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UNCIVIL RIGHTS: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom

UNCIVIL RIGHTS: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom

In the summer of 2014, renowned American Studies Professor, Steven Salaita’s employment at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign was terminated. On August 1, 2014, Professor Salaita received an email from UIUC Chancellor, Phyllis Wise instructing him to read the attached document. Enclosed was a letter informing Professor Salaita that his appointment with the Board of Trustees was revoked, and therefore as a result, he was terminated from his position at the American Studies Program at UIUC.

In his book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic FreedomProfessor Salaita maps out the unfolding of events that led to his termination. In doing so, he applies his experience to the greater context of academic freedom and the Palestine exception to constitutional protections.

His book begins with a series of Tweets posted on his personal Twitter account during Israel’s recent Operation Protective Edge, in which over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, including 551 children at the hands of the Israeli military. Tweets included “If it’s ‘anti-Semitic’ to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have? #Gaza”

These Tweets attracted the attention of wealthy donors, who are believed to have pushed Chancellor Phyllis Wise to revoke Professor Salaita’s appointment with the Board of Trustees, thus firing him from his position at the American Studies department.

Uncivil Rites questions and investigates UIUC’s promise in civility –according to the university, Professor Salaita’s Tweets read as “uncivil.”

In his book Professor Salaita is granted an opportunity to do two things:  1. Address the issue of civility –in a greater discourse of colonial society and a discussion of colonial settler politics, for which the colonial settler creates and confines the definition of civility to fit and serve his own interests. 2. Address the issue of academic freedom, a freedom of which UIUC deprived him of and failed to protect.

These two issues are inherently connected. While they are granted their own team of experts –i.e. lawyers and legal staff to investigate the applicability of academic freedom and the protections of freedom of speech, and a team of academics to explore the origins of colonial politics and the way said politics persists in modern day society –these two issues merge.

Throughout the book, Professor Salaita addresses the problematics attached to the usage of words such as “civility,” specifically as it was applied in the context of his Tweets about Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza. In his chapter titled “Survival of the Fitness” Professor Salaita discusses the power dynamics embedded in deployment of languages of “civil” and “uncivil.” To which he speaks and questions the truths of civility. Here he states “You tell me which is worse: cussing in condemnation of the murder of children or using impeccable manners to justify that murder.”

In this same chapter, Professor Salaita eloquently brings to the surface the burden of marginalized communities: “It’s always the marginal, the undesirable, the wretched, who must justify their humanity to the majority. The latent violence of the normative, meanwhile, gets to define itself benign.”

This closing quotation ultimately is the framework for which Professor Salaita addresses the details of his hiring and termination from UIUC. It is the same framework for which he applies the limits of academic freedom in its relevance to anything related to Palestine.

Professor Salaita was called an anti-Semite, his character was smeared, and his critiques of war criminals and human rights abuses were deemed “uncivil.” His position as a Professor of American Studies to potentially hundreds of students was undervalued, and was literally considered to be worth less than the money that Israel supporting donors threatened to withdraw from UIUC.  It is in this sense that we learn, again unfortunately at the expense of another academic’s career, that there is no lobby stronger than the Israel lobby, there is no unconditional support stronger than the US’s funding of Israeli apartheid, and there is no institution more hypocritical than that of the university campus.

Uncivil Rites allows readers to experience the frustrations Palestine solidarity activists and marginalized communities fighting toward liberation alike, suffer from.  Professor Salaita’s experience is specific to him; however it speaks to persons of color and those involved in liberation movements, because we too know what it is like to have to prove your humanity to administrations that care less about what you have to say and more about their image.

Professor Salaita’s book addresses an array of dense topics, ranging from colonial politics, to racial politics, to university politics. He is an academic that is for sure. Professor Salaita is personable, and he is real, and this is so obvious in his writing. Readers will appreciate the many truths he speaks power to, the very real reaction he had when he opened Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s cryptic e-mail, and his personal experiences in his battle for justice.

Professor Salaita currently holds the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. You can buy his most recent book by clicking here.

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