Who is Steven Salaita?

The News-Gazette has a long profile of Steven Salaita. Though many of us have argued this case on the grounds of academic freedom and free speech, it’s also important to point out just how cartoonish is the portrait Salaita’s critics have drawn of him, that the substance of the man is nothing like the surface strokes his critics have painted. The victims of witch hunts like this one don’t need to be perfect and they don’t need to be angels in order for us to come to their defense. But when it comes to his students, Salaita does seem to go the extra mile, and it’s worth mentioning that.

The article contains many other details I didn’t know about: not only is Salaita Palestinian on his mother’s side, but his grandparents were forced out of Israel. His doctorate is in Native American Studies. He is at the forefront of a move to internationalize all aspects of American Studies. While other scholars in American Studies and American History do this without drawing any scrutiny or criticism (indeed, they are encouraged to do so), Saliata has made the quite logical inference that if we’re going to internationalize American Studies, perhaps we should also internationalize our analysis of American indigenous studies. When it comes to Israel/Palestine, however, logic can get you into trouble.

Here are just some highlights; read the whole piece yourself. And then write the trustees.

Among the hundreds of emails sent to the University of Illinois in response to the un-hiring of Steven Salaita was one from a former student at Virginia Tech University.

The student recounted the terror that followed the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

Salaita was the one professor who was able to keep her on campus and in school, helping her find a way to turn a terrible experience into something she could face, said UI Professor Robert Warrior, director of the American Indian Studies Program.

According to friends and information posted by Salaita online, he was born in Bluefield, W.Va., the son of a Jordanian father and Palestinian mother who had both emigrated to the United States (his mother via Nicaragua). His mother’s parents were forced out of what is now Israel…

Salaita earned his undergraduate degree in political science from Radford University in Virginia, and then a master’s in English, before completing his doctorate in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma in 2003. It was there he met Warrior. Salaita’s primary focus was Native American literature but he also studied Palestinian and Arab-American literature.

He then taught American and ethnic American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater until 2006, when he was hired by Virginia Tech’s English Department. He earned tenure three years later, teaching English and writing about Arab-Americans, Indigenous peoples, race and ethnicity, and literature.

In an item for the English Department newsletter in 2006, Prof. Virginia Fowler said Salaita’s writing reflected his parents’ immigrant experience, with “themes of immigration, American-ness, dislocation, cultural multiplicity, xenophobia and racialization.”

Critics have questioned why an academic who has written so much on Israel and Arab American literature would be hired by American Indian Studies.

Kauanui and others said those critics are missing a huge aspect of his work. Salaita is a comparative scholar, Kauanui said, and the field itself is changing.

American Indian Studies wants to broaden its framework, comparing the Native American experience to that of other indigenous people around the globe, Kauanui said, The UI program, in fact, has hired scholars who focus on Native issues in Guam and the Pacific islands, she said.

Salaita has done research on Native North America, she said, and his training is in Native American studies. His early work focused on comparing colonialism by settlers in North America to those in Israel and the occupied territories. His 2006 book “The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest of Canaan,” based on his doctoral dissertation, examines how settlers in the Holy Land and the Americas used a “theological narrative to justify their occupation of foreign lands,” she said. “It’s a path-breaking book.”

A Virginia Tech English student last year called him “super friendly, very engaging, hilarious.”

“You feel less like you’re in a class and more like you’re at a book club and having enjoyable, intelligent literary discussion without having to worry about anyone disagreeing with your views or grading you on what you say,” the student wrote.

In 2011, a Virginia Tech student who took his “Renaissance Revenge Tragedy” class said Salaita is “not afraid to argue his views but he’ll also never make you feel unwelcome for giving your own. His tangents are amazing, and you’ll find yourself with so many new ways of looking at the world you might just explode. Plus … it was easy as hell.”

I have little doubt that Salaita’s critics will seize upon that last line as proof positive that he should have been dehired by the University of Illinois. It’s just one more sign of their desperation. They’ve gone from apoplexy over his tweets to fretting over his Amazon reviews. Now it’ll be that he’s an easy grader. Well, if being an easy grader is enough to get you fired from academe, there’s an Ivy League university I’d like to introduce you to. Perhaps you should start there first.

Please write your emails to the Board of Trustees. Here again are their addresses.

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair, University of Illinois Board of Trustees: chris@northbankandwells.com

Robert A. Easter, President: reaster@uillinois.edu

Hannah Cave, Trustee: [the one we had doesn’t work, though a commenter claims this one is correct: hcave2@uis.edu.]

