes to the trouble of actually researching the easily available documents on the boycott, any "irony" disappears.

Second, Zelinsky omits the precise chronology of the events as they unfolded. Omitting and distorting data that is inconvenient to his thesis, he presents an incomplete, misleading, and false narrative. I would certainly fail him in his oral exams. Here is the sequence, and here is why scholars and many others are appalled by the University's actions.

Professor Steven Salaita, after going through the normal process of the job search and hire, was offered a tenured position by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign on the basis of a thorough and dispassionate evaluation of his excellence in scholarship and teaching. Salaita signed the contract offered to him by UIUC and resigned his position at Virginia Tech based on the reasonable assumption that UIUC would honor its commitment to bring the hiring process to its formal completion. Nevertheless, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise has decided not to honor that commitment, for reasons unknown and undisclosed, and instead informed Salaita that his appointment will not be formally presented to the UIUC Trustees for final approval.

It was reported by various news organizations, including Inside Higher Education, that those familiar with Wise's decision have said that UIUC reacted to external complaints about Salaita's comments on social media regarding Israeli state actions and policies. UIUC appears therefore to have repudiated faculty judgment and governance without any reason whatsoever being offered; such arbitrary and unilateral action is abhorrent to the enterprise of liberal education. This action by UIUC punishes, by way of unemployment and loss of livelihood, the simple expression of private opinion by a member of the professoriate, done outside the university, with no markers of university affiliation or endorsement.

This action has been condemned by the American Association of University Professors; by the Center for Constitutional Rights; by over 12,000 individuals in the United States and elsewhere; by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine and by the Association des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine. Hence, pace Zelinsky, this case involves a clear violation of a number of principles, laws, and protocols key to the academy. If he truly wishes to become a member, I suggest he educate himself in these regards.

The key organization in this matter is the American Association of University Professors. Even the AAUP, which in fact came out against the academic boycott of Israel, nonetheless released an unambiguous defense of Salaita and a condemnation of UIUC's actions. These two statements rebut the entire foundation of Zelinsky's poorly-researched, poorly-argued diatribe.

Here are excerpts from the two AAUP findings, first from the national office:

While opinions differ among AAUP members on a wide range of issues, the AAUP is united in its commitment to defend academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas more broadly. On the basis of this commitment we have opposed efforts by some pro-Palestinian groups to endorse an "academic boycott" of Israel. This commitment has also led us to defend the rights of critics of Israel, including the right of faculty members such as Professor Salaita, to express their views without fear of retaliation, even where such views are expressed in a manner that others might find offensive or repugnant.

Recently we argued in a policy statement on "Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications," that faculty comments made on social media, including Twitter, are largely extramural statements of personal views that should be protected by academic freedom. While Professor Salaita's scholarship does appear to deal with the topic of Palestine, his posts were arguably not intended as scholarly statements but as expressions of personal viewpoint. Whether one finds these views attractive or repulsive is irrelevant to the right of a faculty member to express them. Moreover, the AAUP has long objected to using criteria of civility and collegiality in faculty evaluation because we view this as a threat to academic freedom. It stands to reason that this objection should extend as well to decisions about hiring, especially about hiring to a tenured position.

The Illinois chapter of the AAUP gives more detail:

Professor Salaita's words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East. Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims. Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.

Critics of UIUC's action do so not to defend someone critical of Israel -- it is to defend all scholars against the capricious will of administrators to deny employment to faculty who hold unpopular beliefs. Universities can only thrive if they allow for honest and even heated debates about knowledge, opinion, information. To narrow debate is to shrink the capacity to learn and to confine ourselves to merely regurgitating our previous knowledge. I seriously doubt that Nathaniel Zelinsky would approve of his being fired for his tweets or blogs if they displeased some left-leaning administrator. I seriously doubt of anyone outside the academy would wish it to be the case that they could get fired for tweeting anything they wished -- but that happens sometime. Yet in the academy, we award special value to academic freedom for clear reasons central to our mission.