More News on the Steven Salaita Case

by Corey Robin on December 5, 2014

1. Thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a scorching letter to the University of Illinois’s new president. With some startling information about the effect the boycott is having on the University:

More than three-dozen scheduled talks and multiple conferences across a variety of disciplines – including, for example, this year’s entire colloquium series in the Department of Philosophy – have already been canceled, and more continue to be canceled, as outside speakers have withdrawn in response to the university’s handling of Dr. Salaita’s case. The Department of English decided to postpone a program review originally scheduled for spring 2015 in anticipation of being unable to find qualified external examiners willing to come to campus. Tenure and promotion cases may be affected as faculty at peer institutions consider extending the boycott to recommendation letters.

Most troubling of all, the ability of many departments to successfully conduct faculty searches, especially at the senior level, has been seriously jeopardized. While the possible negative effects on even junior searches remain to be seen, the Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate. An open rank search in Philosophy attracted 80% fewer applicants at the rank of associate or full professor than a senior search in the same area of specialization just last year.

I had no idea about these canceled or crippled searches and the postponement of a program review. That is a major development, as anyone who’s ever been part of a search or program review knows, and it shows just how pervasive the opposition to the university’s handling of the case has been—or, if not outright opposition, how corrosive to the university’s reputation the case has been. What’s more, that sense of the university’s contamination shows no signs of easing up. If anything, it’s getting worse.

2. That 34 heads of departments and units are now signed on in opposition to the university’s handling of the case is also a big development. Back in the summer, it seemed as if we were hovering at about 15 or so departments. Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.

What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences. During the summer, lots of folks dismissed this story because the natural sciences weren’t involved. Well, some of them are now. (Cue the naysayers to say that chemistry is really just a branch of the English department.)

3. A major newspaper has finally run a lengthy, in-depth profile of Salaita. The profile not only gives him a chance to speak about his case and his opinions in his own words—and to speak at length—but it also gives him space to talk about his academic work. Long before he was a case or a cause, Steven Salaita was an academic, and it’s to this newspaper’s credit that it allows him to talk about that. Oh, the name of that newspaper? Haaretz. As with so many things in the Israel/Palestine debate, you find broader, more open discussion of the issues in Haaretz than you do in an American newspaper.

4. As I discussed in a post at my blog, we hosted Salaita for a great panel discussion with Katherine Franke at Brooklyn College. I moderated. We’ve got a video of the panel.


The video doesn’t show the Q and A. If you want to hear that, you can watch it here. I recommend that you do.

Our audience was diverse in every way—ideology, age, religion, ethnicity, class—and there were a fair number of difficult and contentious questions from pro-Israel members of the audience. Which was all to the good. Critics of the panel, like Michael Rubin at Commentary, can’t seem to fathom that there might be debate at such things (unlike the raucous agora he’s used to from his days at the Pentagon or at the American Enterprise Institute, where he hangs his hat now). But it’s pretty clear that that there is. Despite my agreements with Salaita and Franke, I pressed him on his tweets, and her on the question of civility, for example. And some in the audience were even harder on them. The whole thing is a great advertisement for Brooklyn College, if you ask me.

5. And, last, this story from Salaita himself:

After the event at the University of Michigan ended yesterday evening–a million thanks to the organizers–an older gentleman approached me.  He handed me a check with a business card attached by paperclip.  I was confused.  I instinctively told him to please keep his check.  I don’t have anything to do with donations to our legal/living fund (though I promise the fund is legit).  I’m far too uncomfortable accepting money, even in the best of faith.

He cut me off and introduced himself, pointing to the card as further verification of his seriousness.  Its bold header read:  “Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East.”  Beneath the header:  “Larry A. Cooper, President–Board of Directors.”

The check was for a small sum, but its value is infinite.  Mr. Cooper explained to me that he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and every year since he’s offered a donation to his alma mater.  This year, however, he told the school he wouldn’t be able to contribute anymore and explained why.  His sense was that they’ve heard the same thing from numerous donors.  They put on a full-court press, as fundraising offices do, but he told them that this year he would be giving his annual donation to Steven Salaita.

