Steve Salaita tours Chicago in the name of academic freedom
Steven Salaita always wanted to be a teacher. The Palestinian-American had his dream taken away from him after he exercised his freedom of speech on Twitter.
“When I was little, my dad used to call me prof,” Salaita said following the his speech about Palestine and censorship at Columbia College Chicago on Oct. 8.
A few weeks ago, the 38-year-old professor was terminated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Big and anonymous donors threatened to withdraw their donations after reading Salaita’s tweets that were critical of Israel during its assault on Gaza that left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead. Right-wing websites and professors considered the tweets vulgar and so did Phyllis Wise, UIUC’s chancellor.
Since then, Salaita has been defending academic freedom around the country, most recently in Chicago Oct. 6–10. He was invited to speak at Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago and DePaul University by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters.
Because of his tweets condemning Israel’s attack on the densely populated strip, suddenly, Salaita became unfit for teaching in the American Indian studies department at UIUC. But his political critique doesn’t have anything to do with his qualities as a teacher. Students never complained about him, said Salaita.
“Before this, I didn’t even know students knew I had a Twitter account,” Salaita said.
UIUC english professor, Cary Nelson was well aware of Salaita’s social media presence. He reported the tweets to Wise, who in turn rescinded Salaita’s job offer.
After pressure from academics across the globe, the UIUC’s Board of Trustees reviewed Wise’s decision but still stuck with Wise’s decision.
On the stage with Salaita, sat professors Peter Kirstein from Saint Xavier University and Iymen Chehade from Columbia College Chicago. Both Kirstein and Chehade have always been defenders of academic freedom and both have faced consequences for their beliefs. Checade’s class “The Israeli/Palestinian conflict” was suspended by Columbia College in Spring 2014 after he showed the documentary 5 Broken Cameras.
“I detest anti-Semitism,” said Salaita to the audience gathered at the Ferguson Lecture Hall.
In the audience, there were students, SJP members and activists. Ronald Schupp was one of them. Schupp sat in the first row, holding a red sign “Stand with Salaita. Stand with Palestine.”
Schupp has been an activist since 1984, fighting against repression. He protested the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons and he is part of the Anti-War Committee in Chicago. Schupp shared Salaita’s views on Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
“It is apartheid all over again,” Schupp said.
Criticism of Israel’s policies has been known to receive backlash. Supporting Israel is the respectable position to take and it allows maintaining the status quo, said Salaita. It is a civil position, he sarcastically added.
There is nothing civil in the image of childrens’ corpses stuck in an ice cream freezer,Salaita said, turning the sarcasm into sadness.
The disbelief of the hall was interrupted by Andy Thayer who said, “We have to make Phyllis Wise a symbol.” Thayer organized Salaita’s Chicago tour.
Earlier that day, Salaita’s Twitter account was suspended. His account read:
Sorry, the account you were headed to has been suspended due to strange activity (Oct. 8).
“You created some panic today,” founder of the Electronic Intifada and author of the Battle for Justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah jokingly said to Salaita.
“I just retweeted a spam message! By accident,” Salaita replied.
Regardless, the number of signatures for the petition to help Salaita get his job back on Change.org keeps rising and professors all around the country have expressed solidarity by boycotting the university.
Salaita’s last stop in Chicago will be at Chicago Access Network TV on Oct. 10 at 6:30p.m. He has already received invitations from Canada and Kenya.
WRITER BIO: Gaia Zol is a journalism student at Columbia College Chicago. She moved to Chicago to study from Italy. She is interested in international affairs and loves being in contact with the immigrant communities. She has worked closely with both the Ukrainian and Muslim communities in Chicago.