Former University of Illinois professor Steven Salaita received a standing ovation from Middle East scholars and academics from around the world on Saturday afternoon.
Salaita, who was terminated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty in September for a series of viciously anti-Israel tweets during the Gaza War, seemed overwhelmed by the hero's welcome.
"Thank you, every body. If the Zionists wanted to silence me, they should have just approached people to be nice to me," Salaita said. "Kindness always leaves me much more speechless than war crimes do."
Salaita said his firing—which he attributed to "the interference of wealthy donors"—was "part of the culture wars that have long been ongoing around the Israel-Palestine conflict" and could not be separated from "the organized suppression of those who speak in support of Palestine or Palestinians."
Belying his claim that the University of Illinois "destroyed" his career, Salaita has been making the rounds at left-wing university departments across the country that use his case as a rallying point for arguing against "aggressive" pro-Israel forces embodied by the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Defense League, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which, in 2004, was expanded to protect U.S. citizens from anti-Semitic attacks.
The opening MESA panel, entitled "The Salaita Case and the New Assaults on Academic Freedom," had a simple message: Academics should not be silenced or intimidated simply because their views are unpopular or "uncivil."
University of California Santa Barbara professor Lisa Hajjar spoke about the "chilling effects of the new discourse of civility," asserting that "while civility and the exercise of free speech may coexist harmoniously, the right to free speech not only permits but is designed to protect uncivil speech."
The panelists did not address the fact that the very speech they were defending demanded that pro-Israel speech be stifled in certain cases. The panelists suggested that those who express views in support of Israel or its policies have no place in any discourse, civil or otherwise, that takes place in American academia.
Here are some of the tweets that were part of the decision to terminate Salaita's contract:
Salaita—while being honored as a free speech hero—made comments at Saturday's meeting that suggested that those who disagreed with him were disqualified from playing any legitimate role in academic debate.
"If you support the colonial apparatus in the West Bank and Gaza and inside Israel itself, quite frankly, you don't get to call yourself progressive," Salaita said. "I am a critic of the state of Israel, I am a critic of Zionism, I do not shy away from either label. I'm proud to have both of those labels."
Salaita also contradicted his own disavowal of "colonialist tropes," which he says are used to justify Israeli aggression against the Palestinian population.
"'They've made us violent' seemed to be the moral rationalization—which is a trope that's as old as colonialism itself," Salaita said. "'We came into this process through rapport, we encountered the natives, all of a sudden the natives' lack of morals has turned us violent in ways we never could have imagined.'"
Salaita employed almost identical logic in lambasting Israel during the 2014 Gaza conflict:
'Jihadnik' professor Lisa Hajjar discussed the "waves of organized, partisan, right-wing disciplined activities" on college campuses that expose anti-Semitism and implicit justification of terrorism against Jews in Israel.
"Among the tactics they use are surveillance of faculty, students, and activists," Hajjar said. "They engage in various forms of censorship, they send spies into classrooms, they video tape or audio tape, they engage in campaigns targeting administrators, alumni, boards of trustees, etcetera."
Hajjar insisted that it was not only possible but a duty for professors with tenure and "expertise" to expose the tactics of "non-campus organizations" to university administrators.
"All of us, and especially those who are more empowered with the security of tenure or full professorship and those of us who are knowledgeable about these issues need to speak out," she said.
"The disgrace that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign now suffers as a result of this behavior toward Steve Salaita should be a warning to administrators, and it's our job to take that warning message to them, and then stand with them when they push back against these groups that seek to infringe upon our rights," she continued.
One audience member claimed that economics professors cannot publish research on Palestine because "the Zionist penetration in economics departments is so deep."
The panel and its sponsor, MESA, circulated a resolution to support a number of measures it says would bolster "academic freedom."
The resolution, passed by a landslide on Monday, affirmed the right of MESA members to boycott Israeli academic institutions.