The notes section at the lower left of the check says:  “’73 UI grad.”

Mr. Cooper, should you happen to read this:  I hope you won’t be angry or disappointed that I can’t bring myself to cash the check.  I’d much rather keep it as a memento of kindness and generosity to provide a smile when less principled humans occupy our ground.



Lynne 12.05.14 at 9:33 pm

YAY! I had no idea boycotts were still going on. Terrific news. I will follow your links and get caught up on this story, which I really thought had probably fizzled out. Glad to be wrong!


js. 12.05.14 at 10:12 pm

Thanks for the update. (5) is really quite brilliant, and touching.


Meredith 12.05.14 at 10:29 pm

All this should remind us: “(The) union makes us strong.”


Lynne 12.05.14 at 10:38 pm

What do you think of the final paragraph of the faculty letter to the new president? This sentence seems to be the gist and addresses what appears to be the letter’s main concern, which is the damage to UIUC’s reputation:

“We ask you as the next president of this university to demonstrate your own belief in these same ideals by explicitly and emphatically reaffirming the university’s commitment to an understanding of academic freedom and free speech that accords with AAUP policy statements on the subject, and to fundamental principles of shared governance, including the need for academic appointments to be made in consultation with relevant academic officials and on the basis of academic qualifications.”

Would anyone really believe such a statement, if it were forthcoming, unless Salaita were rehired?


Main Street Muse 12.05.14 at 11:03 pm

CR: “3. A major newspaper has finally run a lengthy, in-depth profile of Salaita.”

Back in September, the Chicago Tribune gave Salaita the opportunity to voice his thoughts in an op-ed – so people who read it got Salaita, unfiltered by the opinions of the reporter. Here it is… What’s interesting about this op-ed – he’s whitewashed his tweets. Or perhaps the Trib forced him to follow their anti-obscenity standards.

Also back in September, the Champaign News-Gazette published a balanced profile of Salaita – with a comprehensive overview of his scholarship:

He has been covered in Illinois & Chicago papers. Probably not major enough for East coasters.


Ebenezer Scrooge 12.06.14 at 1:45 am

My Ph.D. is in chemistry. I feel proud of the Chemistry Chair’s action: as a chemist, a Jew, and a scholar.


Peter King 12.06.14 at 2:47 am

Timothy Killeen’s selection as UI’s next president is, as the university’s Web site notes in its announcement of his selection, “pending formal approval by the Board of Trustees at its Jan. 15 meeting”.

One would like to think that Killeen has advised the Board that, having taken the precaution of not resigning his position at SUNY, he will, should the Board not approve Steven Salaita’s appointment, resign the presidency on January 16.


PHB 12.06.14 at 3:54 am

Steven Salaita’s offense is not what he said about Israel or even about Jews. It is what he said about Netanyahu and Zionism.

Zionism is a political ideology and as such is fair game for debate and criticism. While many Jews are Zionists and many Zionists attempt to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the two are quite distinct.

One might ask what the opponents of Salaita’s appointment are afraid of. But the fact is that we know exactly what they are afraid of. The problem with the Zionist project is that it was based on the lie that Palestine was uninhabited. Maintaining support for Israel requires us to accept the notion that the difference between terrorism and ‘defensive action’ is whether the killing is carried out by uniformed soldiers or not.

When faced with evidence that challenges a deeply held belief, people have two options. The first is to reconsider their deeply held belief in the light of the new information, the second is to reject the evidence because it is inconsistent with the deeply held belief. Most people choose the second approach.

Having people like Salaita around is inconvenient because he is a constant reminder that we are engaged in an intellectual fraud. So he has to be got rid of at any cost.

Eventually the tide turns. What is unthinkable today or tomorrow or a decade hence becomes inevitable within a generation. When DOMA passed in 1996 the idea that gay marriage would soon be recognized in the US was unthinkable to virtually every establishment commentator. Only 15 years later, marriage equality had majority support and was widely viewed as inevitable.

The situation is quite simple. There will be no two state solution because neither side wants a two state solution. It use to be Hamas that threw bombs whenever a peace process was threatened. Now it is Netanyahu (and he kills people by the hundreds and thousands, not in ones and twos).