Ricardo Estrada, Trustee: estradar@metrofamily.org

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Trustee: patrick.fitzgerald@skadden.com

Lucas N. Frye, Trustee: lnfrye2@illinois.edu

Karen Hasara, Trustee: hasgot28@aol.com

Patricia Brown Holmes, Trustee: pholmes@schiffhardin.com

Timothy N. Koritz, Trustee:  tkoritz@gmail.com

Danielle M. Leibowitz, Trustee: dleibo2@uic.edu

Edward L. McMillan, Trustee: mcmillaned@sbcglobal.net or mcmillaned@msn.com

James D. Montgomery, Trustee: james@jdmlaw.com

Pamela B. Strobel, Trustee: pbstrobel@comcast.net

Thomas R. Bearrows, University Counsel: bearrows@uillinois.edu

Susan M. Kies, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and the University: kies@uillinois.edu

Lester H. McKeever, Jr., Treasurer, Board of Trustees: lmckeever@wpmck.com


  1. bor September 7, 2014 at 12:51 pm | #

    Anybody who needs to understand Salaita beyond the hideous tweets and book reviews should look at this:


    Read it to the end where part of his letter of application for the job at UI is included. It’s a section of an article that he includes to demonstrate his academic interests and work. He specifically makes no distinction between Jews and Zionists in his attack on their history with Palestinians, precisely as some of us have been saying all along. And, unlike the supposedly off-the-cuff, angry tweets that come out of him magically in the heat of the moment, this is an academic article, presumably read and reread by him numerous times prior to submission.

    As for expanding Native American American studies by “globalizing” it, that may be a very smart approach to introducing the Palestinians as “indigenous” natives, which if you look at his work seems to be precisely what Salaita is doing when he’s not vilifying Jews and Zionists, but every time you look at the Dead Sea Scrolls you know this is a lie. Every time you go to the Temple Mount, you know this is a lie. Every time you look through some of the discoveries sitting today in the Israel Museum, you know this is a lie. Every time you read about the Arab conquest of this region 1500 years after Jews are known to have been there, you know this is a lie. Every time you meet a Palestinian whose last name is Masry or Erakat, obviously hailing from other parts of the region, you know this is a lie. One would hope that the person spearheading the “globalization” of Native American Studies would be doing it using, um, actual history and true indigenous populations. Right?

    I’m certain Salaita is a very nice guy. Leni Reifenstahl was also, by all reports, a very nice person. It just so happens that Salaita’s research isn’t very impressive – and I challenge anybody here to read “Israel’s Dead Soul” and make a case that it is a serious work – and his politics and writings include a rabid hatred of Zionists that very often slips into overt statements about Jews that indicate that he’s either not above targeting them or that he’s too immature and unprofessional to restrain himself from controlling his angry impulses even in his academic work. That entire discussion about his anal and vaginal probing accusation against all Israeli international border crossing security folks for doing them all the time on Palestinians for reasons involving their inherent depraved sexual desire for Muslims and Arabs speaks directly to that and now you have writers for both Tablet and the Washington Post making similar accusations.

    While some would brush that despicable hatred aside, they should not. Even if they believe this is an issue involving academic freedom, there is no university in this country that should HIRE any professor who brings such open hatred to campus.

    Also, any academic or person who claims that such hires aren’t affecting Jewish students – not just Zionist students – in any way, is turning a blind eye to what is happening on many campuses precisely because radical professors such as Salaita provide the language, tools and cover that radicalized students require and utilize to press their case and weaken Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus.

    • MDZX September 7, 2014 at 3:26 pm | #

      I read the comments of that link, and Bernstein sure did amusingly get called out on his dishonesty and inconsistency. Was that what you were trying to show everyone?

      That Salaita writing linked at the end – what, exactly, is the problem? Who else is (directly, anyway) oppressing Palestinians besides Jews? There are few non-Jews in the IDF, for example, and anyway that oppression is done in the name of a specific (though obviously not all-encompassing) Jewish ideology, no? I think Salaita should have said “Israeli Jews” or something similar, but it is far from obvious that he is saying Judaism in general is oppressing Palestinians. Typically quotes are framed in the least flattering position possible.

      Everything I’ve read from Salaita has him typically carefully separating “Zionist Jews” from “Jews”. I mean, you can say “That white guy is a murderer” without impugning whites or males, so what’s the issue with saying “these Zionist Jews bombing Gaza are carrying terrible crimes”?

      “there is no university in this country that should HIRE any professor who brings such open hatred to campus.”

      Well, too late, at any rate, since he was clearly hired by the university in a legal sense as shown in multiple documents. Clearly the relevant academics in charge of hiring a new professor for their department disagreed, are you now saying you (or rich donors, or an angry group of Israel defenders) should have priority over the faculty in determining such things?

      • bor September 7, 2014 at 4:43 pm | #

        The answer to your question is that the board,chancellor and provost should most certainly have a right to influence a hire and even kill it. Unlike the department, which may be focused on improving its scholarship and reputation but is also focused on more mundane but pertinent issues such as finding someone to teach certain classes, pleasing the dean, having nice colleagues around, etc., the senior administration’s role is to oversee the entire university and look out for its student population.

