Russell Berman is against one-sided panels…

12 Aug

So the American Anthropological Association is hosting a panel at its annual conference in December titled “BOYCOTTING ISRAELI INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER EDUCATION ABRIDGES ACADEMIC FREEDOM“.

Number of anthropologists on the panel: 0.

Number of pro-boycott voices on the panel: 0.

Number of anti-boycott voices: 5.

Personally, I have no problem with a one-sided panel like this. But you know who should have a problem with a one-sided panel like this? Stanford comp lit scholar and former president of the MLA Russell Berman.

Back in January, Berman told Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed that he objected to the allegedly one-sided nature of a panel at the MLA that was exploring the question of BDS. According to Jaschik:

He [Berman] said that MLA tradition is that “panels are generally organized by members,” so he does not take the views on any panel to reflect those of MLA leaders or the association as a whole. But Berman said he was concerned that “the panel organizers are evidently comfortable with such a narrow range of opinion.” He said that this “speaks volumes about their flawed understanding of academic freedom and open debate.


Ordinarily, I’d expect Berman to speak out strongly against the upcoming American Anthropological Association panel. There’s just one problem: He’s on it.

Calling all English Professors

12 Aug

Elaine Freedgood, a professor of English at NYU, is organizing a statement of English professors on the Steven Salaita affair. The statement reads as follows:

Dear Chancellor Wise:

We are members of English Departments from around the world who write, regretfully, to inform you that we will not engage with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign as speakers, as participants in conferences or other events, or as reviewers for the tenure and promotion of your faculty until you rescind the decision to block Professor Steven Salaita’s appointment to the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Many prominent academics have written eloquently about the chilling effect your decision will have on the free expression of dissident ideas by academics; legal scholars have argued that it is a violation of academic freedom and more fundamentally, freedom of speech.

Diverse and discordant voices, voices that some find “difficult,” are key to the survival of our schools as living institutions. Critical thinking of the kind that can lead directly to political dissent is exactly what any faculty in any college or university worthy of the name must teach.

Please reconsider your decision. Until then, we will not engage with a university we otherwise admire in so many ways.

PLEASE NOTE: all institutions listed below are for purposes of identification only. We sign as scholars, not on behalf of the institutions that employ us.


The statement already has nearly 50 signatures, including Moustafa Bayoumi, Bruce Robbins, Lisa Lowe, and many more. If you are a professor of English and would like to sign the statement, please contact Professor Freedgood at

And, remember, if you’re a political scientist, and want to sign a similar statement of political scientists, contact University of Oregon professor Joe Lowndes at

And if you’re a philosopher, and want to sign a similar statement of philosophers, contact Louisiana State University professor John Protevi at

Calling All Political Scientists (and Philosophers)

12 Aug

Joe Lowndes, who’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, is organizing a statement on the Steven Salaita affair. The statement reads as follows:

Dear Chancellor Wise: we the undersigned will not visit the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus until Professor Salaita is reinstated to the position offered him by the faculty and which he had accepted in good faith.

If you are a political scientist, and you wish to sign the statement, please email Joe at

John Protevi, a professor of philosophy at Louisiana State University, is organizing an identical statement for philosophers. If you are a philosopher and you wish to sign the statement, email John at

The Cary Nelson Standard of HireFire (Updated) (Updated again)

10 Aug

In his latest interview on the Salaita Affair with Huffington Post, Cary Nelson returns repeatedly to the claim that Salaita is “obsessive” and “obsessive-compulsive” on the topic of Israel and Palestine.

Given, as Nelson acknowledges in the interview (indeed, insists on it), that Israel/Palestine is one of Salaita’s areas of academic research, it’s a strange charge to level at a scholar.

Imagine any of the following statements:

That Einstein fellow: He’s obsessive on this relativity question. Firehire him!

That Arendt gal: She’s obsessive-compulsive about the problem of evil. Keeps coming back to it. Dehire her!

That Nelson fellow: He’s obsessive about the Salaita fellow. He even says he’s been following Salaita’s tweets for months. Firehire him!

Anyone worth her salt in academia is a little obsessive about her topics of interest.

But even if Israel/Palestine were not one of Salaita’s areas of academic research (it’s certainly not mine), in what universe is to legitimate to criticize an American citizen for being concerned—or, yes, obsessed—about grave human rights abuses in another part of the world? (Those people marching on behalf of Soviet Jewry. They’re a little obsessed, aren’t they?) Particularly when his government is funding those abuses.

But the truly revealing moment in this interview comes when Marc Lamont Hill, the host, initiates the following exchange (at 22:45):

Lamont: If a professor were to write or tweet that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel, should that person be hired?

