Being recruited for a tenured faculty position at a major university is no small feat, nor should it be; tenure represents the pinnacle of an academic career. In my case, it involved numerous interviews with faculty in the American Indian studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an intensive review of my scholarship, pedagogy and professional service.
I survived this rigorous review and, having accepted an employment offer from the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, resigned my tenured position at another university and prepared my family to move. A few weeks before classes were to start, and without any warning, I received a letter from the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, informing me of my termination.
How did this happen?
In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel's actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza's children.
A partisan political blog cherry-picked a few of those tweets from hundreds to create the false impression that I am anti-Semitic. Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn't fired. My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.
This is not only devastating to my family; it is a grave threat to faculty and students everywhere. Principles of free speech, academic freedom, and shared governance enable faculty and students to ask difficult questions and find answers that challenge conventional wisdom. It is anathema to this tradition to allow the elite to dictate to a public university who gets hired and what ideas are acceptable.
For this reason, nearly 6,000 professors nationwide support boycotting the university, 16 departments have voted "no confidence" in the administration, and the Modern Language Association and Association of American University Professors, among dozens of other organizations, have demanded my reinstatement.
In response to the overwhelming criticism, the university and its supporters argue that, constitutional and contractual obligations aside, my challenges to Israeli government action were anti-Semitic, and my discourse on Twitter — a medium that is designed to be quick and sometimes cutting — was "uncivil."
Such tactics are increasingly being used to silence faculty and students on campuses across the country for speaking in support of Palestinian human rights. Too often universities acquiesce to external pressure, as in this case, where in their rush to accommodate donor demands, the trustees disregarded the judgment of the faculty hiring committee and failed to review my teaching and scholarly record, or even my other tweets.
In fact, as my Twitter followers know, I vocally condemn anti-Semitism, as when I tweeted, "My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of anti-Semitism," or when I criticized the rapper Macklemore for wearing a costume that evoked age-old Jewish stereotypes. As I noted during the Gaza bombing, "I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God."
The point that Jewish people and the behavior of the Israeli state should not be conflated is one I have made consistently both in my academic writing and on my personal Twitter account, I have tweeted, "I refuse to implicate all Jewish people in the practices of the Israeli state." I have also tweeted, "I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs."
And so when I wrote in one of the controversial tweets, "Israel: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible to something honorable since 1948," my point was not that there is any honor in anti-Semitism, but that calling legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies an act of anti-Semitism drains the word of meaning and undermines the very real experiences of those who suffer its horrors. Likewise, the intent of my tweet that settlers should "go missing" was a call for an end to the settlements, which the international community largely agrees are counterproductive to peace, not a call to violence.
As for the vague and subjective charge of "incivility," it has nothing to do with my classroom performance. My former students have spoken overwhelmingly about my strength in accommodating conflicting viewpoints and in their evaluations I have never been criticized for being unfair or intolerant of contrasting opinions.
Narratives never encompass the totality of the stories they attempt to tell. They emerge from a long editing process. Think reality TV: Thousands of hours of raw footage are condensed to 40 minutes, selected to convey calculated storylines. Any time we tell a story, we omit what we consider unimportant, and in worse moments, we ignore information that contradicts a predetermined conclusion.
If we consider the parts of my record left on the cutting-room floor, my story looks quite different. In taking the extraordinary step of terminating me from a tenured position, University of Illinois leadership adopted a false narrative in order to appease a few wealthy donors rather than uphold critical principles of free speech and academic freedom. This is the reality-TV version of my story, which has disturbing implications for the future of American universities that reach far beyond my job prospects.