An academic controversy unfolding at the University of Illinois is attracting national attention. After the American Indian Studies department offered Steven Salaita a tenured job, university authorities became aware of Salaita's tweets about the conflict in Gaza. Two weeks ago, the U of I's trustees voted 8-1 not to offer him a position at the Urbana-Champaign campus.
That decision caused a storm of protest. Salaita's defenders argue that his freedom of speech has been violated. Freedom of speech, protected in the First Amendment, refers to freedom from government prosecution for speech and similar actions. But nobody has limited Salaita's right to express his opinions.
Academics are always concerned about possible restrictions on expression of unpopular opinions, and want to protect so-called "academic freedom." I believe this is an important principle. If we wish universities to be open to the widest range of ideas, then faculty must feel free to express ideas which might annoy some, or even most people. Even at government supported institutions, professors should be able to criticize the government or the corporations which employ major donors or trustees.
Some people argue that Salaita's academic freedom has been violated. The American Association of University Professors released a statement: "faculty comments made on social media, including Twitter … should be protected by academic freedom. … Whether one finds these views attractive or repulsive is irrelevant to the right of a faculty member to express them."
Let's examine Salaita's recent tweets to see how relevant they are. He is angry about the Israeli military attack on Gaza, provoked by the launching of rockets into Israel, and the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. His tweets use the harshest language to condemn the Israeli Army for killing civilians in Gaza. But they go beyond that to condemn all Israeli institutions and the entire history of Israel: "If you're demented, amoral, dimwitted and have sociopathic tendencies, might I suggest applying for a job in the Israeli MFA?" (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). He calls "Israeli officials" "pathological liars." He wrote: "Predicting Israel's behavior is easy. We have a sample size of 66 years of choosing territorial expansion over peace and coexistence."
This tweet, a few days after the kidnapping, seems to wish death on many people: "You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the [expletive]ing West Bank settlers would go missing." He extends condemnation to all Israelis: "Too much of Israeli society is cheering the bloodletting in Gaza for me to make a firm distinction between the government and the people." He repeatedly claims that Israeli politicians and the people of Israel get pleasure from killing Palestinians.
Salaita uses "Zionist" as the target of his anger. A Zionist supports the existence of a Jewish state, but not necessarily every policy of Israel, just as an American patriot might not support all of our government's policies. But Salaita hates all "Zionists": "Worry not, Zionist trolls! I'm awake and ready to once again provide the conscience you must suppress in order to support Israel."
Salaita extends his condemnation to American Jews: "I find it exceedingly odd to argue Palestine with a bunch of white guys in the U.S. playacting a Middle Eastern identity."
Some people have looked beyond Salaita's tweets to his lengthier writings. Salaita's condemnation of everything to do with Israel began long before the fight over Gaza. His book, "Israel's Dead Soul, is filled with comments like: "Israel is the least likely of nations to have a soul, given its creation through ethnic cleansing." This is less a book of scholarship than of polemics, whose notes mainly refer to a one-sided selection of short articles.
Salaita posted reviews of 1,000 books on Goodreads, some of which were examined by David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University. Salaita's review of Amos Oz's "In the Land Of Israel" appears to be typical of the seriousness with which he takes the reviewing process: "Amos Oz is to incisive political writing what Leni Riefenstahl was to socially conscious filmmaking." After Bernstein's article appeared, Salaita's Goodreads page disappeared.
Virtually every bit of writing about Salaita is highly charged and thus probably biased. I have not thoroughly read his published work. But I have read enough of his own writings to see that he often, perhaps consistently, expresses one-sided views filled with nasty condescension toward everyone else.
But for me, the decisive factor is Salaita's ability to discuss the subjects on which he focuses. Professors have opinions, but we also have an overriding responsibility to create spaces where our students, of all political persuasions and opinions, including none at all, can learn about controversies and make decisions for themselves. Salaita makes clear that he has no interest in discussion with people who disagree with him: "It's simple: either condemn Israel's actions or embrace your identity as someone who's OK with the wholesale slaughter of children." Again: "Supporters of Israel should be forced – A Clockwork Orange style – to view pics of smiling children who were killed on endless repeat." Again: "If you're defending Israel right now you're an awful human being."
As university President Robert Easter said, Salaita appears "incapable of fostering a classroom environment where conflicting opinions could be given equal consideration." I would not want him as a colleague.