Nelson: No. I’ve advocated that Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and remove the settlements.

Lamont: Okay.

Nelson: So I’ve taken a position in relation to the Jewish settlers. I think the Occupation is poisonous. I think it needs to come to an end. And I’ve advocated unilateral withdrawal.

Read that exchange carefully and think about what Nelson is saying.

Asked whether a professor should be fired for his positions on Israel, Nelson says no, he shouldn’t because, well, I hold those positions, too. Instead of saying that academic freedom means that a professor should not be removed from his position because of the content of his opinions, whatever those opinions might be, Nelson says he shouldn’t be removed because the opinions he holds are perfectly respectable, and we know they’re perfectly respectable because I, Cary Nelson, happen to hold them myself. Even though Nelson had just said, seconds before this exchange, that differences of opinion should not be the basis for making decisions about hiring and firing. A mindless moment of uttering the catechism, I guess.

I thought Scott Lemieux was exaggerating when he wrote, in a critique of Nelson’s position on Salaita, that “this still doesn’t mean that ‘does the candidate disagree with Cary Nelson about Israeli policy too stridently?’ is a criterion that any responsible hiring committee should be taking into account.”

Turns out, Scott was right: whether and how you agree or disagree with Cary Nelson is in fact Cary Nelson’s standard of who should be hirefired.

Update (11:15 am)

It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter and in the comments that I may have misconstrued Nelson’s position in response to that Hill question. Give me a bit while I try to work out the mistake and will post a correction.

Update (11:45 am)

Thanks to Ari Kohen on Twitter, and two commenters on this post, I realize that I now made two fairly serious mistakes in my account of that exchange between Cary Nelson and Marc Lamont Hill. The first mistake is in the transcription. Hill does not ask “Should that person be hired?”, as I had written; he asks instead, “Should that person be fired?” So that’s my first mistake.

My second mistake is in how I interpreted Hill’s question. When he says, “If a professor were to write or tweet that the inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem should be removed to create Eretz Israel,” he is not referring to the Jewish inhabitants—i.e., the settlers—as I had thought. He is referring instead to the Palestinians. (And in fact, in his followup question to Nelson, after this exchange that I’ve transcribed, Hill repeats the question and makes clear that he means the Palestinians, not the Jewish settlers.) In other words, Hill is asking Nelson, if a professor believes in Greater Israel, that is, in the removal of the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (i.e., ethnic cleansing), should that professor be fired? Nelson says no. Nelson then follows that up with a statement of his own position, which is that the settlers should be removed.

I think I heard the question from Hill as I did because when Hill repeated the question, he thought he had to stipulate that it was a professor advocating the removal of the Palestinians, not the settlers, on the assumption, I guess, that he (Hill) thought Nelson had misinterpreted him to mean the Jewish settlers.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I made a mistake and because of my mistake I attributed a position to Nelson that he does not hold. My apologies to Nelson, and to my readers.

If you’re wondering why I’m not simply taking this post down, it’s because I don’t believe in hiding my mistakes and wouldn’t want to be construed as doing so. Better to just cross out the errors and own up to them publicly.

A Next Step in the Fight for Steven Salaita?

8 Aug

I don’t have the time to organize this, but it occurs to me that if in every discipline—English, sociology, history, political science, mathematics, and so on—a statement of refusal were organized, stating that its signatories would refuse any invitation to come and speak on any campus of the University of Illinois, that this might be a powerful next step in the campaign to reinstate Steven Salaita.

We’ve had a week of letters, emails, phone calls, and a petition, which at last count has more than 11,000 signatures. But the way a campaign works is if pressure grows, if opposition doesn’t remain static but  expands: not just in its numbers but in its modes of expression.

So what if in the next week, instead of thinking things were dying down, the University of Illinois were to learn that this past week’s slowly rumbling campaign was growing into a quiet roar? What if in the next week, one person in each discipline took it upon herself to organize a statement for her field, a simple, short statement, in which her fellow academics would refuse any invitation to come and speak, until Chancellor Wise rescinded her rescission of the University of Illinois’s invitation to Steven Salaita? Which would then be circulated among all her friends and colleagues, who would then circulate it among their friends and colleagues? And if each of these statements, once they had, say, 100 signatures, would then be sent to the Chancellor, to the campus presidents, and to the chairs of the respective departments on all the campuses of the University of Illinois?

The University would get the message: that far from going away in the lazy days of August, this campaign was gearing up for the brisk weeks of fall.

