I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Steven Salaita speak. He is a Professor of Palestinian descent who had a tenured position at Virginia Tech University, and earlier this year accepted a tenured position at the University of Illinois. Dr. Salaita has a history of being outspoken about issues regarding Palestine and Israel, both in academia and in general. Weeks before the fall semester, certain university donors threatened to stop their funding unless Dr. Salaita was terminated immediately. This was due to comments that he posted via Twitter regarding Israel’s most recent massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. In complete disregard of his success as a well respected educator, mentor, and author, his career and reputation were inequitably destroyed.
When folks taunt me for getting fired, I remember the people of #Gaza, who lost so much more. They were taunted by the same crowd.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) October 16, 2014
Dr. Salaita is now traveling around the country to not only spread awareness about his current situation, but also to continue spreading awareness about Palestine. Much of his talk at UNM included content from his upcoming book, which discusses the importance of understanding the history of Palestine, as well as the relation between the Indigenous People of Palestine and Native America.
Along with the important discussion on Palestine, Dr. Salaita touched on issues of ethics within academia, which made me think about ethics more broadly. It was incredibly heartbreaking to hear such a humble and kindhearted professor talk about his disappointment regarding the way the university handled his firing. What does free speech mean anymore? In my opinion, universities should be encouraging critical dialogue, not shunning it. This is how we learn as individuals, and as a community. The absence of critical dialogue allows for unethical actions and corruption to slip by unnoticed. This is exactly what Steven Salaita is trying to avoid and fight against, which, I believe, is one of the core responsibilities of an educator. Generation Justice member, Danny Kesner, said it perfectly on our November 23rd broadcast: “how can we stand by when the first amendment is used to justify the existence of extremist groups such as the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church, but when an educated professor speaks about crimes against humanity, he is punished?”
There are various aspects of this situation that make me incredibly uncomfortable. First of all, Dr. Salaita’s case is a perfect example of the illusion of free speech that exists within this country. Dr. Salaita is an expert within his field, and his position as a tenured educator and professor should be protected by his rights to free speech, both in and out of the classroom. Second, it is also a glimpse at the power structure within the various institutions that are meant to make positive contributions to society. Dr. Salaita’s case clearly indicates that the university is not driven by academic success, student progress, or scholarship; universities are driven by money. Those who have the money, and those who contribute the money, make the rules.
Over the course of the last five or six months, since the last major attack on Gaza, I have heard and read many arguments claiming that to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians is to take on an “anti-Israeli” position. I believe that this is simply a poor attempt to further justify the undeniably criminal and oppressive actions of Israeli forces against Palestinians. Furthermore, it’s unfortunate that this claim is leading conversations. To say that any statement or action made, in support of Palestinian liberation from Israeli oppressive force is “anti-Israeli,” therefore claims that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is an action attributed and supported by the Israeli population as a whole. This is not the case.
To further emphasize this issue, a Pittsburgh restaurant recently was subjected to the backlash of this same type of assumption when they featured Palestinian food on their menu. This particular restaurant, Conflict Kitchen, specializes in serving food from countries that the United States is in conflict with. The food is wrapped in special packaging that includes facts about the featured country and, in this instance, facts about the Israeli occupation. Their goal “is to increase the curiosity and understanding about the people who live in countries our government is in conflict with by directly exposing our customers to these cultures and viewpoints.” Upon releasing their Palestinian food, the owners of the restaurant received death threats.
Again, the attacks were due to a claim that the inclusion of facts about Palestine on the wrappers of the food constitutes an anti-Israeli action, which is ridiculous. To make the claim that standing in any sort of solidarity with Palestinians is anything other than anti-oppression, is to degrade and devalue the severity of the overall situation. When an oppressive institution is in power, and that institution uses its power to kill innocent people, we most certainly would not claim that this corrupt institution is a representation of the society as a whole. Doing so would disregard the many instances throughout history where we have seen people fight for governmental, or other type of institutional reform. Therefore, to say that the overwhelming oppression in Palestine, at the hands of Israeli forces, is a product of Israel and its people, as a whole, is not only false, it’s absurd.
Overall, it’s hard to tell what all of this means for us, and when I say us I am referring to everyone. Dr. Salaita’s case doesn’t only affect him, but also his students, the status and credibility of professors across the nation, the education system and its institutions, our communities, and all of our rights. I believe that an innate responsibility of humanity is to protect one another. You are your brother’s keeper. You are your sister’s keeper. Dr. Salaita’s tweets were nothing more than a clear stance of solidarity with his fellow humans, and their right to live. His comments were not anti-Israeli, as they were made out to be by the University of Illinois and its donors, his comments were anti-oppression. How are we to practice our rights, especially if they are being used to spread awareness about crimes against humanity, if they are not protected? As an expression of my own rights to free speech, I stand in firm solidarity with Dr. Steven Salaita, and I can only hope others will do the same.
Nobody will ever convince the people of #Palestine to quit fighting for freedom. You’ll therefore never convince me to stop supporting them.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) August 1, 2014
(photo credit: Jeffrey Putney/Flickr)