Jewish student leaders at Virginia Tech (VT) have called on the university to condemn an upcoming campus event featuring Steven Salaita, an anti-Zionist former academic with a record of "harmful, dangerous, and antisemitic statements," as a keynote speaker.
The event, "Punishment and Reward in the Corporate University," is scheduled for March 23 and will be hosted by the Virginia Tech Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) as part of its Research Symposium and Exposition.
"Steven Salaita has a long history of targeting the Jewish community with harmful and antisemitic statements," wrote the president of Hillel at Virginia Tech, the president of Friends of Israel at Virginia Tech, and two GPSS senators.
"Providing Steven Salaita with a platform to speak goes against Virginia Tech's values and creates an environment in which Jewish students are likely to feel unwelcome and unsafe on campus," they continued. They also ciculated a petition calling on the university to publicly condemn Salaita, which as of Monday afternoon had amassed over 500 signatures.
A former Virginia Tech faculty member, Salaita ignited controversy in 2014 with a series of comments tweeted during Israel's Operation Protective Edge in Gaza — including a refusal to condemn the Hamas terror group, and the claim that there is "something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel's aggression."
Later, responding to Hamas' kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Salaita tweeted, "You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not. I wish all the f***ing West Bank settlers would go missing." The series of tweets prompted University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UIUC) to rescind a tenured position it offered Salaita.
"Steven Salaita has a track record of making harmful, dangerous, and antisemitic statements, ranging from antisemitic blood libels to defending Hamas's actions of targeting civilians," the Jewish student leaders wrote. "We ask that Virginia Tech leaders uphold the university's motto of 'Ut Prosim: That I May Serve,' reaffirm their opposition to giving known antisemites a platform, and condemn the GPSS Research Symposium and Exposition coordinator's decision to bring Salaita as a keynote speaker."
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the university told The Algemeiner that "free speech and our commitment to respect all people are strongly held principles at Virginia Tech, even though at times, these ideals can conflict."
"Some speech that promotes ideologies of hate, for example, is protected free speech under the First Amendment, yet as a community, we are all threatened by ideologies of hate," the spokesperson continued. "Our Principles of Community reject all forms of prejudice and discrimination and value human diversity yet it also recognizes the importance of free expression. At moments like this, we support open expression within a climate of civility and mutual respect as we strive to create an open and inclusive environment where all individuals feel safe and respected."
The Graduate and Professional Student Senate did not immediately respond to an Algemeiner request for comment.
Last fall, the graduate student senate body drew the ire of dozens of national Jewish organizations after endorsing an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
An October resolution passed by the GPSS charged Israel with "apartheid" and "colonialism," and demanded the university comply with a boycott of the Jewish state. In response, VT President Tim Sands affirmed the "free speech rights" of community members to express opinions on controversial issues, while recognizing "legal boundaries that must not be crossed" in those debates, including protections from discrimination.
Nearly 80 nonprofit groups later called on the school to affirm that students would not be impeded from studying in Israel or subject to "unfair discrimination or harassment" because of a boycott.
Editor's note: this article has been updated with a response from Virginia Tech