Though I’ve organized many of these types of campaigns in the past, I don’t have the time, as I say, to take on this one. But the beauty of this type of campaign is that it doesn’t need one person to organize it. It can be completely grass-roots; anyone can take the initiative. It just needs one person in each discipline to get it started, and I suspect it will take off quickly from there.

I’m happy to serve here on this blog as a clearing-house, to publicize any one statement from any one discipline. And of course to sign any such statement that political scientists in my field chose to organize.

In the last few days, I’ve been quietly surprised at just how many academics have spoken out on this issue, have not only taken the time to sign a petition, but to make a phone call, write a letter, to do something. Something about this case has touched many of us. I think we could do this next step.

Feel free to circulate this statement widely.

What Exactly Did Steven Salaita Mean By That Tweet?

8 Aug

Though I don’t think this changes whether or not Steven Salaita should have been dehired, here is my interpretation of that tweet of his that has people, understandably, most upset: “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”

One of the great achievements of the human rights movement of the 20th century is that it made anti-Semitism into a term of universal opprobrium. Anti-Semitism was associated with a terrible animus toward Jews, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Kind of like racism after the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Nobody wants to be called a racist, nobody wants to be called an anti-Semite.

But today we see three developments: first, Israel and many of its defenders claim that Israel is coterminous with Jewishness — indeed, sometimes, that Israel exhausts the definition of Jewishness; second, Israel has come to be associated, in the eyes of many, with colonization, racism, occupation, population transfer/ethnic cleansing; and, third, movements against colonization, racism, occupation, and the like are considered to be honorable because those things are thought to be, like anti-Semitism itself, among the great sins of the 20th century.

Because of these three developments, Israel has perversely made anti-Semitism into something honorable: i.e., a discourse that is not about animus toward Jews but rather about opposition to colonization, population transfer, occupation, and the like.

I should say, as I already have, that I disagree with this understanding of anti-Semitism today. But I think it’s the only interpretation of that tweet that makes sense of Salaita’s overall commitments, which include an opposition to Zionism, an opposition to anti-Semitism, and a belief that the word anti-Semitism is often used to delegitimate criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism.

Admittedly, a mouthful, and considerably longer than a 140-character tweet. But that’s the difference between Twitter and a blog post.

Shit and Curses, and Other Updates on the Steven Salaita Affair (Updated)

7 Aug

1. Yesterday, University of Nevada professor Gautam Premnath called the University of Illinois to protest the hirefire of Steven Salaita. A giggly employee in the Chancellor’s office told Premnath that Salaita was “dehired.”

2.Within 24 hours, nearly 8000 people have signed a petition calling on the University of Illinois to reinstate Salata. You should too. While you’re at it, please make sure to email the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, at at Please cc Robert Warrior of the American Indian Studies department ( and the department itself:

3. This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a fuller report on the Salaita affair. Among the new facts revealed: First, it was a tenured position that Salaita was offered. Second, the offer was made last October by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Third, the national AAUP has distanced itself from Cary Nelson, saying he “does not speak for the association.” (In this statement, the AAUP distances itself even further.) And, last, in the faculty’s deliberations on hiring Salaita, his tweets did not come “up as a topic of concern or conversation” on the reasonable ground that they did not deem “social media as being somehow scholarly content.”

4. The Illinois AAUP Committee A has a very strong statement on the affair:

The AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure states in reference to extramural utterances: “When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” It affirms that “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” While Professor’s Salaita’s tweets are construed as controversial, the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure affirms the virtue of controversial speech.

Professor Salaita’s words while strident and vulgar were an impassioned plea to end the violence currently taking place in the Middle East. Issues of life and death during bombardment educes significant emotions and expressions of concern that reflect the tragedy that armed conflict confers on its victims. Speech that is deemed controversial should be challenged with further speech that may abhor and challenge a statement. Yet the University of Illinois cannot cancel an appointment based upon Twitter statements that are protected speech in the United States of America.

Furthermore, there is nothing in the Salaita statements about Israel or Zionism that would raise questions about his fitness to teach. These statements were not made in front of students, are not related to a course that is being taught, and do not reflect in any manner his quality of teaching. What one says out of class rarely, in the absence of peer review of teaching, confirms how one teaches. Passion about a topic even if emotionally expressed through social network does not allow one to draw inferences about teaching that could possibly rise to the voiding or reversal of a job appointment.

One must not conjecture about a link between extramural statements and the quality of classroom teaching, absent an unmistakable link that would raise issues of competence. None exist here. Indeed, we affirm that fitness to teach can be enhanced with conviction, commitment and an engagement with the outside world.