        What suits one department may not be suitable for the entire university, which is precisely why the hierarchy exists and almost certainly why every new hire at UIUC is subject to final approval by the board. Whether donors are the ones who bring this to the attention of the administration or not (and to be perfectly honest, after reading the 430 emails released by the university regarding this matter, I believe there is a paucity of evidence proving this claim) or not is irrelevant. It could be a newspaper article, letters from unhappy students (there were many times more of those than letters from donors) or simply looking up the new hire’s tweeter feed which in turn leads to closer scrutiny of his other work that could drive an administration to rule out a new hire.

        Although we’ve already had this conversation on this site previously, I’ll oblige some of your other remarks.

        1. Salaita wasn’t hired. Read the offer letter. It is clear that the hiring is subject to the board of trustees’ approval. He had not taught a single class. He had not earned a single dollar. Some legal experts are claiming that he has a case for dismissal, others that he doesn’t. We will see how it plays out. Either way, my point was whether someone such as Salaita he should be hired, and as far as I’m concerned the answer, from the perspective of the broader well-being of a university community is no.

        I’ll add that many of his defenders are the same people who yelled against Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s getting an honorary doctorate and giving a speech at Brandeis on the basis of her work. Isn’t hiring someone with tenure a far greater offense to a university and its student body?

        2. What about the research? Who are the rest of us to determine whether a scholar should be hired or not? Fair enough. We should leave it to the scholars and to their administration. However, let’s be clear that the department members that hired him may be experts on Native American Studies but they are not when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict or about Palestinians, Zionism and Jews which are the focus of Salaita’s work even if he dresses it up with parallels to native American studies.

        There is evidence pointing to Salaita and Warrior (the department’s head) being friends and colleagues in the Israel-boycott movement. Is it possible that a friend greased the way of another into a job? I have no evidence that this happened, but you have no evidence that donors killed this hire and Salaita has no evidence that Israeli border guards have a sexual predilection for Muslim and Arabs and yet he got that published and no less a scholar than the provost at UIUC proclaimed that this was fine scholarship. So perhaps Warrior and co. didn’t quite investigate Salaita’s work as deeply as they could have? Having read an article and a book by Salaita, which is likely more than most of his defenders have read, I consider them to be articulate but embarrassing pieces containing ideas, logic and content lighter than a feather. In my opinion, he’s concerned with selling his politics, particularly in a manner that besmirches Jews. Oops, Zionists. Hmmm, now I can see how he could get the two confused.

        Regarding Salaita’s antisemitic comments that many are trying mightily to depict as merely anti-Zionist while hilariously describing him as a great hater of antisemitism, it’s nice to imagine what he could have written to try to deflect what he’s actually saying, but it’s right there in front of you in black and white. Should he have written, “the Jews, with Palestinian children’s teeth around their necks” for you to accept what is right there under your nose? Oh wait, he did write that, expect it was in a tweet and he used Netanyahu to make this claim. Which is part of the point here. Look at the totality of his comments, his publication and his activism and even if you attempt to deny every specific incident when you consider the body of work, the picture becomes very clear.

        By the way, even if his overt hostility is directly “merely” toward Israelis and Israel supporters, not Jews, that still leaves a huge question as to why someone such as this should be brought to this campus.

      • Gerald Izenberg September 7, 2014 at 5:48 pm | #

        From a Fact Sheet of the US State Department, June 8, 2010 “Defining Anti-Semitism”
        “Contemporary Examples of anti-Semitism
        -Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongs committed by a single Jewish person or group, the State of Israel, etc.”
        Unless of course you want to dismiss the State Department as a victim of the Israel Lobby.

      • bor September 8, 2014 at 8:33 pm | #

        I was unaware that one of Salaita’s mentors was Warrior – “Warrior served as a member of Salaita’s dissertation team at the University of Oklahoma.”

    • Guestus Aurelius September 7, 2014 at 4:20 pm | #

      You’re not alone, bor. Surprisingly (to me), hundreds of UIUC professors have signed a statement in support of the chancellor—considerably more, in fact, than have signed the petition lambasting her.

      In support of the chancellor: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/confidence-in-chancellor

      Lambasting the chancellor: http://www.uiucfaculty.blogspot.com/2014/08/open-letter-to-chancellor-phyllis-wise.html

      And yes, Salaita’s scholarship only worsens his case. The quotation you refer to is from p. 7 of his article “The Ethics of Intercultural Approaches to Indigenous Studies: Conjoining Natives and Palestinians in Context” in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies (vol. 1, no. 1, 2008). It’s freely downloadable as a PDF here: http://www.isrn.qut.edu.au/pdf/ijcis/IJCIS.Salaita.pdf

      Here is that quotation:

      “What stands out in the case of Palestinians is the fact that they are blamed inveterately for their own dispossession. Their oppressors, the Jews, not only have managed to cast themselves as victim in the Israel-Palestine conflict, they have justified that self-image through an assiduous emphasis on their specialness, which grants them access to exceptional privileges.”

