Sheila Delany: Professor Steven Salaita’s fight against censorship comes to Vancouver

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      Ever had the rug jerked out from under you? Had your life forced into a sudden 180 degree turn? Steven Salaita has. The young professor, author or editor of six books and numerous articles on indigenous peoples, colonialism, and Arabic culture, was a well-liked tenured teacher at Virginia Tech University. Over a year ago, in autumn 2013, he accepted another tenured position in American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He and his wife quit their jobs in Virginia, sold their house, moved north with their child, and Salaita began preparing classes.

      Then in August, three weeks before classes were to start, came the surprise. Pro-Israel students and wealthy donors to the University of Illinois, some of them prominent Zionists, had monitored Salaita’s personal Twitter account, on which he had registered angry comments during Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza. Doubtless they also knew that he had been active in the BDS—boycott, divest, sanction—movement to pressure Israel into ending its occupation of Palestine, and particularly the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. They may have known that his parents are Jordanian and Palestinian.

      Accusing Salaita of anti-Semitism and incivility, some donors contacted the chancellor of the university and threatened to withdraw funding if the hiring went through. It had, of course, been approved by the department and relevant administrators, and contractually agreed, but now the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, was motivated to interfere. She refused to send the hiring package on to the last step in the process, the normally pro-forma approval of the board of governors or board of trustees. In other words, the job offer was canceled, nullified, withdrawn, rescinded, revoked. This has been variously referred to in news articles as “de-hiring”, “un-hiring”, “reversal”, et cetera.

      This decision was so irregular, so bizarrely and obviously kowtowing to politically motivated donors who, moreover, intruded on an individual’s personal communication to censor his freedom of political expression, that it generated international protest. Professors and defenders of free speech worldwide signed petitions, refused to speak at U of Illinois, demanded the hiring go through. Academic organizations have condemned the university, and several of its own departments have voted “no confidence” in Chancellor Wise. Many of its own alumni and alumnae, as well as current students and faculty—both Jewish and not—have protested the decision.

      The chancellor did eventually send forward the package; it was turned down (with one honorable exception), and the board has refused to reconsider its vote, so the international protest continues and grows. The case is widely seen as one instance—a very dramatic one—in the attempt by pro-Israel groups to shut down all criticism of Israel’s policies. Such attempts occur often on and off campus in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. The Seriously Free Speech Committee-Vancouver has intervened in many of these cases here and elsewhere; its letters and statement of principles can be found on its website.

      Salaita is presenting a short paper at this year’s Modern Language Association convention, to be held this month at the Vancouver Convention Centre. He has agreed to give two talks after the convention, organized by the Seriously Free Speech Committee. The title for both talks is “First Peoples, Palestine, and the Crushing of Free Speech”, with two venues. On Monday (January 12), Salaita will speak at SFU’s Harbour Centre campus (515 West Hastings Street) at 7:30 p.m. in the Segal Rooms. On Wednesday (January 14), he will speak at UBC’s Green College at 5 p.m. in the Coach House. (Green College is across from the Rose Garden parking lot on Marine Drive and next to the Museum of Anthropology.) Both talks are free, and several of Professor Salaita’s books will be available for purchase at both talks.

      Currently, a financial settlement has been offered by the university and rejected by Salaita; his goal is reinstatement. He has been speaking across the U.S., may sue, and the debate rages on.

      Sheila Delany is professor emerita at Simon Fraser University, author of many books and articles in medieval studies, and a member of Seriously Free Speech Committee.

      Comments

      18 Comments

      Moebius Stripper

      Jan 5, 2015 at 1:38pm

      Like clockwork, people who organize to get Israeli academics blacklisted from employment (http://www.bdsmovement.net/activecamps/academic-boycott) 1) are astonished to learn that there are groups mobilizing to prevent *them* holding academic jobs, and 2) frame their transparent double standard as a principled support for "serious" free speech. There's a saying about cakes and consumption here.

      Free speaker

      Jan 5, 2015 at 2:45pm

      This is not the only arena of serious censorship. Try making any comment which is in any way critical of, or questions First Nations, Women, or Environmental protesters, ESPECIALLY here.

      Sometimes people doing good work, or having good intentions need to take a step back and see other perspectives. A good example is the absolute mess the "Crusaders for the Environment" are making on Burnaby Mountain. Good cause, very bad behavior. Where are they going to the bathroom for instance? Try criticizing them for this.

      I will never understand how we can be preaching equality while simultaneously suggesting that some people are too fragile to withstand even the most mild criticism. What is more derogatory than to suggest a person is incapable of personal responsibility? Or their feelings are more important than discussing issues openly and frankly?

