Anti-Semitism Controversy Embroils Illinois Governor Quinn

Republican challenger slams incumbent as Jewish community frets over Quinn’s silence

Pat Quinn
Pat Quinn, who was defeated in his reelection bid following Illinois tax hikes / AP

Illinois Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s ongoing refusal to publicly defend the University of Illinois’ decision not to hire an academic whose anti-Semitic tweets sparked a national controversy is causing concern among local Jewish community leaders who feel that Quinn should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the school.

The University of Illinois rejected earlier this month the employment of academic Steven Salaita after it came to light that he had publicly lambasted Israel on Twitter in terms that critics dubbed anti-Semitic and inappropriate.

Salaita’s controversial tweets, which included one expressing support for the kidnapping of Israeli children by terrorists, quickly ricocheted across the Internet and caused a national scandal for the state school, which was considering hiring Salaita to a tenured position.

While the school eventually withdrew the job offer—a decision that drew praise from pro-Israel advocates and heavy criticism from the Jewish state’s opponents—Quinn has repeatedly refused to defend the university, prompting outrage among Jewish community leaders.

Salaita and his supporters have since mounted a public campaign against the university and even threatened legal action in a move that has put university officials in a sensitive position.

Quinn’s silence on the measure has only added fuel to the fire, insiders say, and could become a political liability for the governor, who is locked in an increasingly tight race with Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.

Quinn’s campaign again avoided commenting on the controversy Wednesday when approached by the Washington Free Beacon.

When asked if the governor has made any comments about the matter, a Quinn campaign staffer who answered the phone said, "not that I’m aware of." A further request for comment was not returned by press time.

Rauner vigorously defended the university’s decision.

"There is a line between academic expression and hateful rhetoric that blames Jews for anti-Semitism," Rauner said in a statement provided to the Free Beacon. "Salaita crossed that line, and I strongly support the decision made by [University of Illinois] Chancellor [Phyllis] Wise and the Board of Trustees."

Rauner went on to slam Quinn, who sits on the school’s board, for staying silent in the face of clear anti-Semitic bias.

"What shocks me is that Pat Quinn has been silent on this issue—absolutely silent in the face of hate speech at our state's flagship university—where the governor has a seat on the board. This isn't the first time he's been silent—this is a pattern of silence from Pat Quinn on a core issue," Rauner said, referring to the governor’s past refusal to back a statewide measure to condemn boycotts of Israel.

Sources in Illinois' Jewish community say that outrage is beginning to mount behind the scenes over Quinn’s inability to take a public stand in support of the school’s decision.

"Community leaders are quietly outraged that Quinn would be silent on this—it feels like he's hanging the chancellor out to dry while she's under attack from anti-Israel forces," said one prominent Chicago Jewish community insider who would only discuss the issue on background.

"We've seen this movie before with Pat Quinn," the source said. "He went into hiding when anti-Israel forces killed [state] Sen. [Ira] Silverstein's resolution condemning BDS [the anti-Israel Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement]—one of the biggest defeats for the pro-Israel community in the nation and Pat Quinn let it happen."

"To this day," the source added, we have no idea where he stands on anti-BDS legislation and where he stands on Salaita's firing."

Tensions began flaring between the Jewish community and Quinn earlier this year when he declined to lend his support to a statewide measure condemning boycotts of Israel.

The resolution, which was heavily watered down by liberal state lawmakers, was ultimately rejected by the Illinois State Senate.

Rauner questioned Quinn’s decision to not back the bill and push for its passage.

"The United States took a strong stand in the 1970s in opposition to boycotting Israel—it's been U.S. law ever since. So why would Pat Quinn remain silent when members of his own party, folks like Sen. Ira Silverstein, tried to pass a resolution condemning boycotts of Israel?" Rauner asked. "Why would he let anti-Israel voices kill that resolution in committee?"

Rauner believes that anti-Israel advocates may have convinced Quinn to bow out of the fight.

"It's wrong—we see the rise of anti-Semitism across the globe and our governor kowtows to anti-Israel pressure," he said. "I will always stand squarely in opposition to hate speech, in opposition to anti-Semitism and in strong support of the state of Israel."

Rauner is proposing to have the state divest all public funds from any company that boycotts Israel. Additionally, he is seeking to ensure that any firm awarded a state contract certifies that it will not engage in any boycotts of the Jewish state.

Similar proposals have been adopted in other states.

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R.), who has proposed national legislation to block Israel boycotts, praised Rauner’s proposal.

"Bruce has it right—we should have a zero tolerance policy for anti-Semitism, and I support his plan to make Illinois the first state in the nation to divest from companies that boycott Israel," Kirk told the Free Beacon.