Israel can survive but Zionism cannot. The only way to have peace is to dismantle the system of Jim Crow and make everyone equal citizens.


T 12.06.14 at 5:42 pm

Point well taken. For those with a job for life at the public’s expense (tenured faculty and federal judges — are their others?) you’d better well be damn sure that you don’t resign too soon.


anon 12.06.14 at 10:18 pm

” It use to be Hamas that threw bombs whenever a peace process was threatened. ”

We can all be thankful that HAMAS hasn’t launched a single projectile at the citizens of Israel – both Jewish and Arab – since they took charge of the Gaza strip when the Israel Occupation Left.

/sarc off


Dan 12.07.14 at 1:07 am

Not saying this isn’t important, but interesting to contrast solidarity among the professoriate around Salaita’s case with, say, graduate student unions.


PHB 12.07.14 at 1:16 am

anon, I never said Hamas didn’t throw bombs at other times.

But anyone paying attention could see that every time there was a peace effort, Hamas would make sure it was derailed. They have no interest in a two state solution and will make sure that negotiations don’t take place.

That is equally true of Likud. The only reason the two state solution is still talked about is that it allows US Zionists to maintain their belief that Israel is entirely blameless for the situation that only continues because of the intransigence of the Palestinians.


Eli Rabett 12.07.14 at 4:39 am

Salaita sees Zionism only as a political project. This is a fundamental mistake that some of those at the seminar were trying to tell him about.


Ze Kraggash 12.07.14 at 11:53 am

Eli Rabett, 13, if you care, could you elaborate on it, please. I read the wikipedia article on “Cultural Zionism” (if that’s what you meant), but couldn’t find anything there relevant to the modern world. The project of eradicating Yiddish, “the jargon”? An atrocity, if you ask me, but still quintessentially political, isn’t it. Anyhow: where are all these Zionists (today) who are against the Jewish state in Palestine?


Eli Rabett 12.07.14 at 3:45 pm

Jerusalem and by extension Zionism, is a cultural necessity for Jewishness. Think Mecca for an equivalent.


J Thomas 12.07.14 at 4:32 pm

#15 Eli Rabett

Jerusalem and by extension Zionism, is a cultural necessity for Jewishness. Think Mecca for an equivalent.

Wouldn’t you regard that as some sort of cultural atavism? You can point to Islam as a “precedent” with Mecca (although of course they came later), but would you want Judaism to be like Islam? Christianity gave up demanding political control of Jerusalem 700+ years ago.

But of course neither christians nor jews would want Jerusalem to be controlled by hostile muslims. Consider this possibility — what if there was an agreement to give Jerusalem to the UN, and put the UN headquarters there?

The UN headquarters really doesn’t belong in New York. The Israeli and Palestinian capitals could both be there — no other nations I know of have their capital cities outside of their borders, but there’s a certain advantage to having your capital in a place that armies can’t bomb or invade without attacking the UN.

Also, Virginia and Maryland got considerable economic benefit by having Washington DC next door. Israel might benefit similarly from the UN headquarters.

Please consider it.


Corey Robin 12.07.14 at 4:38 pm

Eli Rabett: If “Zionism is a cultural necessity for Jewishness,” how did we got along without it for nearly 2000 years?


David Steinsaltz 12.07.14 at 5:52 pm

Cue the naysayers to say that chemistry is really just a branch of the English department.
No, but math and statistics aren’t really natural sciences, in the crucial economic sense. The people who dismiss the boycott because it’s just the humanities and social sciences are somewhat expressing a sense that those academics are woolly-headed cultural relativists; but even more, I think it’s about the idea that “serious” academics have big grants and big labs and generally deal with big money. Chemistry is the outlier here. Math and statistics are still much more constructed on the same economic model as the humanities, hence barely one step removed from socialism.


anon 12.07.14 at 11:48 pm


Do you always fall asleep at Seder?

“Next Year in Jerusalem”.

We understand whey the anti-Israel types have have changed their tune from calling Israel ‘the Jewish State’ to ‘the Zionist Entity’. HAMAS, IJ, PFLP has successfully gulled the useful idiots on the left into making it a political question.

