I could convert to Christianity, declare myself no longer a Jew, start and sell a line of artisanal bacon, raise my daughter to be a Wiccan, and many Jews I know would be totally cool with that. But oppose the State of Israel—a state, let us recall, a state—and suddenly I’ve crossed a line. I’m no longer a Jew in good standing, I’ve betrayed some basic trust, I’ve become a problem. This is what Zionism has done to Judaism. This, among other things, is what is wrong with Zionism.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. Please cc Robert Warrior of the American Indian Studies department (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the department itself: email@example.com.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Until two weeks ago, Steven Salaita was heading to a job at the University of Illinois as a professor of American Indian Studies. He had already resigned from his position at Virginia Tech; everything seemed sewn up. Now the chancellor of the University of Illinois has overturned Salaita’s appointment and rescinded the offer. Because of Israel.
The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza….
For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”
In recent weeks, bloggers and others have started to draw attention to Salaita’s comments on Twitter. But as recently as July 22 (before the job offer was revoked), a university spokeswoman defended Salaita’s comments on Twitter and elsewhere. A spokeswoman told The News-Gazette for an article about Salaita that “faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom-of-speech rights of all of our employees.”
I’ve written about a number of these types of cases over the past few years, but few have touched me the way this one has. For three reasons.
First, Steven is a friend on Facebook, and we follow each other on Twitter. I don’t know him personally but I’ve valued his unapologetic defense of the rights of Palestinians. Often he posts articles and information from which I’ve learned quite a bit.
Second, I have no doubt that an easily rattled administrator would find some of my public writings on Israel and Palestine to have crossed a line. If you’re in favor of Salaita being punished, you should be in favor of me being punished. And not just me. On Twitter, many of us—not just on this issue but a variety of issues, and not just on the left, but also on the right—speak in a way that can jar or shock a tender sensibility. We swear, we accuse, we say no, in thunder. That’s the medium. Though I’ve never really thought twice about it, it’s fairly chilling to think that a university official might now be combing through my tweets to see if I had said anything that would warrant me being deemed ineligible for a job. Or worse, since I have tenure, that an administrator might be doing that to any and every potential job candidate.
Third, Cary Nelson, who was once the president of the American Association of University Professors, has weighed in in defense of this decision by the University of Illinois Chancellor.
“I think the chancellor made the right decision,” he said via email. “I know of no other senior faculty member tweeting such venomous statements — and certainly not in such an obsessively driven way. There are scores of over-the-top Salaita tweets. I also do not know of another search committee that had to confront a case where the subject matter of academic publications overlaps with a loathsome and foul-mouthed presence in social media. I doubt if the search committee felt equipped to deal with the implications for the campus and its students. I’m glad the chancellor did what had to be done.”
Asked if he feared that the withdrawal of the job offer could represent a scholar being punished for his unpopular political views, Nelson said he did not think that was the case. “If Salaita had limited himself to expressing his hostility to Israel in academic publications subjected to peer review, I believe the appointment would have gone through without difficulty,” he said. Nelson added that harsh criticism of Israel is widespread among faculty members. “Salaita’s extremist and uncivil views stand alone. There is nothing ‘unpopular’ on this campus about hostility to Israel.”
Once upon a time I wrote an essay for an anthology Nelson edited on unions in academia. When I was the leader of the grad union drive at Yale, he came to campus and spoke out on our behalf. I thought of him as not only a champion of academic freedom but as an especially acerbic—some might even say uncivil—commentator willing to throw a few elbows at his fellow academics. One time, he even compared a fellow English professor to a vampire bat, and proceeded to make fun of his bodily movements and facial gestures. In an academic publication subject to peer review.
But in recent years Nelson has become an outspoken defender of the State of Israel and a critic of the BDS movement. A man who once called for the boycott of a university now thinks boycotts of universities are a grave threat to academic freedom. A man who serially violates the norms of academic civility—urging fellow academics to “give key administrators no peace. Place chanting pickets outside their homes. Disrupt every meeting they attend with sardonic or inspiring public theater”—now invokes those same norms against a critic of Israel. A man who once wrote that “claims about collegiality are being used to stifle campus debate, to punish faculty, and to silence the free exchange of opinion by the imposition of corporate-style conformity,” now complains about an anti-Zionist professor’s “foul-mouthed presence in social media.” A man who once called the movement against hostile environments and in favor of sensitive speech on campus “Orwellian,” now frets over a student of Salaita’s fearing she “would be academically at risk in expressing pro-Israeli views in class.”
I bring this up not to pick on Nelson, but to ask him, and all of you, a simple question: Should Nelson be deemed ineligible for another job at a university simply because of these statements he has written? Should l be deemed ineligible for another job at a university simply because of some “foul-mouthed,” perhaps even intemperate, tweets that I’m sure I have written?
But I bring up Nelson’s case for another reason. And that is that his hypocrisy is not merely his own. It is a symptom of the effects of Zionism on academic freedom, how pro-Israel forces have consistently attempted to shut down debate on this issue, how they “distort all that is right.” Nelson’s U-Turn demonstrates that we’re heading down a very dangerous road. I strongly urge all of you to put on the brakes.
In the meantime, do something for Steven Salaita. Write a note to University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise (best to email her at both firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com), urging her to rescind her rescission. As always, be polite, but be firm. Don’t assume this is a done deal; in my experience, it often is not. We’ve managed through our efforts, on multiple occasions, to get nervous administrators to walk away from the ledge.
Update (3:30 pm)
Here is a third email to add to your list; it’s actually a direct email to the chancellor. It is firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, when you write your email, please cc Robert Warrior of the American Indian Studies department at the University of Illinois. His email is email@example.com. Also cc the department: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m joining Norm Finkelstein tomorrow to commit civil disobedience in protest of Israel’s war on Gaza28 Jul
Norman Finkelstein has put out a call for at least 100 people to commit civil disobedience tomorrow at the Israeli mission at the UN in New York City. If 100 people agree to do it, it will happen. After writing countless posts on Israel and what has been happening in Gaza, I believe it’s time to act. I’m going to join Norm. I hope you will, too. If you are in the New York area and plan to do this, please email Norm at email@example.com. If 100 people agree to do this, we will meet tomorrow, Tuesday, July 29, at noon, at the Israeli mission to the UN. 800 Second Avenue, right off 42nd Street. It will be announced tomorrow, at 9 am, whether we’ve reached the 100 mark. [Please note that in an earlier version of this post, I listed Norm’s email incorrectly. The correct email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
If you have any doubts about whether this is the right thing to do, watch this video.
In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:
We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.
That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”
Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it’s now over 1000]—many of these civilian—I find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?
A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.
Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.
There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.
And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.
The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.
The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.
Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.