      What these people also fail to grasp is that manipulation of the message is the most powerful tool available to those who could and would abuse it. Once the idea that only "appropriate" speech is acceptable, then the definition of appropriate is up for interpretation.The question is whose? This can be easily used to stifle dissent in other forms.

      @Free speaker

      Jan 5, 2015 at 4:58pm

      At UBC, if they don't like how you talk, they will expel you until you "learn the rules," which are always changing. They mostly have to do with the University doing all it can to avoid being dragged before the BCHRT. So, if that means people have X% less freedom than they should, that's OK, because the University's bottom line is keeping its employees riding the gravy train, not any high-minded purpose like "protecting values like freedom of expression." Most University people are alcoholics, so they don't notice---their major concerns are (a) money to buy booze and (b) booze.

      The issue of free speech is really quite simple to deal with: any control on speech is a form of slavery. So, even if we think this joke or that cartoon are in really poor taste, we are supposed to hold our noses and take it, rather than enslaving people in order to prevent us from being exposed to things we find ugly. So the discussion is really between people who believe in chattel slavery and those who do not.

      The only difference between radical islam and radical feminists/environmentalists/aboriginals is the content they want to prohibit. All four groups are agreed that, "for the sake of ____" (Allah, Women, the Environment, Aboriginals) we need to hold people in chattel slavery, control how they speak.

      N Owens

      Jan 5, 2015 at 6:56pm

      Hey Moebius Stripper,

      The link you supplied actually refutes what you write about blacklisting Israeli Academics. If that's all you got, you got nothing. Twit.

      David

      Jan 5, 2015 at 8:21pm

      There is one important difference between the horrors perpetrated against native Americans by Europeans and those against Palestinians by Zionists:

      Europeans who gradually took over the Americas through force of arms, massacres ethnic cleansing and dispossession of the native inhabitants had an unlimited supply of immigrants to draw upon, which made their victory inevitable.

      Israel, however, has no such unlimited supply of Jewish immigrant soldiers/occupiers/oppressors/ethnic cleansers. Indeed, despite the dispossession and expulsion of well over one million between late 1947 and 1967 by Jewish forces and the IDF, Palestinians are now nearly a majority between the River and the Sea and will inevitably be so. Within Israel proper (i.e., west of the "green line"), Palestinians are the fastest growing segment of the population and non-Jews now comprise over 25% of Israel's citizenry. Nor should we forget that the bloom is off the Zionist rose. The all important Jewish youth living in America, elsewhere and in Israel itself are increasingly disgusted with Israel's racism and its accelerating serial violation of hard won international humanitarian law and are divorcing themselves from Zionism. While immigration is less than a trickle, the emigration of Israel Jews is rapidly growing. In short, Israel will prove to be an anachronism, a blip in history. While it may yet be preceded by two states, one state in former mandated Palestine is inevitable. It could only be thus.

      @free speaker

      Jan 6, 2015 at 9:02am

      "Most University people are alcoholics, so they don't notice---their major concerns are (a) money to buy booze and (b) booze."

      How much booze did you digest before jumping on the computer and typing such drivel? - i'm all for free speech as long as its not utter nonsense.

      Larry

      Jan 6, 2015 at 9:13am

      I actually LOL'd when the article mentioned he'd be speaking at SFU in one of the Segal rooms.

      Here's an Israel-bashing Arab being welcomed to speak in at a heavily-Jewish-funded university. How many Jews would be welcome to speak about the merits of the State of Israel at a local Arab-funded university? We'll never know, of course, because there's no such thing.

      Israeli research scientists just announced a vaccine that prevents the recurrence of 90% of cancers. Arab research scientists have... Sorry, LOLing again.

      Gene

      Jan 6, 2015 at 10:12am

      "Fight against censorship"? What kind pf baloney is that?! He's not being censored in any way whatsover. He lost his job offer because his incredibly poor judgment, although he lacks the insight to recognise his own role in his demise. And considering his role in BDS, which seeks to marginalise and effectively muzzle Israeli academics (even left-wing ones), he is hardly one to whine about being censored.

      What a pathetic wretch of a man he is.

      Martin Dunphy

      Jan 6, 2015 at 11:25am

      Larry: What have you invented lately? LOL that.

      Double Standards

      Jan 6, 2015 at 12:21pm

      I agree with one of the commenters that 'freedom of speech' is only really for certain speech, not all. Just try saying anything negative about First Nations and people will howl and scream for censorship. This rag regularly censors non-racist comments about First Nations, that does not paint them in a flattering light, and you'll also get a snide remark by Martin Dunphy, the self-appointed Great White Father of all indigenous people.