A Palestinian activist with a history of making inflammatory anti-Israel statements was invited to make two appearances at the University of Michigan this week, including one held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Steven Salaita—who gained popularity in 2014 when the University of Illinois rescinded a job offer following exposure of his anti-Israel tweets, such as posting approvingly of Hamas‘s kidnap and murder of three Israeli teens that summer—was invited by the U-M Detroit Center to participate in a MLK Day panel discussion considering if there is "such thing as a proper protest."
The event was co-sponsored by the U-M Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives and the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies.
The following afternoon, on Tuesday, CMENAS gave Salaita a platform to promote his book "Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine," which argues for an alliance of Palestinian and Native American scholar-activists as two indigenous peoples under colonial occupation.
There Salaita said, "Zionism is one of the reasons the world is so shitty today," according to attendees.
Benjamin Gerstein, a Central Student Government representative who attended the program, said Salaita went on to blame the United States-Israel alliance for much of world inequality and turmoil.
"It was very disturbing to hear the existence of the Jewish homeland described as the reason the world is shitty," said Gerstein.
CMENAS Director Samer Mahdy Ali banned video, recording, or photography at the second lecture—Ali said the identities of audience members at "controversial events" must be protected—but students took notes and live-tweeted, as did CMENAS from its official Twitter account.
In those tweets, Salaita was quoted suggesting the "solution" for Jews who faced Nazi genocide was not to settle in Israel. If he had been in the position of European Jewry facing extermination, "I'd say that I don't want to create an injustice in equal measure," he continued, insinuating a comparison between the Holocaust and Palestinians in refugee campus.
He was also quoted as encouraging anti-Israel student activists not to denounce terrorism, saying that if they capitulate to such a demand, "[you] subordinate yourself to a disadvantaged position in the ensuing conversation."
Salaita refused when asked directly if he would walk back a description of American Jews in his book Israel's Dead Soul as living "suburban lives of McMansions and shopping malls." In the exchange between Salaita and a Jewish student, recorded in the CMENAS tweets and confirmed by Gerstein, Salaita defended the comment as an extension of the illustration of the power dynamic between rich Israeli Jews and poor Palestinians.
Gerstein said the attempted defense only further highlighted Salaita's underlying conflation of Jews with money. Gerstein said Salaita "toed the line of anti-Semitism" throughout.
"The department (CMENAS) is not fulfilling its mandate of facilitating academic conversations with lectures like this," he added.
Gerstein, a freshman, said that until this week he had planned to take a course offered by CMENAS.
"Giving a platform to Salaita speaks volumes to what this department believes in and what kind of academic work it promotes," he said. "I don't think I could expect to get a balanced view on any issue through a class in such a department."
Ali, CMENAS director, said Salaita was invited for MLK Day as a high-profile figure "who faced retaliation for his opinions and stances" at Illinois, and whose "expertise on punishment for protest was central to the topic of the day."
That panel also featured the leader of a radical black nationalist group and a Democratic political operative convicted in 2010 on corruption charges involving bribery and extortion of his then-boss, former Detroit Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who took a plea deal. (Conyers is the wife of John Conyers, the longtime Democratic congressman who resigned in December amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.)
"There is a narrative of no debate" surrounding boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel, the movement to isolate the country economically, culturally, and academically of which Salaita is a passionate supporter, said Ali.
"This is a matter of academic freedom, regardless of content," said Ali. His added that his center is "open to a wide variety of perspectives," including on Israel, but would not commit to bringing in a speaker who counters Salaita's approach.
CMENAS currently has no events in the works for further discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.
Ali would not respond when asked if any CMENAS-affiliated faculty take an anti-BDS position, and ended the phone call. Ali himself signed a pro-BDS petition at the Modern Language Association last year.
As a CMENAS event, Salaita's lecture was supported in part by Title VI funding through the U.S. Department of Education, the statute prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of national origin, in federally-funded programs.
A flyer signed "Concerned Jewish Students" was distributed to the roughly 60 attendees as they entered the lecture, reprimanding CMENAS "for inviting this so-called academic to speak on our purportedly inclusive campus."
Liora Bachrach, the Midwest campus coordinator for Israel education non-profit StandWithUs, said she was "proud" of the students who organized against "Salaita's hate."
"Salaita spreads dehumanizing bigotry against Israelis and Jews, and the fact that he attempted to exploit MLK's legacy to promote racism is particularly shameful," she added.
Salaita did not respond to request for comment.
The U-M central student government has been debating whether to fund a workshop on anti-Semitism later this month as a response to the Salaita appearances.
Student government at the U-M Ann Arbor campus passed its first-ever measure in support of implementing a boycott against Israel in November, a move the Board of Regents rejected as antithetical to the institution's "bedrock values." Pro-boycott students were caught on hidden camera footage making anti-Semitic statements the night of the vote.