U of I criticized for revoking job offer over anti-Israel tweets

“If I had a regret it’s that the tweets let people to think that I support things like anti-Semitism that I am adamantly opposed to,” Steven Salaita said Wednesday at Columbia College. Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL

By Ramsen Shamon

Professor Steven Salaita had given notice to Virginia Tech University that he was accepting a teaching position with the University of Illinois when he sent out a tweet criticizing Israel for killing children in Gaza. The University of Illinois rescinded its teaching offer and now finds itself under fire for its decision from those that believe it violated both Salaita’s academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Salaita told an audience Wednesday at Columbia College that the university cared more about offending donors than upholding his First Amendment rights. He also accused the University of Illinois of supporting Israel in its conflict with Palestinians.

“Siding with Israel isn’t necessarily about making money; it’s also about political ambition and conformity–in other words, about maintaining the status quo. It’s about keeping power consolidated among the elite,” Salaita said at the event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine.

He declined comment when asked by an audience member whether he would sue the state university. But in an email Thursday, his attorney confirmed he is preparing a suit.

“Professor Salaita remains steadfast in his desire to join the faculty and students at the University of Illinois and, at this point his only option is to pursue that outcome through litigation,” said Anand Swaminathan of the firm Loevy & Loevy. “Accordingly, we are preparing a lawsuit against the University and its officials based on their constitutional and contractual violations, and possibly others. The lawsuit will include a request for injunctive relief, meaning we will ask the court to order the university to reinstate Professor Salaita.”

An online campaign organized by supporters of Salaita has raised more than $17,000 to assist with “legal and other support.”

Salaita supporters include Yasmina Blackburn, who was not in attendance Wednesday. “It is clearly a violation of his freedom of speech and an encroachment on academic freedom,” she said. Blackburn is a board member of MyJihad Inc. an Illinois organization that aims to re-take Islam from Muslim extremists.

Not surprisingly, the American Jewish Congress came at the issue from another direction. “We are steadfast in our support of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We do believe universities are a place where diverse voices should be heard, but that there must be a balance and it cannot be a space for simple expression of bias cloaked in academic freedom,” the organization wrote in an email.

The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago also supports the university’s decision. “It is revealing and troubling that so many of his supporters deny or turn their backs on the implications of an academic’s use of language that often crosses boundaries into what at least for a while after the Holocaust was considered unacceptable discourse and enters into the dark world of anti-Semitica,” wrote Michael C. Kotzin, special consultant to the president of the organization, in a blog post.

Yet organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and some prominent academics such as Taner Akcam have sided with Salaita. Akcam, a Turkish scholar who teaches about the Armenian genocide at Clark University in Massachusetts, decided to cancel a scheduled lecture at the University of Illinois over the issue.

“Academic freedom is only there for those who don’t need it,” Peter Kirstein, professor of history at Saint Xavier University, said following Wednesday’s event.