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Under Fire: Salaita Confronts Critics During Appearance at Brooklyn College

Alex Ellefson Nov 24, 2014

Instead of sanitizing the controversial comments about Israel on social media that cost him his job, scholar Steven Salaita responded to his critics during a panel discussion at Brooklyn College on Thursday by comparing the psychology of Zionism to the attitudes of early American settlers towards Native Americans.

“You’ve got to understand. There’s a long, long tradition of people being colonized wishing that their colonizers would go away. You might not like to hear it. But it’s true. They don’t like you. They don’t want you there,” Salaita said, responding to criticism directed at a tweet in which Salaita wished “all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”

Critics of that statement and many others accused Salaita of inciting violence and promoting anti-Semitism during a tumultuous and violent summer in the region.

In August, weeks before Salaita was supposed to begin a new teaching job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the school’s board of trustees voted to block his appointment to a tenured position in the Native American Studies program. Salaita left another tenured position at Virginia Tech to come to the school.

Almost 200 people attended the panel discussion with Salaita, which included Katherine Franke, the director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University, and Corey Robin, the chairman of the Brooklyn College political science department, who moderated the discussion.

Salaita, who’s mother is Palestinian and Father is Jordanian, explained that the Israel/Palestine conflict was always a topic of conversation at home when he was growing up in Bluefeild, West Virginia. However, it wasn’t until he took a class on the Native American novel in college that he recognized Palestine in the story of the indigenous people of the United States.

“Think about the Ghost Dance in the 1890s in the lead up to the Wounded Knee Massacre,” Salaita said. “The Ghost Dance was an articulation of the desire that all the settlers go away.”

“If we’re going to understand the situation clearly, we need to confront that the Palestinians do not want Israeli settlers on the West Bank,” He added.

Salaita’s case is only the latest attempt by a university to fire or deny tenure to a professor for expressing viewpoints critical of Israel. The incident has revived an ongoing controversy about the limits of academic freedom. Im response to Salaita's firing, more that 6,000 scholars have signed onto an academic boycott against the university and 16 of the school’s departments have passed no confidence votes against the chancellor.

Prior to Salaita’s discussion on Thursday, which was part of a larger speaking tour at many college campuses, public officials and prominent supporters of Israel expressed outrage over Salaita’s appearance at Brooklyn College.

“With daily terror attacks raging throughout Israel and the Middle East, academic departments should be sponsoring events that promote unity and reconciliation — not hatred and division,” Assemblyman Cymbrowitz said.

Salaita told The Indypendent that the statement implied Cymbrowitz blamed him for recent violence in Israel.

“That’s part of Israel’s colonial mentality. Not only to collectively punish but to treat all Arabs as a homogeneous threat,” he said.

Brooklyn College is the only stop on Salaita’s speaking tour to elicit an outcry from elected officials. Several times in the past, city and state representatives have tried to intervene when pro-Palestine activities occurred on the campus.

In one instance, several city councilmembers threatened to pull funding from the school if the political science department did not drop their co-sponsorship of an event that advocated for the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which seeks to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end the military occupation of Palestine.

For the Salaita discussion, five Brooklyn College academic departments, including political science, sponsored the event.

During the Q&A portion of Salaita’s talk, one student from the campus Israel Club directed a question at the event’s moderator, Robin, who initiated the academic boycott against the University of Illinois.

The student asked whether it was appropriate for the head of a department to “champion a speaker who speaks such hateful things about me, about my nation, about people who I love and who I see everyday?”

Robin responded by first explaining that he was not representing the political science department at the event and then made an analogy between the Israel/Palestine conflict and the Vietnam War.

“If a Vietnamese person during the Vietnam War said something about Americans and said the exact same thing [as Salaita], it would seem like the obvious thing to say. It would not seem to me to be a problematic thing,” he said.

Franke said “it’s hard to think of another topic that we talk about in the academy that generates this degree of heat. And where the claim is made that you cannot say certain things.”

“We’re committed as academics and as students to thinking hard about hard things,” she continued. “And it so violates the very idea of the university to say that we might even talk critically about a state, not about Jews but about a state and the actions of a state.”

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