A Public Letter to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise

Dear Chancellor Wise,

I am writing to say “thank you.”

As a Jewish graduate student, I know just how pervasive anti-Semitism is within the academy. It goes by a number of names, but the most common are “anti-Zionism,” and “Boycott, Divestment and Sanction.”

When you recently chose not to hire Steven Salaita as a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois, you took a firm stance against the academic anti-Israel lobby.

Salaita’s hatred of Israel defines his professional and personal life. Even the quickest glance at his twitter account reveals the depth of his hate. This comment from August 2nd stood out to me:

“Rednecks need a new slogan. Instead of ‘kick their ass and take their gas,’ how about ‘#Gaza is a disaster, but Netanyahu is my master’?”

In his some 10,000 tweets, Salaita blames Jews for causing anti-Semitism, echoes the timeless libel that a cabal of Jews runs American foreign policy, and endorses Hamas’ murder of innocent Israeli civilians.

As you no-doubt realized, Salaita peddles anti-Israel propaganda as academic research. He writes books like Israel’s Dead Soul, a thinly veiled polemic. When he taught at Virginia Tech, he successfully campaigned for the American Studies Association to endorse the BDS movement.

It is sad to hear that a faculty hiring committee at your school wanted to offer Salaita a job. Luckily, that appointment required your approval and the approval of your board of trustees. You saw Salaita for what he was — a bigot — and you declined to approve his hiring.

This isn’t the first time that you stood up to the academic anti-Israel lobby. In December of last year, you took a firm stance against the BDS movement. Thank you for saying the truth then: the pursuit of knowledge requires collaboration, and cutting your university off from Israel violates the principle of academic freedom.

Now, many of BDS’s supporters are attacking you. They say that choosing to not hire Salaita violated his academic freedom. The irony of this situation can only cheer the actual defenders of honest and open academic discourse.

I can imagine how full your email inbox must be. Almost 15,000 people have signed a petition asking you to reverse your decision. On the Internet, countless anti-Israel academics have criticized you, and the American Association of University Professors has indicated that it supports Salaita. In fact, as far as I can tell, only one person has come publicly to your defense: Cary Nelson, one of your professors at Illinois.

I urge you to stand firm; a silent majority of academics is behind you. Why are your supporters so quiet? Because to publicly reject BDS makes it much harder to get a job in higher education, especially in the humanities fields. I know this as a prospective historian myself.

Regardless of what the BDS crowd claims, you made the correct and courageous decision in not hiring Salaita. This isn’t a case of academic freedom because academic freedom does not require that someone be hired for a position. Salaita’s research and public statements have a real bearing on his ability to be a teacher, researcher and colleague. Just as you wouldn’t hire a member of the KKK because his character would disrupt a university, you shouldn’t hire an avowed anti-Semite.

As this situation develops, I hope my peers in the academy voice their support for you. But for those that choose to remain silent, let me just say good luck and “thank you” on their behalf.

About the Author
A graduate of Yale College, Nathaniel holds an MPhil in history from the University of Cambridge, where he studies at Clare College as a Paul Mellon Scholar.