On Tuesday, Steven Salaita, an American author, scholar and activist, spoke about his latest book, "Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine,” and the lingering effects of colonization on modern countries. The event was hosted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the International Institute in Weiser Hall.
Salaita has been at the center of campus controversy in years past, after anti-Israeli tweets landed him in trouble as a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The UIUC board of regents rescinded an offer of tenure to Salaita in 2014 — his critics accused him of inappropriate online expressions, but others said he was being punished for political views. Salaita appeared on campus at the University shortly after his firing in 2014 to muted contention from pro-Israeli groups. This year, however, after the #UMDivest resolution passed in its fifth attempt before Central Student Government in November, some Jewish students decried Salaita's speech.
Before the event, about a dozen Jewish community on campus stood outside Weiser Hall and passed out flyers featuring a tweet from Salaita that the students saw as anti-Semitic. The flyer, which was signed “Concerned Jewish Students,” accused Salaita of purporting discrimination against Jewish students on campus.
“Shame on the Michigan Center for Middle East and North African Studies for inviting this so-called academic to speak on our purportedly inclusive campus,” the letter read.
Salaita began his speech by explaining the parallels his book draws between the colonization of Native Americans in the United States and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said he believes a true peace agreement cannot be reached while illegal settlements continue to be built on Palestinian land.
“We ought to look at Israel-Palestine not as a conflict, not as an impasse, not as an argument, but we should look at it as settler colonization,” Salaita said. “Peace, actual peace, peace that allows both parties to live in dignity can never be accomplished under a regime of continued settler colonization.”
He also argued colonization in the United States has not ended, but instead has persisted in today’s interactions between the United States government and Native Americans.
“The idea is that what happened to those native nations was tragic, or horrendous, but it exists in the past and we must come to terms with the realities of those horrors last century or two centuries ago,” Salaita said. “Well, native communities, native nations, are still around, are still alive, and they are still practicing various forms of decolonization.”
In comparing the two regions, Salaita argued the issues in Israel and Palestine today are similar to the occupation of Native American land in the United States. He discussed Zionist leader and author Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s essay “Iron Wall,” in which Jabotinsky asserted the existence of Israel is only possible if Palestine does not exist.
“The Zionist movement purports to replace one population with another population and if you don’t have the chest for that sort of work then you don’t understand the ideology correctly,” Salaita said. “And what happened in the United States is justified simply by the fact that a superior civilization replaced an inferior one.”
In an email interview, LSA senior Kyla Klein, who attended the lecture, wrote Salaita’s definition of Zionism simplified the ideology and represented the entire belief system as one specific branch, which she did not see as fair to the pro-Israel argument.
“He used Ze'ev Jabotinsky to describe Zionism, which is actually only one strain of Zionism, Revisionist Zionism,” Klein wrote. “This Zionism is also the most hard-line and conservative. This was his perspective for his argument against Zionism. Regardless if one supports Zionism or not, Zionism is extremely complex and multifaceted.”
Salaita concluded his talk by defining his thoughts about what Zionism is and then explaining what it means to him to work against it in the United States today. To work against Zionism, Salaita offered, is to work against injustice everywhere.
“To me, Zionism is a belief, whether it’s through a liberal or a conservative paradigm, that a Jewish majority state ought to exist at the expense of those who can lay claim to that land historically,” Salaita said. “Anti-Zionism is something that ought to transcend Palestine. Anti-Zionism, when it’s done correctly is concerned with the equality and the well-being and the dignity of all human beings, including the Jewish people.”
LSA senior Andrea, who wishes to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, agreed with Salaita’s points and said she could identify with him.
“As a Palestinian student, I’ve heard about Steven Salaita and I can relate to some of the struggles he’s been through, also as a Palestinian activist,” Andrea said.
Klein wrote she found Salaita’s depiction of Jewish people in the book to be anti-Semitic, and his answer to her question about some of his wording disappointing. In his book, Salaita describes Jewish American students with the phrase ‘McMansions and shopping malls.’
“I will stand by the line insofar as the fact that I am pointing to the distinct class dynamic that is in play vis-a-vis Palestinians," Salaita said in response to Klein's question.“This is a description of college students that gets proffered all the time.”
“This language implies that Jews are rich and spoiled, a clear connection to past descriptions,” Klein wrote. “Sadly, instead of answering my question, he focused on an easy target, which was criticizing Taglit-Birthright.”
Though back-and-forth remained contained to a few questions and answers during Salaita's session, two students also spoke against Salaita's appearance on campus later Tuesday evening at the CSG meeting.