Local Jewish community members push back against Salaita appearance at Guilford College

by Jeff Sykes

Steven Salaita

Members of the Greensboro Jewish community are pushing back against an appearance at Guilford College this week by a Palestinian-American professor who recently lost a tenured position at the University of Illinois because of social media comments critical of Israel.Prof. Steven Salaita is scheduled to speak at Guilford College on Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. on the topic “Palestine and Academic Freedom in the American Imagination.” The event is scheduled to take place in the Joseph M. Bryan Jr. Auditorium, Frank Family Science Center. Salaita came to national attention this past fall when he was terminated from a promised tenured position at the University of Illinois after wealthy donors threatened to pull their support for the university in response to Salaita’s visceral criticism of Israel’s actions in the Gaza conflict last summer. More than 2,000 Palestinians, including 500 children, were killed in a brutal military operation aimed to destroy a network of tunnels stretching from Gaza into Israeli territory. The Israeli Defense Force documented numerous instances of terrorists penetrating Israeli territory from the tunnels. The IDF operation was roundly criticized by the international community due to its impact on civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip.Salaita made a large number of anti-Israeli comments on Twitter that were immediately criticized as “anti-Semitic.”The journal, Inside Higher Education, has documented the situation, including the release of emails from the University of Illinois that show wealthy donors threatening to pull their funding if Salaita’s appointment was finalized.He was notified in August 2014 that his promised position had been terminated.Guilford College announced on Jan. 15 that Salaita would speak, but it wasn’t until this week that the pushback began.Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emmanuel Greensboro posted on his Facebook feed a probing question about “Free Speech versus Hate Speech” on Friday, in addition to posting it to a popular discussion group.”My question is when does free speech become hate speech,” Guttman asked. “For example if one of our local universities or colleges was bringing in a Neo Nazi or a KKK person, would we stand by and defend that person’s right to have a forum on college campuses and to encourage hatred against a particular group of people? Should college campuses really provide a forum for people who advocate racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism? This is a very real issue for us this weekend in Greensboro.”In a press release, Guilford College organizers announced earlier this month that Salaita “will examine how Palestine has been constructed as a mythical space in the United States, leading to deep identification with Israeli colonization based on centuries of American conquest. Terms like ‘civility’ arise from these histories.”The debate continued Saturday when Ivan Cutler, a member of the Greensboro Jewish community, posted a lengthy comment on Facebook about Salaita’s appearance.”Salaita’s appearance is disturbing to the Jewish community, not for the right of Guilford College to host the speech, believing a consistent lack of reasonable balance about Israel at the Quaker college exists,” Cutler said. “Some members of the Jewish community are expected to attend, anticipating a hostile reaction to their presence.”Max Carter, director of the Friends Center and an adjunct professor of Religious Studies at Guilford College, took exception. He noted that the college hosted “avidly pro-Israeli speakers Ari Gauss, Avi Melamed, and Edwin Black.””During the January Term in Israel and Palestine led by Rabbi Jonathan Malino and me, we exposed 11 students to a variety of narratives on all sides of the situation, hearing from leaders of Israeli and Palestinian political, religious, and civil society,” Carter wrote. “I dare say no other educational institution does it better.”Word began to spread Saturday afternoon that the Frank family of Greensboro, whose family name is on the building Salaita is expected to speak on Tuesday, had asked that he be forced to speak elsewhere on campus.

Significant details about Salaita’s termination and lawsuit against the University of Illinois and the free speech questions at issue are available at this post by the Center for Constitutional Rights.