The Salaita Settlement

Steven Salaita has reached a settlement with the university that fired him for criticizing Israel.

Steven Salaita at a press conference in Urbana, IL. CUNY Advocate

Steven Salaita and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have reached a settlement. According to a November 12 press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped represent him, Salaita will receive $875,000 from UIUC, or $600,000 sans legal fees. The UIUC has already spent $1.3 million in its own defense. All told, this effort to silence an outspoken critic of Israel has cost the university nearly two and a half million dollars.

Many of us had hoped that a settlement would include Steven getting his job back. For his sake and ours: to vindicate principles we all hold dear. I would be less than honest if I didn’t say I was disappointed.

But while this was a major battle for principle, there was a person at the heart of that battle: Steven. Since he first got the news of his firing, he and his family have been through hell. A protracted legal battle would invariably have been long and difficult, its outcome uncertain.

It’s all well and good for those of us on the sidelines to say he should keep fighting — and he himself might have wanted to do so — but Steven has a family to support and a life to live. If this settlement helps him do that, I stand with him. Firmly. Throughout this fight, he has had my firm support, respect, admiration, and affection; now that it is over, he has all those things even more.

Which is why I was so frustrated by the comments I encountered online saying that he should not have accepted the settlement he did, that he essentially betrayed the movement of which he was a part, that his true obligation was to continue making sacrifices of the sort that no one, but no one, was making.

As I was reminded by Lida Maxwell, a political theorist at Trinity College,

When Alfred Dreyfus was granted a pardon by the French President in 1899, he had to admit guilt in order to be set free. Many Dreyfusards criticized him, but Emile Zola wrote in an open letter to Alfred’s wife, Lucie, “No matter how much I as a citizen may be in mourning, no matter how much painful indignation, how much rebellion and anxiety just souls may continue to feel, I share with you this exquisite, tearful moment when you hold the resurrected man in your arms. He has been raised from the dead! He has emerged from the tomb, live and free. Surely this is a great day, a day of victory and celebration.”

In other words, we should be upset as citizens about a wrong that has not been fully righted, but we should also recognize that one individual (or one family) alone should not bear the burden of the fact that the wrong has not been righted.

More productive than arguing from our comfortable perches about whether he should have taken the settlement is assessing where we go from here.

I know many of you will wonder about the fate of the boycott: though different statements voiced the demand differently, many statements had insisted that the boycott would continue till Steven was reinstated. It’s difficult now to know how to proceed. Because there was never a formal body that called for the boycott, there isn’t a formal body to call it off.

So I’m only going to speak for myself. The boycott of UIUC, I think, has been tremendously successful in raising awareness, in turning what might have been a backdoor, behind-the-scenes legal case into a full-on battle for free speech in the twenty-first century; certainly the university was always very mindful of it and its effects.

I’m proud of that. But I don’t see a point in continuing a fight when its chief protagonist has resolved it. I don’t know how we insist upon Steven’s reinstatement at UIUC when he himself has relinquished that demand as part of his settlement. I know the boycott has been tremendously hard on many departments at UIUC, particularly those departments that were most in support of Steven. For all these reasons, I see no reason to continue it. Others may reach different conclusions. I respect their decisions.

The day of the settlement, Steven responded to an email I had sent with the following:

We fought hard. I tried my very best to represent those invested in the issue with dignity and decency. And I hope this sort of thing never happens to anybody else.

I would say that Steven did more than try his very best to represent those invested in the issue with dignity and decency. He actually did represent those invested in the issue with dignity and decency. And while I don’t have a crystal ball, I’d be surprised if any university ever tried to pull this kind of stunt again.