Not all are fooled.

HAMAS imposes religious restrictions in its totalitarian enclave. Abbas makes it clear that Jews will not be welcome to live in the new Palestinian state. The Saudis continue to call it ‘the Jewish State’.

Only the willfully ignorant and the haters play along.

Which type are you?


The Temporary Name 12.08.14 at 1:13 am

Only the wilfully ignorant and the haters play along with the theft of land.


christian_h 12.08.14 at 3:57 am

I was extremely happy to see my former colleague – now chair of math at UIUC – sign this. This is not a small deal, as anyone who knows academic math in the US will know.


Ze Kraggash 12.08.14 at 8:48 am

“Next Year in Jerusalem” – right, that settles it. Call an airstrike.

“Zionism is a cultural necessity for Jewishness” is an interesting topic. Culture is fluid, and I get the impression that these days it comes too damn close to the empirical truth (sorry Prof. Robin).


PHB 12.08.14 at 1:01 pm

“Zionism is a cultural necessity for Jewishness” So anyone who doesn’t agree with you isn’t a Jew. Glad we got that straight.

What you are doing here is hiding behind a label. If you were to say that “Ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population to establish an apartheid Jewish state in Israel is essential for Jewishness” then everyone would say you are a fascist.

Which is of course exactly what you were saying because there is obviously rather more to the ‘Zionism’ you are peddling than having a Seder in Jerusalem.


J Thomas 12.08.14 at 4:00 pm

I’m glad to see everybody jumping on anon and Eli over this. Unconditional US support for Zionist extremists is likely to cause a lot more trouble than it has yet.

But let’s try to see it both ways. His religion tells him that God gave Israel to him. The rightful owner can’t steal his own land. When he takes it back from whoever stole it, he isn’t stealing at all.

And the first time around God told them to kill *all* the canaanites. When they let some surrender and be slaves, that was officially a Bad Thing. This time they have been far more merciful to palestinians. The birthrate in Gaza is so high that Israeli attacks have not kept the Gaza population from rising the year of a big attack. Their limits on food entering Gaza caused malnutrition and stillbirths and infant mortality and yet the population still rose. It’s been no more effective than the ancient Egyptian practice of killing male babies of the lower classes.

If you tell Eli that he’s wrong, you are attacking his religion. It can’t be just politics.

Of course you can be Jewish and disagree with him. For example, more than one Jewish prophet said that each time Jews lose Israel it’s because they broke the agreement first, that God was not getting worshipped the way he wanted to, and so he got them carted off to punish them for that. If it happens again, that might be why. But still — HIS religion tells him that Israel belongs to his people and only his people, forever. God promised. And if you disagree then you are telling him that his religion is wrong.

In one version God promised Abraham everything between the Nile and the Euphrates rivers. Let’s be glad that not many Zionists insist on all that!


Bloix 12.09.14 at 2:46 am

#14- so in your view, it was Ahad Ha’am and Eliezer ben Yehuda who committed the atrocity of eliminating Yiddish as a living language.
The most outrageously offensive things drip out of your mouth like liquid shit.
The shit drips out of Salaita’s mouth, too, and people like Ze Kraggash think it smells like roses.


Ze Kraggash 12.09.14 at 9:00 am

What’s with this fucking hatred that drips out of your mouth?
It’s in wikipedia. I opened the article on Cultural Zionism:
“Most European Jews in the 19th century spoke Yiddish, a language based on mediaeval German, but as of the 1880s, Ben Yehuda and his supporters began promoting the use and teaching of a modernised form of biblical Hebrew, ”
I clicked Yiddish, and there it was:
“In the early 20th century, Zionist activists in Palestine tried to eradicate the use of Yiddish among Jews in preference to Hebrew, and make its use socially unacceptable.”
Hence ‘the project of eradicating Yiddish’.
If it upsets you so, you can try to edit it out.
But I also remember hearing the same story from those who knew it first-hand; my grandparents’ generation. What can I do to satisfy you, go to a reeducation camp?


