The Salaita Case Redux: Academic Freedom or Political Activism?

Categories: Letters From Leadership, Letters from the Leadership
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Dr. Steven Salaita has just published his account of why his appointment to a tenured professorship in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was reversed: Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits oUncivil Ritesf Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books). According to his book’s publicity, “His case raises important questions about academic freedom, free speech on campus, and the movement for justice in Palestine.”

Despite advocating academic freedom, Dr. Salaita is a member of the Organizing Committee of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. His career has suffered but not been destroyed as he had feared; he has landed a one-year appointment as the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut.

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Prof. Cary R. Nelson

Cary R. Nelson is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The current issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom includes Prof. Nelson’s extensive scholarly critique of the decision to hire Prof. Salaita — whose body of work engages polemically with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in the American Indian Studies Program at his institution. (Both Prof. Nelson’s article and a lengthy response by Prof. Robert Warrior, an administrative principal of that program, can be accessed online via this issue’s table of contents.)

The other day, Dr. Salaita, now on his book tour, spoke to an overflow crowd at a small bookstore near Columbia University. When told that Prof. Nelson, albeit a critic of his scholarship, actually supports his claims on process grounds, Salaita scoffed, denouncing him as having no specialized standing to evaluate his scholarship, and as part of “that liberal Zionist class.”

An engaging speaker, he later confided, to the amusement of his sympathetic audience: “It feels remarkably liberating to be in a place [the American University of Beirut] with no Zionists … to be in a place where you don’t have to self-censor.”

It is exceedingly rare that a conditional job offer, as provided to Dr. Salaita, is withdrawn. The irony is that pro-Israel pressures may have given rise to an anti-Israel rock star.

Still, it’s worth noting the controversial nature of this appointment, as related over a year ago by Prof. Nelson at the Inside Higher Ed website.  Prof. Nelson’s current thinking is included in a post at The Third Narrative website.

About Ralph Seliger

A veteran editor, freelance writer and blogger, I edited the print magazine, "Israel Horizons," from 2003 until 2011; and I've blogged for and edited the Meretz USA and now Partners for Progressive Israel Blog since its inception in 2006 (although I no longer edit the PPI Blog). I've been an active supporter of the Zionist peace camp since 1982. Other print and online platforms where I've been published include: The Forward, The Daily Beast, History News Network, Tikkun, In These Times, Jewish Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Jewish Currents, Huffington Post, and Dissent.
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