Steven Salaita on Activism in Scholarship and the Palestine-Hawaiʻi Connection

Nov 2, 2017

Palestinian-American author and former scholar Steven Salaita visits Hawai'i for the first time for a round of discussions on the Palestinian fight for justice and calls for indigenous solidarity with communities facing similar struggles for self-determination around the world.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

An indigenous people with a history of dispossession and a struggle for self-determination. A familiar narrative to Hawai’i and to Palestinian-American author Steven Salaita. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi sat down with Salaita for his first ever visit to the islands.

“It’s wonderful when we have the opportunity to visit one another’s lands and to think about struggle and liberation as a mutual process,” says Steven Salaita, “That these are things that we are not powerful enough to do in isolation but banded together presents all kinds of possibilities.”

Indigenous solidarity is gaining momentum around the globe. Palestinian-American author and former scholar Steven Salaita says for Palestine that is partly driven by a sense of urgency.

“A lot of people in and interested in Palestine have a sense that the colonization of the Pacific and of North America is something permanent and irreversible,” says Salaita, “And so there’s a sense of I think desperation there that if something doesn’t happen soon, the land will be settled away all together.”   

In his latest book titled Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine, he draws parallels between indigenous struggles in the Middle East and America.

“He argues that there needs to be a commitment to mutual liberation for those who are fighting colonialism,” says Cynthia Franklin.

Franklin is an English professor at UH Mānoa who helped bring Salaita to Hawaiʻi. She hopes his talks can spark conversations about topics like settler colonialism and Palestine – topics academics are sometimes hesitant to have.

“Was I expecting there could be controversy? Yes,” says Franklin, “The truth is that anytime you raise Palestine and suggest there is legitimacy to the Palestinian struggle, any time you offer any criticism of Israel, you are already embroiled in controversy.”

Salaita is no stranger to controversy. He lost a tenure position at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne after posting a string of comments critical of Israel on social media. He said it was unexpected, but it taught him a lot.

“We have to keep pushing to make these conversations possible and to make these spaces available and that our universities…they ought to be places where people can think critically about the world we inhabit and more important about the kind of world we want to inhabit,” says Salaita, “And if those kinds of conversations are inhibited then we’re really not doing future generations a service.”

Salaita will be participating in a roundtable discussion with native Hawaiian scholars from UH Mānoaʻs Political Science Department tomorrow at Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies from 2:30 - 5:00pm with a reception to follow. 

Also on Friday, Salaita will give a public presentation titled "Why Palestine is Everyone's Moral Issue?" at the St. Clement's Church (1515 Wilder Avenue) from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m. 

These events are free and open to the public.