LS 12.09.14 at 11:20 am

Short linguistic digression: The only way I see to understand the venom of Bloix (25) is if he’s assuming that the Holocaust destroyed Yiddish, and hence that Kraggash is blaming Ben Yehuda for the effects of the Holocaust. That would be an understandable conflation, in that the Holocaust effectively eliminated Yiddish and its speakers from Eastern Europe. However, it did not cause the massive decline (not, please note, extinction) of Yiddish in Yiddish-heritage communities not conquered by Nazi Germany. That is the result of monolingual ideologies in those countries – “Ivri, daber Ivrit” in Israel, “real Americans speak English” in the US. If you regard the decline of Yiddish as a bad thing, then Ben Yehuda must bear a share of the blame for it, along with Uncle Sam.


Eli Rabett 12.09.14 at 1:16 pm

Cory asks a smart question

If “Zionism is a cultural necessity for Jewishness,” how did we got along without it for nearly 2000 years?

The answer obviously is that Hertzl started the Zionist project BECAUSE Jews were, after 2000 years of yearning for Zion within a religious context, finally were allowed to move out into the broader European secular world and were loosing their religious context and Zionism was needed within the cultural structure.

So Eli’s question for Corey is if Zionism is not a cultural necessity for non-religious Jews, what is left of their identy as Jews?


AcademicLurker 12.09.14 at 3:31 pm

28: My impression was that Hertzl started the Zionist project after observing the rise of exclusionary ethnocentrism in the various component states of the Austrian empire (and Europe in general), and concluding that a future of ethnically defined nation states left no place for the Jews.

I am, however, no expert on the subject.


J Thomas 12.09.14 at 6:43 pm

#28 Eli Rabett

So Eli’s question for Corey is if Zionism is not a cultural necessity for non-religious Jews, what is left of their identy as Jews?

I would think that their identity would be and become whatever it is and becomes.

If Acadians become Cajuns, that’s not a terrible thing. They don’t become less themselves unless they make a project to conquer New Brunswick.

Non-religious Irish do fine in the USA without going back to conquer Ireland. My own people lost Wales before the Romans ethnic-cleansed Palestine, but we wouldn’t fight to take it back even if there were enough of us. I think.

People don’t lose their culture unless they have a nation to fight for. It just doesn’t work that way.


Eli Rabett 12.10.14 at 1:30 am

Anybunny who follow(s) the reaction of Irish descended people in the US wrt Ireland and N. Ireland over the last ~150 years would have some trouble with your formulation.

It is roughly the equivalent of those who insist that Romani need to integrate into the majority culture and stop roaming.


J Thomas 12.10.14 at 2:04 am


Anybunny who follow(s) the reaction of Irish descended people in the US wrt Ireland and N. Ireland over the last ~150 years would have some trouble with your formulation.

No, while American Irish can feel all nationalistic and contribute money etc to terrorists in Northern Ireland, they don’t *need* to. They do just fine here independent of that fetish.

150 years ago not so much. But times change.


PHB 12.10.14 at 3:08 am

@32 Thomas

“No, while American Irish can feel all nationalistic and contribute money etc to terrorists in Northern Ireland, they don’t *need* to. They do just fine here independent of that fetish.”

Quite, the thing that makes me loathe identity politics is the folk like Eli and Anon. What they mean by ‘identity’ is buying into their personal hatred of people not like themselves’. You are a self hating Jew if you are Jewish and find their version of Zionism to be repellent and you are an anti-Semite otherwise.

I don’t need someone else to tell me how to think and I certainly don’t need some book written 2000 years ago by a bunch of crazy hermits. Being from Ireland doesn’t mean having to let NORAID and the IRA tell you how to think. Being Jewish doesn’t mean having to let AIPAC.

What their brand of identity politics boils down to is defining a group of people, telling them they have an ‘identity’ and this obliges them to think in a particular way or be betraying their ‘identity’. It is a form of political correctness argument but telling people they have to hate.


PHB 12.10.14 at 3:14 am

@Eli 31

Or like telling a bunch of Jihadis that they should stop trying to establish their caliphate.

Comments on this entry are closed.