      Am I reading that right? “the Jews”? Not “the state of Israel,” but “the Jews”? But I thought only Zionists conflate the two! I must be hallucinating.

      Now, all that aside, the most astounding thing about this case is the willful distortion of the facts on the part of Salaita’s supporters. It’s an impressive propaganda campaign they’ve been running. Their argument is a house of cards, though, and it goes something like this: since BoT approval is just a “rubber stamp,” Salaita was actually fired from a tenured position, and since there was no due process, his academic freedom was violated. End of story. The tweets themselves are irrelevant.

      In reality, of course, BoT approval is required for the appointment to be finalized, regardless of how rare BoT refusal is. Salaita’s appointment was never approved by the BoT, so the tenured position at UIUC was never his. This isn’t at all up for debate. I had a back-and-forth with John K. Wilson on this point, and he insisted that Salaita had been hired to the tenured position “in a moral sense.”

      Yeah, you can’t make this stuff up.

      The tenured position wasn’t his. Academic freedom is a red herring because it doesn’t apply to job candidates. This isn’t at all up for debate.

      Administrators with veto power are under no obligation to grant a job candidate “due process” when they use it. This isn’t at all up for debate.

      The inability (refusal?) of many of Salaita’s defenders to distinguish “is” from “ought” is breathtaking. Instead of explaining why they think, say, the chancellor made the wrong call, they simply rewrite the facts. It’s like the Twilight Zone, and it’s disappointing.

      • ovitt September 8, 2014 at 12:08 am | #

        Are these petitions–not the number of signatures, but the content–really comparable? One appears to be a rather general statement of support for Wise while the other is a quite detailed brief dealing with this issue of Salaita’s hire–not quite the same thing, and one could imagine someone being confused by your comparison. BTW, Salaita’s hiring is of no interest to me, though I am personally offended by anyone who uses Twitter to express an opinion on a complex subject. My teenaged children might do it, but no adult, and certainly no educator, can be excused for tossing off one-liners on a matter of such moral import.

      • Guestus Aurelius September 8, 2014 at 4:33 am | #


        Surely every professor who’s signed it knows well that the general statement of support for the chancellor is in response to the Salaita affair.

      • Guestus Aurelius September 8, 2014 at 5:01 am | #

        I need to backpedal on one important point, though: only the 10 most recent signatures are visible on the webpage for the general letter of support. So there seems to be no way to know who the signers are or to verify that the signers are all (or even mostly) UIUC professors.

  2. Martin Kramer September 7, 2014 at 3:05 pm | #

    “The article contains many other details I didn’t know about: not only is Salaita Palestinian on his mother’s side, but his grandparents were forced out of Israel.” They were not forced out, but emigrated (with many other Christians from Bethlehem and Beit Jala) to South America well before the creation of Israel. And contrary to the News-Gazette, his mother was born in Nicaragua, as Salaita himself has recorded on several occasions.

    • Martin Kramer September 8, 2014 at 3:34 pm | #

      Not so sure now about above. Hope to check it out further.

  3. Robert Haymond September 24, 2014 at 9:45 am | #

    Native Studies Department? When there are so many knowledgeable and articulate North American Indian elders who teach, and are more than willing to teach, young people about the current and past experience of the Indian people on the North American (and South American) continent. I call Salaita and his mentor, Robert Spencer, part of the intellectual colonialism to which Native people are being exposed. I doubt that Salaita has any identifiable experience or relationship with the Native population; I doubt that he has ever spent quality time on a reserve or reservation. I seriously doubt that he possesses any understanding of the spiritual practices (very powerful) of North American Indians. His intemperate tirades are at quite the contradiction to the far more subtle manner in which Native people communicate. Has he ever learned even one of the hundreds of Native languages which still exist on the continent today, i.e., Objibway, Cree or Blackfoot, etc. Does he ever express himself with the natural teasing humour found amongst many Native Americans? I think not. I have to put some responsibility (and blame) on Native Studies commander Robert Spencer for this hiring. His profile includes some relationship to the Osage people. And yes, he has long hair swept back in a ponytail (very boyish and all but two braids are characteristic of the mid-continent peoples) but it appears he, himself, has manipulated himself into a position of importance without the requisite background. Additional corruption of a field of study. The whole thing has gone wrong. Perhaps the “Salaita Affair” will reverberate into a closer investigation into how North American Indians are being shortchanged in the academic sphere just as they’ve been in the economic and cultural ones.

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