Salaita: Academic Freedom and Indigenous Rights

Steven Salaita, a professor who had been offered a tenured position last year in Native American Studies at the University of Illinois, had his job offer cancelled following protests by pro-Israel students, faculty, and donors who contended that his Twitter comments promoted hate, violence, and antisemitism.

The study of indigenous rights requires an understanding of established political viewpoints and respect for the viewpoints of others. White European culture calls me a Jew.  I reject the European epithet and call myself by the Hebrew word Yehudi.  The word Yehudi means “of Yehuda” or “of Judea”.  I am a member of the Yehudi tribal nation, indigenous to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of Jordan. Being a Yehudi  is not a religion, a race, and has nothing to  do with DNA.  We are a tribe.  But unlike the Cherokee, the Cree, or the Maori, the Yehudi are denied our existence as an indigenous people with an enduring connection and dedication to our ancestral  homeland.  As a small child, like my grandparents, and their grandparents before them, I learned our Hebrew language and our sacred stories and traditions, born in the area called Palestine.  No one will ever convince me I am not who I am.

Irrational discrimination against Jews individually or collectively is called antisemitism. It was in response to global antisemitism that the Jewish struggle for a nation-state – Zionism – was born.  The land of Israel was the homeland of our ancestors.  In the seventh century, Islamic Arab forces  from the Arabian peninsula came to Palestine, bringing Arab culture, the Arabic language, and the Muslim religion, and dominated the indigenous Yehudi culture. The Arab conquerors supplanted the Yehudi culture and built their own Islamic shrines on top of our holiest sacred places. The State of Israel is the greatest success story of an indigenous people repelling the forces of imperialist settler-colonialism to establish a modern nation-state as a homeland, a haven,  and protector for the Yehudi people, while providing freedom of religion and civil rights to all citizens. Ever since its establishment, the State of Israel had to fight both Arab extremist violence, the threat of war from Arab states, as well as Yehudi extremist terrorism. The war in Gaza has only been the latest conflict between the State of Israel and the forces of Arab Islamic imperialism.  Hamas does not see itself as an indigenous Palestinian organization, but as a outpost of Muslim Brotherhood and a world Islamic movement.

Steven Salaita has a right to his academic freedom and freedom of speech. I think it is important for him to air his views, even as he demonstrates his discrimination against the Yehudi people.. It is his duty as an academic to express himself, including his support for the Arab Islamic imperialists.  An  empire is not inherently evil.  The Roman empire, the Islamic empire, and the British empire brought many advances, development, and improvement  in the lives of many people. But they also brought oppression, exploitation, and colonialism.

The trustees of the University of Illinois have duties as well. They had a duty to review Salaita‘s appointment and approve or disapprove. The official policy of U of I states:

The University of Illinois will not engage in discrimination or harassment against any person because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, disability, sexual orientation including gender identity, unfavorable discharge from the military or status as a protected veteran and will comply with all federal and state nondiscrimination, equal opportunity and affirmative action laws, orders and regulations. This nondiscrimination policy applies to admissions, employment, access to and treatment in University programs and activities.

A review of Salaita’s tweets give an indication of his world view:

A random person anywhere in the world can convert to Judaism and immediately have more rights in #Israel than the Indigenous

Random people cannot convert to Judaism.  Joining the tribe is a long process of learning and commitment.  It is permanent.  Returning to Christianity or other  religion does not change the fact that the convert will be of the tribe for life.  Yes, it drives the racists crazy, but  a  Chinese man like Aaron Wood does have more indigenous right to  Israeli citizenship than a Jordanian Arab with a language, a religion, and a culture from Saudi Arabia.

Zionists: transforming “antisemitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.

No.  Antisemitism has meant oppression, persecution, and death for my people for 3000 years.  It will never be honorable, no matter what your politics are.

It’s simple: either condemn #Israel’s actions or embrace your identity as someone who’s okay with the wholesale slaughter of children. #Gaza

It is not that simple at all.  I stand with Israel and with my Yehudi tribe.  But deaths of children are not okay.  Not okay when they die being used as child labor to build illegal tunnels into Israel.  Not okay when they are celebrated as martyrs for Islam.  It makes me angry and sick, but not at Israel.

Salaita does not upset me.  I do not need to take his classes, or depend on him to grade this essay.  He has a right and a duty to speak his mind.  But given the nature of Salaita‘s discrimination against Israel and the Yehudi people, the trustees had their duty, too.

About the Author
Libertarian candidate for President of the United States. I am a practicing physician at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. I participate in Daf Yomi talmud study in blessed memory of our son Alec. I have a sister and cousins who live in Israel. I have been a contributing columnist for the Cleveland Jewish News.
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