5. Michael Bérubé also has a strong statement:

While I do not share Professor Salaita’s sentiments with regard to content, and find them to be often intemperate expressions of opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I urge you to reconsider your decision. Indeed, I urge you to reconsider precisely because I do not share Professor Salaita’s sentiments. It is a truism that academic freedom is meaningless unless it covers unpopular (and even intemperate) speech; and that, finally, is what is at stake here– the question of whether academic freedom at the University of Illinois will be meaningless.

6. It occurs to me that if tweets are now going to be taken into consideration in academic hires, I want my entire social media presence included in all future considerations of my career. I want the number of tweets and FB posts I do per year to be included in my publication count. I want the number of retweets and “likes” that I get to be included in my citation count. And I want my friend Doug Henwood to be considered for an academic appointment. As he says, “With my Klout score, I’m on my way to an endowed chair.”

7. Glenn Greenwald tweets that there’s “lots more coming on this.” If I were Chancellor Wise, I’d be nervous. Very nervous. If Glenn’s on the story, I have little doubt what the ultimate outcome will be.

8. And last, this report,  from today’s Guardian, on the most moral army in the world:

When Ahmed Owedat returned to his home 18 days after Israeli soldiers took it over in the middle of the night, he was greeted with an overpowering stench.

He picked through the wreckage of his possessions thrown from upstairs windows to find that the departing troops had left a number of messages. One came from piles of faeces on his tiled floors and in wastepaper baskets, and a plastic water bottle filled with urine.

If that was not clear enough, the words “Fuck Hamas” had been carved into a concrete wall in the staircase. “Burn Gaza down” and “Good Arab = dead Arab” were engraved on a coffee table. The star of David was drawn in blue in a bedroom.

It’s a strange universe we live in, where high-minded professors fret more about the “foul-mouthed” tweets of a scholar than the shit and curses soldiers leave in the destroyed homes of civilians.

Update (3 pm)

Just received a copy of a very strongly worded letter from the Center for Constitutional Rights. In addition to making all the right arguments re academic freedom and the First Amendment, it contains three factual statements, which I had not read anywhere else

The first:

As you well know, in October 2013, the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences made an offer to Professor Salaita for an appointment, with tenure, in the College’s American Indian Studies program; he soon after accepted your offer (which the University confirmed in writing) and resigned from his tenured position in the English Department at Virginia Tech University. Your offer letter expressly stressed the University’s adherence to the American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure….His views (which he has long aired passionately and openly in many forums, including social media) are no doubt considered highly controversial by many in this country, but Professor Salaita could rest assured that his tenured position and the foundational principles of academic freedom and expression would permit him to share his views without fear of censure or reprisal.

That express affirmation in the offer letter of the AAUP principles seems like it could pose a potential problem for the University.

The second:

Nevertheless, despite Professor Salaita’s obvious reliance on the terms of the University’s appointment – by resigning from his tenured position at Virginia Tech, renting his Virginia home and preparing his entire family to move – you summarily terminated his appointment to a tenured position, without notice or any opportunity to be heard or to object. Your August 1, 2014 letter references your Office’s failure to seek or obtain final authorization from the Board of Trustees as the reason for the termination of Professor Salaita; yet, leaving aside the procedural irregularities in your rationale,³…

And then, in the footnote, comes this:

Although Professor Salaita’s appointment was effective August 16th, your termination letter stated that his appointment would not be recommended for submission to the Board in September, after his start date.

In other words, even under the best of circumstances, Salaita’s appointment was scheduled to be effective before the Board was scheduled to vote to approve it.

Last, the CCR letter references a letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, expressly requesting that the University of Illinois rescind its offer. I wasn’t aware of this letter, but it’s discussed here. The letter states:

We strongly believe that a person… with such aberrational views cannot be trusted to confine his discussions to his area of study. We urge you to reconsider his appointment and look forward to immediately discussing this serious matter with you.

Aberrational views. They used to be the pride and joy of the Jewish people, from Abraham to Kafka and Freud. Now we fire people for having them.

Update (midnight)

Another strong letter, signed by Natalie Davis, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, A’sad Abukhail, and many more, calling “upon UIUC in the strongest terms to reverse its decision immediately and reinstate Professor Salaita”:

We should not forget why John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and Edwin Seligman, the founders of the AAUP, sought to protect academic freedom—to ensure that academics could act as a check on the tyranny of public opinion. Furthermore, academics are free to address issues of public concern, as are all American citizens. Indeed, Dewey, Lovejoy, and Seligman recognized that university boards had become the major threats to academic freedom.


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