University of Illinois Drops Professor Over Criticism of Israel

By Ray Hanania

August 21, 2014 5 min read

As the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza intensified, many hundreds of civilians, including babies and children, were killed. Rockets were fired at Israel, causing very little real damage. In comparison, though, Israel's powerful military razed many Gaza cities to the ground, destroying whole neighborhoods.

If you happen to have relatives living in Gaza or under Israeli occupation, you certainly might be forgiven for expressing strong emotions about the five weeks of lopsided conflict there.

Seeing images of dead babies every day on social media was hard for everyone, including hardened reporters.

But, this is America, not Israel, a foreign country. And in America, we cherish our right to free speech. If free speech oversteps its bounds and becomes hate speech, we have special laws that allow the prosecution of people for hate crimes.

Last week, Steven Salaita was about to take a new job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a professor of Native-American studies. He just quit his job as a professor at Virginia Tech to come to Illinois with his wife and newborn baby.

I don't know Salaita personally, but I do know him professionally. I was a longtime member of the Radius of Arab Writers Inc., a literary organization. Many of you know I am Arab because I am not afraid to wear that heritage proudly on my shoulder and in my columns. Why not? Jewish reporters are proud of their heritage, as are black, Hispanic and Asian journalists.

He's a good person.

But just as he was about to start his job, after offering him the position and salary, the Chancellor of UIUC Phyllis Wise sent him a letter saying that the university was reneging the offer because, as the letter explained, she didn't believe his hiring would be confirmed by the University's board.

Technically, he was fired.

Why? It wasn't explained in the letter, but it was explained in numerous interviews from University officials and activists. Salaita had the nerve in his Twitter posts to criticize Israel, a foreign country. And he criticized Israel harshly.

Some claim he advocated violence but I read through his Twitter feed and did not read anything where he advocated violence. He did write things that harshly criticized Israel's government. He never attacked anyone because they were Jewish, as some also alleged.

But facts are meaningless in the Palestine-Israel conflict. Israel has a headlock on the news media, something they frequently deny. But their denials are ludicrous. Israel's government spends millions on public relations and the Arabs spend nothing. The Arab activists are vocal and hold protests downtown, but in my opinion, street protests are worthless.

The University was wrong in denying Salaita a job. His voice is needed in our society, because I believe the Middle East has a direct impact on this country.

For many years, America defended academic freedom, the right of professors to express their views. The media has championed many professors who have lost their jobs for expressing opinions, but not this one. The Chicago Tribune, which has ties to UIUC, has led the campaign against Salaita with one-sided and partisan reporting, and one-sided op-eds, denying a voice to pro-Arab activists.

The mainstream American news media is invested heavily when it comes to defending Israel, far more than they are invested in professional or ethical journalism.

Americans deserve to hear both sides. I respect their intelligence. Let them decide who is right and who is wrong. Don't censor a professor simply because you don't like what he says. Don't impose a conclusion through one-sided debate.

If what Steven Salaita says is hate speech, prove it in a court of law using our existing hate crimes laws. But I know they can't do that without exposing their own hypocrisies.

Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist managing editor of The Arab Daily News at www.TheArabDailyNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @RayHanania. To find out more about Ray Hanania and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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